Thursday, May 30, 2024

Heaven and Heal

There are two words in this week's parsha that are expounded, analyzed and dissected as if our lives were dependent on them - and they are: “verapo yerapei - heal he shall heal.” The Torah tells us: “If men quarrel and one strikes his fellow with a stone or a fist, and he does not die but falls into bed. If he gets up and goes about outside under his own power, the one who struck is absolved. Only for his lost time shall he pay, and heal he shall heal” (Shemos 21:18-19).

Indeed, the repetitive words “rapo yerapei – heal he shall heal” are thoroughly explained by both Chazal and later commentators. Simply put, they mean that the one who inflicted damage must provide compensation for medical expenses. But the double expression clearly contains more meaning. After all, why not simply say, “He shall provide for healing”? There are many commentators who offer various explanations. Some even say that this double expression allows a victim to seek compensation for second opinions.

The Gemara in Maseches Bava Kama makes a most profound comment: “From here we derive that a physician has permission to heal.” Unlike other societies in which illness must only be regarded as a Heavenly retribution and thus must only be cured through religious practices, in Yiddishkeit, the concept of human involvement (in conjunction with teshuvah and tefillah) is not only acceptable, but encouraged.

If permission must be granted to get healed, why is it the physician who needs permission? After all, if one sees a person in need and has the ability to help, clearly one cannot say, “Hashem did this to him; therefore I will stand by the wayside.” In fact, it is prohibited to stand idle when someone needs assistance. The Torah specifically states: “Lo sa’amod al dam yeiyecha – Do not stand by your brother’s blood” (Vayikra 19:16). A doctor who has the ability to stop a choking victim or cure an infection should not need permission to heal. Rather, it should be the patient who needs permission to seek medical attention, as he, in a way, seems to be circumventing a Heavenly decree. So the Gemara should have stated: “From here we may derive that one who is ill has permission to seek medical attention,” not that the physician has permission to heal.

– – – – –

There was a time in our life when our family faced a medical crisis. We were told that one of the only people who can help us was Dr. Patrick Joseph Kelly, the head of neurosurgery at New York University Hospital. Like many doctors with his prestige and reputation, it was practically impossible to get an appointment without a six-week wait – and that is with “protektzia.” My friend, Rabbi Shimshi Sherer, introduced us to one person who was above protektzia, Mrs. Miriam Lubling, a”h. For her, there was no waiting room, especially when she was advocating for a young man who had something that looked like a golf ball growing in the center of his brain.

I told her how we just had to see the famous Dr. Kelly and there was no way we could get an appointment on such short notice. She was not fazed at all. She told us to meet her somewhere near an entrance to a garage on First Avenue near 34th Street and she would take us into the doctor’s office. I really was very skeptical. This lady with a raw voice, which to me was almost unintelligible because of a very powerful accent, would march us in to one of the leading brain surgeons in the United States?

I could not, for the life of me, imagine that this lady was going to bring us in, without an appointment, to the world’s foremost brain surgeon.

The day we met, it was a cold and rainy. We saw this tiny, very elderly lady in a bulging coat, holding an umbrella in one hand and carrying a very large pocketbook on her arm. The three of us – my wife, our son, and I – followed her as she, laden with a heavy coat, a heavier pocketbook and an even heavier burden of hundreds on her mind, waddled into the elevator. On the way up, she assured us about Dr. Kelly’s expertise and her experience with NYU’s care, and of course mentioned the help of the Ribono Shel Olam umpteen times. We were nervous and just waiting to hear good news.

Despite the severity of the situation, our entry into the packed office seemed like it was plucked from a comedy skit. I was scared that we would all be thrown out of the office together as Mrs. Lubling went straight to the receptionist and asked – no, insisted! – to see the doctor as soon as possible. My wife and I kept our distance, not knowing whether she would be laughed out of the office or escorted out by security guards. She wasn’t. With awe and reverence, the receptionist picked up the phone and, in a few minutes, Mrs. Lubling was inside the inner sanctum. It did not take too long for us to follow.

Dr. Kelly looked at the scans. Frankly, at that moment, I felt that his bedside manner or people skills must have been the exact opposite of the skills he was reputed to have in the operating room.

He did not give us much hope, saying quite bluntly, “I could do the surgery, but I must tell you that from what I see here, you have, at best, 15 months to two years,” and that, he added, would be with chemo and radiation treatment. The words hit us like a powerful blow to an empty stomach, and it’s a good thing that the holy Mrs. Lubling was there to counter his dire prognosis. She stared him down with the eyes of a mother who just caught her son taking something out of her wallet. She looked at him fiercely and, enunciating every syllable in a tone and clarity that in our brief conversations had never been expected, said, “Dr. Kelly, you may be a good surgeon, but you are not G-d!”

Then she pointed upward. “One thing you forget. The real Doctor is the One Above.”

– – – – –

A sick person does not need to be reminded that his life is in the Hands of the Ribono Shel Olam. Sometimes, however, doctors lose sight of the reality of Heavenly intervention. It is they, despite their ability and their amazing dedication, who may occasionally begin to believe that their actions are the divining rod of life and death. They may begin to forget the source of life itself and think that they are in control. And so, the Torah reminds the doctors that they, too, need permission to perform their wonderful work. They, too, may only heal with permission. And with that permission granted, may Hashem always guide them to the right conclusions.



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