Save Us ‘O Gd Save Us
Today’s Torah portion, Tazria, deals primarily with the illness of tzaraat, mistakenly translated as, “leprosy.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary, points out that it can’t possibly be leprosy because the symptoms are different. Tzaraat, unlike leprosy, for example, is not contagious. And so the Talmud learns that if the symptoms appear on a newlywed or during a festival, than the Kohen must wait to examine and declare him/her a metzorah with their subsequent confinement, so as not to interfere with the celebrations. If it was truly a contagious disease, then this would not be possible.
Obviously, tzaraat is not a normal physical disease, but, as the sages teach, a manifestation of some spiritual disorder within the person. And so, the Talmud (Arachin 15b) teaches that a Metzora is one who is motzi ra, “one who spreads evil slander.” Even the language (Lev. 13:2) of contracting the disease is instructive: nega tzaraat, literally, “touched with tzaraat,”—i.e. touched by Gd, an illness from Gd.
Did you ever stop to ask: Why is there illness in the world? Each of us will either suffer a major illness or have a loved one who does, and, at some time we’ll wonder why anyone has to suffer this way? According to the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba Toldot 65:9), there was no sickness in the world until father Jacob asked Gd for illness. What??? Why would anyone in their right mind ask to be sick? Before Jacob, suggests the Midrash, when it was one’s time to leave this world, one simply sneezed and expired. This perhaps explains the universal custom of saying, “Gd bless you,” when we hear someone sneeze.
So why does illness exist in the world? Father Jacob didn’t want the suffering sickness often brings, he just wanted to have some warning before he died, says the Midrash, so he would have time to put his affairs in order.
Is there any other reason why Gd might bring illness upon someone? There are several approaches from our tradition. Here are just a few.
One approach tells us that sometimes Gd will bring an illness upon us to give us a good kick in the pants when we are ignoring Him or not showing appreciation for all He has given us in this world. Kabbalah might suggest that sometimes one suffers illness as a correction for one’s soul for something one has done in a previous lifetime. Sometimes illness occurs because there is a crucial lesson that can only be learned through illness and recovery. An illness might be a kapara, an “atonement,” a lesser substitute for something worse that might have happened. Illness can bring families and whole communities closer together. There are more reasons given and any one or more can apply in any given situation.
Ultimately, no one ever really knows why one becomes ill. Sometimes it’s just, as the sages call it, derech ha-olam or derech hateva, “the way of the world” or “the way of nature.” We may call it, “dumb luck.” There are illnesses out in the world and we may just be in the wrong place at the wrong time and catch one—like the SARS epidemic a few years ago, or the swine flu with so many people getting sick just because they were on an airplane with someone else who was sick. But for whatever reason illness occurs, the Talmud suggests we use our illnesses as opportunities to review our lives and the direction we are going in order to make corrections and better ourselves.
There’s an old story about a very prominent doctor who dies and goes to heaven. Before entering heaven he encounters a long line waiting to get in. The doctor, unaccustomed to waiting in line, goes right to the front of the line and says, “I demand to be let in immediately.”
Gently the gatekeeper explains, “Although you were a great doctor and probably saved many lives, here you will just have to wait in line like everyone else.”
After a little while, the doctor sees what looks like another doctor—with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope—go right up to the front of the line and go right in. Incensed, the doctor again goes to the front of the line and demands an explanation. “Oh that’s Gd,” the gatekeeper informs him. “He just loves to play doctor!”
Yes, Gd loves to play doctor and heal us. But He also sometimes sends us illness in order to challenge us and give us the message that it’s time to clean up our lives. But illness is not the only vehicle for Gd’s messages. Gd is constantly sending us messages in a hundred different ways—sometimes even in miraculous ways. How many of us know people who were in horrific car accident and miraculously survived?
Let me share with you a true story I heard from a colleague, Rabbi Moshe Rudner, this week who personally knows one of the people involved in the story. You can find the story on the web site: http://www.dansdeals.com/archives/41764. It’s a chilling and awe-Inspiring tale from the Malaysia Air Flight 370. The story was posted on 03/10/14:
The whole world’s eyes are on the Fareast, wondering how a Boeing 777 can just disappear without a trace. Malaysia Air Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12:43am this past Saturday morning and has yet to be located. Flying is the safest mode of transportation that exists today, so the disappearance of an airplane like this is really sobering.
The saying goes, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews.” On January 13th 2014 Andy emailed his travel agent his desired itinerary: “Hi…Need to do the following trip in March: March 1—Sydney to Hong Kong, March 3—Hong Kong to Kuala, March 8—Kuala to Beijing, March 12 Vietnam to Melbourne…”
The travel agent, an Orthodox Jew, proposed a business class itinerary, slightly altering the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight from Saturday March 8th to Friday March 7th. Andy loved the price but emailed back: “I need the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight a day later. I need the extra day in Kuala.”
The travel agent responded: “I wish I can give you a day later, but you know I just don’t like flying Jews on Shabbat. I can take that leg out and if you want you book yourself.”
Andy agreed and planned to book the flight himself. The travel agent responded that if he changed his mind to just let him know.
Shortly afterward Andy did just that emailing: “I reconsidered, you are right I should be more observant. I’ll manage without that day in Kuala. Since I’ll have an extra night in PEK, any recommendations for a good Friday night dinner in Beijing?”
The travel agent recommended a place to get a nice Shabbos meal and booked him the originally proposed itinerary, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Friday early morning instead of Saturday.
Due to a travel agent worrying about the religious observance of a fellow Jew, Andy was persuaded into flying on Malaysia Air 370 exactly one day prior to the ill-fated flight he wanted to take.
It’s not often we hear a story like this. It’s been 103 years since Rose was saved from the devastation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on the Lower East Side in NY thanks to observing Shabbos. It’s been almost 12 years since there were many orthodox Jews on 9/11 that came late to work because of the extra selichot prayers in shule that week before Rosh Hashanah and survived the fall of the Twin Towers. Now it’s Andy’s turn. Because a travel agent put his commitment to Shabbos over profit, Andy is alive and safe today.
We can’t know why Andy was spared and not the other 239 passengers who didn’t deserve their fate. The fact that the fate of hundreds of people is still unknown is a terrible tragedy beyond our comprehension. We fervently pray that somehow, against all odds, we will hear about the safe rescue of all onboard flight 370. Our prayers go out to all the families.
However hearing the story of even one life being spared from that fate is something that shouldn’t be dismissed—for it means that 239 passengers are missing and not 240. It’s rare that we get to see a story like this with a digital trail left behind so neatly. I hope it at least will inspire you as it has inspired me in the importance and the power of Shabbos for each and every one of us. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis