There’s a popular song frequently played at simchahs that never fails to move me to tears. (I often wonder why these words were deemed appropriate background to the clinking of glasses, table chatter, and scraping of plates.)
The words originate in the tefillos of the Yamim Noraim: “Haneshamah lach v’haguf poalach; chusah al amalach — The neshamah is Yours and the body is Your craftsmanship; have compassion on the work of Your toil.” They were put to music by singer-composer Eitan Katz.
These words teach us about the connection between the soul and the body. Both are created by Hashem and both need Hashem’s compassion to continue to exist together.
The synthesis of the physical guf and spiritual neshamah is a miracle. We see this thought eloquently expressed at the end of the brachah of asher yatzar: “He heals all flesh and He does wonders.” The Ramah teaches us that the concept of the word “wonder” emphasizes that there is a situation here whose existence is so fantastic that it qualifies as miraculous. It’s the miracle of the union of the body with the soul.
Our souls are dependent on the physical actions of our bodies to enable them to achieve their purpose in this world. What happens when our bodies do not function properly? We become stymied and frustrated because we cannot accomplish what we feel is our spiritual purpose.
As the rebbetzin of a large community and staff member in Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha, I am all too familiar with the astonishing array of maladies that entrap the bodies of so many precious neshamos.
The question arises: When faced with this nisayon, how do we utilize this synthesis of body and soul? If the body is ill, how can the neshamah achieve its tafkid? Perhaps the tables can be turned and the neshamah can heal the body?
Spiritual Mind over Matter
It’s astonishing to see the herculean strength displayed by many ill people who tap into the power of the neshamah. My recently departed friend, Mrs. Sharon Shultz a”h, left a banner hanging outside her Far Rockaway home, inscribed with her everlasting motto: “Ein Od Milvado! There is no one besides Hashem.”
Though I miss her so much, whenever I pass her home I remind myself of her commitment to being mekadesh sheim Shamayim by showing her utmost faith in her Source. I find comfort in knowing that she continues to do so now that her neshamah has returned to that Source.
Chazal teach us that doctors were given permission to heal. Therefore, it’s requisite hishtadlus to go to them when we are unwell. However, “permission” is not magic, and it’s necessary to keep reminding ourselves that the doctor acts only with the authorization of the Supreme Doctor. (There is but a fine line that separates all doctors into two distinct categories: those who believe in G-d and those who believe they are gods.)
As Jews, we have borne witness to a history that carries both overt and covert miracles. The same is true in our daily lives — all the more so when we are faced with the nisayon of illness. A frum physician once told a friend of ours who had been diagnosed with a terrible sickness, “Medical statics may be accurate and true, but they are not for Klal Yisrael!” (Our friend, baruch Hashem, merited an unpredictable complete recovery.)
Therefore, when faced with a frightening, painful diagnosis, a Torah Jew finds himself precariously balancing two wildly differing poles in the symphony of avodas Hashem: hishtadlus, utilizing all external resources available to attain a cure; and bitachon, utilizing the internal strength of the soul to entrust his destiny to his Creator.
Let’s discuss physical hishtadlus for a moment. How should one proceed? Should one experiment with risky treatments? Expensive ones? Natural or alternative medicine? Go for a third, or even a fourth opinion? Or perhaps one should focus on spiritual hishtadlus? Daven at kivrei tzaddikim? Give extra tzedakah? Chumros? Segulos?
The Torah exhorts us: “Choose life!” Life is of utmost value to us, as only living beings can sanctify Hashem’s Name in this world. This makes it our responsibility to utilize to the fullest the advantages that the medical world offers, in order to maintain and sustain our lives. We therefore have an obligation to pursue all avenues, to become knowledgeable in all contexts of the cure, to be able to make the correct decisions to recovery.
Medical professionals have remarked that due to this drive to prolong life, they find the frum patient and his/her advocates to be intimidating. I myself was once reciting my son’s medical history to a chief of pediatric ICU doctor, when he marveled, “Excuse me, but are you a resident?”
Yet how does this obligation to pursue hishtadlus balance itself with our equal obligation of maintaining bitachon? It’s a basic tenet of emunah to know that there is no medicine or physician who has any power, aside from that which Hashem allows him to have.
Chazal ask a question about the bronzed snake in the desert: “Does a snake have the power to kill or to give life?” No. It was only when the fatally ill Jews turned their eyes heavenward to look at that snake, that they realized that the Heavens were the Source of their cure.
It has been proven that belief in “anything”[r1] improves a sick person’s chance of survival. Thus, strengthening one’s bitachon in Hashem’s ability to cure is a recognized prescription to an actual cure.
Fine-tuning the Symphony
Faced with a medical diagnosis, how does a patient balance bitachon and hishtadlus, these two forces in his treatment? (This is a struggle throughout all areas of life, but it becomes fraught with added tension when the result can involve life or death.) How does one strike the balance between what is considered required hishtadlus and crucial bitachon?
There are no easy answers and no standard formula for what this balance should be.
When this question was put to an esteemed rav involved in medical issues, he immediately responded, “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.” Yet, he offered general advice that clarifies this area.
It is paramount for every family to have a qualified rav to advise them. Having that daas Torah in one’s life is a core component of all avodas Hashem, especially when the choices we make may save a life. It is those who know that Hashem is guiding their journey who can follow the advice of the chacham.
“A choleh should start with standard hishtadlus to research the medical facts and discuss them with his doctors,” said the rav.“Sometimes the stark facts can be clear-cut: diagnosis and treatment. Other times, the exact diagnosis and the options of treatment can be so complex that having a rav to help with decisions is imperative.
Once we have the knowledge on a hishtadlus level, we proceed to the next level of bitachon — relying a gadol to direct us. How can we rely on a gadol when even the professional doctors cannot give us direct instructions?
We declare each day, “In Your hands I entrust my soul.” To entrust, explains Rav Gedalia Schorr, means to have complete confidence in the one upon whom you are relying. If we place our souls in Hashem’s Hands, we are expressing our faith that He will guard them.
Hashem, in turn, sends us guides to show us the directions we need to take. The Gemara states that a gadol who is wise in Torah has preference over a navi. The Vilna Gaon explains that while prophecy is the ultimate in spiritual transcendence, the prophet’s words are no more than parroting of the original words of Hashem. In contrast, the chacham is searching and pondering, weighing and evaluating every single word he utters.
The bitachon of a Yid is multifaceted. On one hand, we believe that Hashem’s capabilities are infinite. He can cure despite any predictions or statistics. On the other hand, we also believe that whether Hashem chooses to cure or not, ultimately the outcome is good. Hashem’s essence is good and whatever occurs is good.
I recently heard of a respected talmid chacham who was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. When confronted by a secular Jewish doctor with the hard facts of his illness, he immediately responded, “I have complete faith that my neshamah was put on a journey in this world and is trapped in this body. Whatever my body experiences is but part and parcel of my neshamah’s journey.”
Together, these two facets embrace Hashem’s plan for our shleimus; it creates the most melodious and beautiful symphony. Our neshamah is Yours, and our bodies were fashioned by You. Chusah — Please, Hashem, have compassion on the work of your hands and send a refuah shleimah to the ill in our nation!