Parshat Ekev: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25; Isaiah 49:14-51:3.
Jews have been pioneers in medicine for more than a thousand years. From Maimonides to Clara Stone to Jonas Salk, Jewish doctors have been in the forefront of new treatments and therapies.
The central book of Judaism, the Torah, though, does not offer specific medical techniques or prescriptions. In this week’s portion, God says that if we follow the Torah, we will not get any of the illnesses of Egypt.
What illnesses is the Torah talking about? Some have guessed that it was elephantiasis or some other disease too unpleasant to talk about. I don’t think that it is actually talking about physical disease.
I think the Torah is talking about spiritual illnesses.
Let’s look at the ancient Egyptians who had enslaved our people. They were obsessed with the afterlife. This life did not matter to them. They believed that you can take what you have with you when you die. We can see this approach to life in their embalming of the body and the creating of the pyramids, an enterprise which ultimately bankrupted and weakened Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians also believed that power is to be used against the powerless. There was no better time to kick a man than when he was down. They took advantage of famine in the region and enslaved those who needed their food. The rights of the individual did not matter. Slaves were not human.
Egyptians believed that they would always be powerful; they saw themselves as the people of the sun and that the sun would never set on their empire. This belief was their illness and downfall.
The Torah offers cures for this illness. God tells us to build a tabernacle, a place that celebrated life, and to construct it from the materials that the people had. Each contribution from each individual was valued. Instead of pyramids, said Rabbi Heschel, the Torah taught us to create Shabbat and holidays as palaces in time, places where all could live, not just a few.
The Torah teaches that power is to be used for the sake of the powerless. We are to have compassion for the widow, the stranger and the orphan. All people are human and infinitely valuable.
We are not the people of the sun, but the people of the moon. We celebrate Rosh Chodesh when the moon is only a sliver of light in the sky. Life is perspective and balance. We know that life waxes and wanes and that there will be good times and bad. At a wedding, we break a glass. Even during shivah we interrupt our mourning to celebrate Shabbat.
We Jews brought the world a cure for the illnesses of Egypt, a demand for compassion and justice. We have concern for the community, but also the rights of the individual. We created a healthy approach to life, one that has sustained us to this day and one that can bring healing to the world.
Aaron Bergman is a rabbi at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills.