One of my reliable go-to reference works, Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Quotations, disappointed me as I prepared to write this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, which states: “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in His eyes … I will put none of the diseases upon thee, which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that healeth thee.” (Exodus 15:26)
That is how Rabbi J.H. Hertz, late chief rabbi of the British Empire, phrases it in the translation which accompanies his excellent Torah commentary. However, Rashi’s interpretation suggests a different translation.
This is what Rashi says: “Simply put, I am the Lord your physician, who teaches you Torah and mitzvot so that you will be spared illness, much as a physician would instruct his patient not to eat certain things because they may lead to his getting sick…” Thus, for Rashi, the more accurate translation of the end of the verse is not “I am the Lord that healeth thee…,” but rather, “I am the Lord thy physician.”
At this point, you must be asking yourself, “What’s the big deal? Is there any difference between “I heal you” and “I am your doctor”?
Rashi would respond that “‘I heal you’ means that you are sick and I make you better, whereas ‘I am your doctor’ means that I have the ability to prevent you from getting sick in the first place.”
For Rashi, this is fundamental. The Almighty has the power to prescribe for us a lifestyle that will protect us from illness; from spiritual illness certainly, but arguably from physical suffering as well.
The rabbi and physician Maimonides echoes the same definition. The court physician for the Sultan Saladin in medieval Egypt, he was once called by him to provide proof that he was a good doctor. “I am never ill,” said Saladin, “so how am I to know whether you in fact deserve the reputation that you have for being a great physician?”
Reportedly, Maimonides answered: “The greatest of all physicians is the Lord, of whom it is said, ‘I am the Lord thy physician.’ As proof of this, it is written, ‘I will not place upon you the illnesses which I have placed upon ancient Egypt.’ Who is truly the good doctor? Not the person who heals the sick from their diseases, but rather the one who helps the person from becoming sick and sees to it that he maintains his health.”
As I was contemplating the merits of these translations, I couldn’t help but think of the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I reached for my trusty Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to confirm this was another wise saying of crafty old Benjamin Franklin. I found all sorts of words of wisdom from him but nothing about “an ounce of prevention.”
I turned to Google, where I indeed confirmed that it was Franklin who echoed an important Jewish teaching when he said this famous line.
But there is even more to be learned from the verse: That the Almighty describes Himself as a healer or physician is more than just a lesson in the importance of living the kind of life that avoids the very real physical suffering that is often the consequence of an immoral life.
By urging us to “hearken to His voice” because He is “our physician,” we gain an entirely different view of why we should be obedient. As Malbim, a 19th-century rabbinic commentator, puts it, “A physician, like a master, demands obedience, but only for the purpose of securing the patient’s welfare.” Thus, the divine commandments are to be seen as being for our own benefit, for our own ultimate well-being.
The image of a divine healer is one of the special gems to be found in Beshalach. How helpful it is for the Jew to experience a life of Torah and mitzvot as a gift given to him by a divine being who is concerned with his benefit, and how meaningful it is to know that the observant life is designed to avoid every manner of illness and to promote spiritual health and material wellness.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.