12 Cheshvan 5782 / Monday, October 18, 2021 | Torah Reading: Vayeira
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Mishpatim: Permission to Heal    

Mishpatim: Permission to Heal

Why must the Torah explicitly give such permission to doctors? We should expect all medical activity to be commended, for easing pain and saving lives...


Translated and abridged by Rabbi Chanan Morrison
Parshat Mishpatim
Amongst the various laws in Mishpatim — nearly all of societal or interpersonal nature — the Torah outlines the laws of compensation for physical damages. When one person injures another, he must compensate the damage with a financial payment covering five components. He must pay for permanent loss of income due to the injury, embarrassment and pain incurred, loss of work while the victim was healing, and medical expenses.
This last component, that he 'provide for his complete healing' (Ex. 21:19), is of particular interest. The root-word 'to heal' appears 67 times in the Torah, almost exclusively referring to God as the Healer. Only here, as an aside to the topic of damages, is it made clear that we are expected to take active measures to heal ourselves, and not just leave the healing process to nature.
This detail did not escape the keen eyes of the Sages. "From here we see that the Torah gave permission to the doctor to heal"  (Berachot 60).
Yet we need to understand: why must the Torah explicitly give such permission to doctors? If anything, we should expect all medical activity to be highly commended, for easing pain and saving lives.
Limited Medical Knowledge
The human being is an organic entity. The myriad functions of body and soul are intertwined and interdependent. What person can claim that he thoroughly understands all of these functions and their interrelationships, and how they interact with the outside world? There always exists the danger that when we treat a medical issue in one part of the body, we may harm another part. Sometimes the side-effects are relatively mild and acceptable. And sometimes catastrophic effects may be the unexpected result of treatment for a problem that is not particularly serious (the tragic example of thalidomide used to treat morning sickness comes to mind).
One could thus conclude that there may be all sorts of hidden side- effects, unknown to the doctor, far worse than the ailment we are seeking to cure. Therefore, it would be best to leave the body to its own natural powers of recuperation.
Relying on Available Evidence
The Torah, however, rejected this opinion. For such an outlook could easily be expanded to encompass all aspects of life. Any effort on our part to improve our lives, to progress technologically, to advance scientifically, could be rejected on the same grounds that we have no firm knowledge of all the implications of change.
The Sages taught, "The judge bases his decision on what he can see" (Baba Batra 131a). If the judge or doctor or engineer is a competent professional, we rely on his expertise and grasp of all available knowledge to make the best decision possible. We do not allow concerns of unknown effects to hinder efforts towards improving our lot.
"The progress of human knowledge, and all of the results of manmade inventions — this is all the work of God. These advances make their appearance in the world according to humanity's needs, in their time and generation." 
(Adapted from Olat Re'iyah vol. I, p. 390)
* * *
Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Mitzpeh Yericho runs http://ravkookTorah.org, a website dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community. He is also the author of Gold from the Land of Israel (Urim Publications, 2006).

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