“An existence of destiny”

The only way out is through.

—“Servant to Servant,” Robert Frost  

Nu, what does God want from us? This is one of the primary questions with which the Torah is concerned. The Torah is also, however, concerned with a much more disturbing question: does God want from us? Is God nochach — personal, revealed, demanding — or nistar — intangible, all-encompassing, unreachable?

The tension between the two possibilities is particularly apparent in parshat Shemot, in which within the course of six verses, God sends Moses to redeem the Israelites and then almost kills him (or, according to some commentators, his son):

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.’” 

At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a chatan-damim to me!”  And when He let him alone, she added, “A chatan-damim lemulot.” (Ex. 4:21-26)

In the first three verses, God lays out what is essentially a summary of the first half of the book of Exodus: God will Moses to redeem the Israelites, force Pharoah to refuse to free them, and inflict a series of plagues on Egypt culminating with the death of the firstborn. Several important features of this address stand out: 

  1. God is encountered through direct communication: God speaks to Moses. 
  2. God carefully oversees history: God has designed the stages of Israel’s redemption, and all ensuing events will comprise part of his plan. 
  3. God offers reasons for God’s actions: God will harden Pharoah’s heart so that he will not free the Israelites, and God wants to free the Israelites so that they will worship God. 
  4. God enacts justice: those who oppress shall be punished. 

The second set of verses presents a bizarre, ambiguous narrative. While Moses is traveling with his family, God attempts to kill either him or one of his sons. Zipporah saves whichever one of them is in danger by circumcising one of her sons, and then says to either Moses or one of his sons that he is a chatan-damim and a chatam-damim lemulot, phrase whose meanings are not quite clear. 

Commentators have puzzled over these verses. According to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, God is punishing Moses for having failed to circumcise his second son, Eliezer, because he neither wants to delay his mission or endanger the child’s health by performing the operation before a difficult journey. Hizkuni and the Mechilta, d’Rabbi Ishmael, by contrast, believe the punishment is because of Moses’ agreement with his father-in-law, Yitro, to raise his first son, Gershom, as an idolater. 

These comments obscure as much as they clarify. According to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, Moses had good reason not to circumcise his son — he simply wanted to follow God’s instructions to return to Israel without risking Eliezer’s life. Even if his calculus was not to God’s liking, does that merit a death sentence? And while Hizkuni and the Mechilta provide a more compelling rationale for murder, they seem out-of-step with the broader narrative. After having been contacted directly by God, would Moses really continue to raise his firstborn as a pagan?

The commentators are troubled by the possibility that there might be no reason for God to have acted in such a way. In Understanding Exodus, Moshe Greenberg notes that the story in verses 24-26 recalls the narrative of Jacob wrestling with an ish in Genesis. In both, Greenberg writes, “the attack [comes] at a moment fraught with susceptibility to harm – at night… on persons journeying toward danger – and that it was warded off, but at a cost to the survivors.” Unlike the medieval commentators, Greenberg believes both stories attest to the “irrational…[as] an accepted part of life.” 

Certainly, the plain meaning of verses 24-26 offers a haunting and disturbing, irrational image of God that appears to contradict the image in verses 21-23:   

  1. God is encountered through violence: Rather than experiencing God’s presence in direct communication, Moses’ family only learns of God’s presence through God’s attempt to kill one of them.
  2. God’s intentions are inscrutable: Despite having just sent Moses on a mission to save the Israelites, God now seeks his (or his son’s) destruction, even though this would appear directly counter to the plan God laid out in verses 21 through 23. 
  3. God does not explain Godself: God does not tell Moses why God is angry, nor does God warn Moses before the latter commits (or fails to commit) whatever action led to God’s anger. It is left to Zipporah to deduce a possible explanation for God’s rage and a method of assuaging it. 
  4. God’s will exists outside of morality: None of the characters, at least on the surface of the text, appear to have done wrong. If in fact God is angry that one of Moses’ sons was not circumcised, how can he have expected Moses to circumcise him in the absence of a command to do so? Rather than just, God seems to be capricious. 

If there is not a “reason” for God’s punishment, what is the Torah trying to communicate by these three verses and their juxtaposition with the three preceding verses? 

In The Voice of My Beloved Knocks, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik lays out a distinction “between an existence of fate and an existence of destiny.” He writes

An existence of fate… is an existence of duress… simply one line in a [long] chain of ‎mechanical ‎causality, devoid of significance, direction, and purpose, and subordinate to the forces ‎of the ‎environment into whose midst the individual is pushed, unconsulted by Providence… 

An existence of destiny… is an active existence, when man confronts the ‎environment ‎into which he has been cast with an understanding of his uniqueness and value, ‎freedom and ‎capacity.

At first glance, the two descriptions of God in the above verses simply map on to “an existence of destiny” and “an existence of fate,” respectively. In the first three verses, the world has intelligible meaning and both Moses and the Israelites are told that they will serve a particular purpose. In the second three verses, Moses’ family is totally subject to forces beyond their control that operate according to an unintelligible structure. 

What are we to make of the fact, though, that the order of existences is here reversed? The Torah seems to describe a spiritual regression from a weltanschauung of justice and order to one of randomness, a hallmark of paganism.[1]

When we look more carefully, though, we see that the second triad represents not a contradiction of the first triad but rather a test of the degree to which the characters have internalized its core messages.

For the entirety of the time that Moses has been aware of his mission (since Ex. 3:4), he has been in direct communication with God (excluding verse 4:18). Verse 4:24 is the first moment in which Moses is without clear divine guidance. Verses 24 through 26 can therefore be seen as a test of Moses’ faith. Given how unsure Moses was of himself even when speaking to God, God must determine how Moses will fare without God’s obvious presence. Having been made aware of his “destiny,” will Moses return to a pagan “existence of fate” as soon as God is no longer perceptible? 

The answer, it appears, is yes. As Greenberg notes, “Zipporah is the only unambiguous personage [in verses 24-26]. She takes the active role and this suggests that Moses will not, or for some reason cannot act.” As soon as God departs and the forces of nature appear arrayed against Moses, he is frozen. 

Zipporah does what Moses cannot: remain faithful to God’s plan even in when God is in a state of hester panim.[2] Even in the apparent absurdity of life, she commits herself and her child to the Abrahamic covenant through circumcision. The word used for “cut” in verse 25 comes from the same root as “to establish [a covenant],” as in Genesis 15:18 (“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham”).  

Some commentators suggest that Zipporah has a more complex relationship to faith. Just after circumcising her son, she calls someone a chatan-damim, but once God has left, she refers to someone as chatan-damim lemulot. According to Ibn Ezra, both refer to her son Eliezer. At first, she blames him for the incident, telling him that on his account her husband would have died.[3] How could Zipporah blame her infant son for God’s inexplicable response to something outside of his control? Only in a world with no intelligible moral framework could Eliezer be held accountable for the situation. If Zipporah subscribes to such a worldview, it may be that her circumcision of her son was merely automatic: faced with a violent God, she simply offered a blood sacrifice as any pagan would. Whether or not this is the case, once she has had a few moments to reflect, she offers a new interpretation of the situation soon after. According to Ibn Ezra, Zipporah’s second epithet means, “You are simply covered in blood.” She no longer holds Eliezer guilty: she knows that we are not responsible for the circumstances into which we are cast, but rather for the decisions we can make in light of those circumstances. Even if Zipporah’s action was just as instinctive as Moses’ inaction, it helps her arrive an interpretive framework that denies the automaticity of fate. 

But why must God withdraw God’s presence in the first place? Why does God not remain in contact with Moses throughout his mission? 

This question brings us to the second way in which the second triad of verses tests the characters’ understanding of what it means to live in a world governed by God. One accustomed to an existence of fate might hear God’s declaration of Israel’s purpose in verse 23 as simply describing a new heteronomy: the Israelites will be freed from bondage and turned back to monotheism, but their lives will still lack all agency.[4]

Moses and Zipporah must be made to understand that God’s kingship does not free them from responsibility or undermine their autonomy. In fact, by withdrawing, God gives them the opportunity to grow and create meaning. Only in God’s absence does Zipporah express her faith and become an active character.

The lesson of the juxtaposition of the two triads – that God’s oversight of the world demands rather than precludes human participation – is expressed poignantly in the following verse: 

The LORD said to Aaron, “Go to meet Moses in the wilderness.” He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him. (Ex. 4:27)

That God is directing events is evidenced by the fact that God had already sent Aaron to meet Moses and serve as his spokesman in advance of the latter’s protests about being a poor speaker (as we know from verse 14). And yet, God still requires Moses’ active participation: God’s intentions will only be actualized if Moses actually goes to meet Aaron. Though God commands Moses, he does not force him.

But how are we to emulate Zipporah and Moses’ faith in a world as violent and random as the second triad when we have never heard God speak, let alone reveal God’s plan in as stark terms as God does in the first?

In a ma’amar on parshat Matot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes:

If it appears sometimes that it is not within your power to fulfil a mitzvah… let your heart be certain that God has established and will established conditions such that you may fulfill the mitzvah completely. (Lik. Sichot v.13)

It is precisely in the apparently randomness of the world that we can feel – if only for a moment – God’s presence. The same forces that seem to constrain us are those that have borne us to a moment in which we can make a choice. Like Zipporah and Moses, we are only ever offered the opportunity to perform a mitzvah by events beyond our control. In chaining us to God’s plan, God makes us free. 


[1] At least paganism as described by the Tanakh. 

[2] From the fact that Zipporah circumcises her son, we can infer that she is aware of Moses’ Israelite heritage. It is hard to imagine a logical scenario in which Zipporah was aware of Moses’ ethnicity but not of his mission; if she were unaware of the latter, it would appear that he was simply an escaped slave headed back to his former masters – hardly a trip she would be likely to join, let alone one on which she would bring a young child. We can therefore also infer that she also knew of his purpose in returning to Egypt and had decided to join his effort. 

[3] Hatan can be translated as husband and damim as blood, hence “the (potential) blood of my husband.”

[4] There is good reason to understand God as expressing just that. For the purposes of this paper, I will follow R. Soloveitchik’s assumption, drawn from the Rambam, that the Torah and halacha seek to foster autonomy rather than absolute submission.   

VaYetze: A Dwelling Place for God

(12/4/20)

Mainstream Jewish institutions have long tried to graft “Jewishness” onto the full range of late-capitalist mundanity: Jewish 20’s and 30’s events, Jewish hi-tech start up events, Jewish environmental sustainability and recycling events, Jewish computer science events, Jewish celebrations of American holidays (which pre-date late-capitalism but certainly are mundane), and so on.

For each of them, the message is the same: go get drunk with other young people, but do it with Jewish young people; spend the rest of your life in a profitable, exploitative firm, but make it an Israeli firm; celebrate the genocide of Native Americans, but consider writing Thanksgiving with Hebrew letters. Rather than providing any sort of critical alternative to the vagaries of the world around us, such attempts merely stamp 21st-century nihilism with a “Star of David.”

Paradoxically, this is not nearly as bad as those institutions – e.g. wealthy Orthodox shuls – that imbue American jingoism and capitalism with deep religious meaning. Few things exemplify the moral decrepitude of vast swaths of American Jewish orthodoxy as the spectacle of davening for Trump to win the election.

A verse in this week’s parshah, along with ensuing commentary on it, offer a different approach to the relationship between Torah and the world.

The Torah states:

“When Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son, Leah said, “God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband will exalt me (yizbeleini), for I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zevulun.” (Gen. 30:19-20)

Commenting on the verse, Rashi connects the word yizbeleini to a verse in I Kings, in which Solomon tells God that he has built him a bayit z’vul (a stately house) in which God will “dwell forever” (I. Kings 8:13). He goes on to say that the exaltation Leah sought was that Jacob might make her dwelling place his true home.

The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe is puzzled by Rashi’s comment. Elsewhere in rabbinic literature, it states that Zevulun was a businessman, meaning that he operated in the material world, and that Jacob was primarily occupied with Torah and the spiritual world. How could it be, then, that someone representative of the material world could affect the “true home” of Jacob, who was of the spirit?

At stake in the question is the relationship between our bodily engagement with the world – buying groceries, writing emails, working – and God’s presence in our lives. Do the former impede our access to the latter? For the Rebbe, it is precisely “when we engage in the physical world for divine purposes for the purposes of Heaven and use them to do mitzvot that we make this world a ‘dwelling place’ for God” (Lik. Sichot vol. 30, VaYetze #2). As he writes elsewhere, “The entire purpose and intention of corporeal matters is that we make with them and of them a dwelling place for God below” ((Lik. Sichot vol. 10, Breishit #1).

Rather than grafting Jewishness onto the material world, we need to direct our engagement with the world towards a higher purpose. Rather than asking how we can make a particular enterprise seem Jewish, for instance, we should ask: does this offer a way of manifesting God’s presence, justice and compassion in the world? And if the answer is no, we shouldn’t bother with it, let alone lend it a Jewish imprimatur.   

Such a heuristic is neither the ­Torah-u’Madda of modern Orthodoxy nor the “Jew at home, person in the street” privatization of Jewish life. Instead, it is the demand that all our work in this world be directed towards God.

Not all engagement with the material world canbe done with holy intent. There are many professions within which it is impossible to live up to the moral demands of Torah. This is not because of the particular behaviors of people employed in such sectors but because those professions themselves are inextricably bound up in an exploitative economic system.

Even for those of us not employed in those particular sectors, simply living in a rapacious capitalist economy is morally deleterious. In Ohr Yisrael, Iggeret HaMusar, R’ Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, writes,

[Kashrut] is imprinted on the soul of every Jew… [such that] it would never occur to any butchers [to potentially sell their customers unkosher meat]… but…the reverse is true in matters of business. Most people will never question whether they are engaged in theft or oppression.

Living in a world in which it is considered permissible to extort, deceive, and rob others (even we do it “civilly”) erodes our moral instincts. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that living in an exploitative economic system makes it impossible to be a good Jew.  

In Where Do We Go From Here?, Rev. M. L. King, Jr. writes that “[j]ustice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. A Judaism that wants to be neither irrelevant nor complicit must bring God into the world, and in order to do so it must illuminate and eliminate all the injustice that stands between the world and God.

The Rebbe of Kotzk once asked his followers, “Where does God reside?” They laughed. “God is everywhere!” they said. “God resides,” the Rebbe responded, “wherever we let God in.”

VaYishlach: “With everything that we do alone”

“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up)

Most of us are, these days, more alone than perhaps ever before, and are operating under few delusions about it. Every zoom meeting, mask-wearing, and socially-distanced gathering – even as they connect us, they remind us of the immense distance between us. 

But maybe the six feet (at a minimum!) between you and anyone you don’t live with has only given physical form to an ontological truth. “We are solitary,” writes Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet. “We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all.” 

This is certainly not to say that there’s no difference between living during Covid as opposed to before or after it: obviously, there is a real joy, comfort, and nourishment that comes from being in community. At the same time, even at the best, healthiest, and least-distanced of times, there is a feature of our lives that is unavoidably isolated. 

In this week’s parshah, we find a deep meditation on aloneness – how we come to be (or realize that we already are) alone, and into what struggle that aloneness inevitably brings us. 

The Torah states:  

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Gen. 32:25)

How was it, though, that Jacob came to be alone? For Rashbam,[i] the answer is straightforward: after having sent his family and possessions across the river, it is obvious that Jacob would be alone. Rashi[ii] understands the text differently. According to him, Jacob forgot some small vessels on the other side of the river and went back to collect them. 

Rashi’s explanation leads us, in turn, to another question: why would Jacob – who has plenty of “stuff” – decide to go all the way back across the river to pick up a few worthless pots? The Maharshal[iii] explains that the vessels could not actually have been Jacob’s, since the Torah states in the previous verse that Jacob “brought across all that belonged to him.”  Rather, these vessels must have been those filled with oil that he used to anoint the stone at Bethel (see Gen. 28), and they therefore belonged to God

Each of these explanations – Rashbam’s, Rashi’s, and the Maharshal’s – suggests a different way in which we come to find ourselves alone.

Sometimes, aloneness is what remains after everything else has been handled. The dishes have been washed, emails answered, teeth brushed, and we find ourselves left with ourselves and nothing else. 

Other times, we find ourselves alone because we keep crossing back over the river to recover trivialities of which we can’t let go: we obsess over a fight we mishandled, a meeting we mismanaged, something unkind a friend said, a relationship that fell apart, and we end up returning again and again, replaying the details, imagining how we might act now, considering where we went wrong…

And yet other times, we notice our aloneness because we’re looking for something meaningful, fulfilling, holy, grounding that we can’t get on the side of the river we’re on right now. 

However Jacob came to be alone – attending to himself last, obsessing, searching, or perhaps all three – it leads him inevitably into a conflict with some mysterious force described only as “a man.” 

According to Genesis Rabbah, the “man” was actually Esau’s guardian angel. The Malbim[iv] takes this interpretation one step further. Jacob and Esau represent, for him, two archetypes – the spiritual/moral (Jacob) and the physical/immoral (Esau) – each of which comprises part of our being. Accordingly, Jacob was not simply wrestling with his brother’s angelic representative but also with his own “inner Esau.” 

In silence and aloneness, we encounter the parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed and scared. Perhaps that’s why it’s tempting to keep music playing or to call a friend when we find ourselves on a long walk or doing laundry. In Taking the Leap, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön

 writes,

We all have the tendency to move away from the present moment… The sad part is that all we’re trying to do is not feel that underlying uneasiness. The sadder part is that we proceed in such a way that the uneasiness only gets worse…[T]he only way to ease our pain is to experience it fully. 

Like each of us, Jacob, tries to flee from his encounter with himself. Chizkuni[v] asserts that the reason that the man injures Jacob’s thigh (Gen. 32:26) is so that Jacob will be unable to escape. Absent any way out, Jacob must spend a long, dark night in struggle. 

What is the nature of that struggle? Rashi, picking up on the strange word vaya’aevk (often translated as “wrestled”), suggests that it might actually connote “to become attached to,” as one does when wrestling. The difference is subtle, but slight: Jacob must not simply fight his alter-self but become bound up in it. 

This language is echoed several verses later, when Jacob actually encounters Esau, who “embraced him.”[vi] Only once Jacob has struggled with and embraced the disparate parts of himself can he embrace and be embraced by the person who represents – for himself and for the generations of commentators – Jacob’s and our own most violent and hateful tendencies.  

It is in our awareness of the depth of our aloneness and the ensuing struggle with ourselves that we come to realize our fundamental connectedness with other beings. Only in the immeasurability of our solitude do we find ourselves bound up with everyone around. 

Lurianic Kabbalah speaks of the “shattering of the vessels”: the process through which God, in attempting to create the world, poured God’s light into a series of vessels. Unable to bear the power of the light, the vessels shattered, and some of those shards – with light attached – fell into our world. It is through our acts of tikkun – repair – that we can gather up those sparks. In reaching out towards the light in each other, as Jacob and Esau do, even if it remains just out of reach, we reweave ourselves and each other into God. In the kindnesses, joys, and sufferings that take place in the both infinitesimal and infinite distances between us, we find what Rilke describes as love: “two solitudes [that] protect and border and greet each other.”  

In our whole and holy aloneness, we encounter a vastness, an abyss, that opens up out of us and into everything. In the coming months of more darkness and more loneliness, may we find within us that which is immense: loved and loving, embraced and embracing. 


[i] 12th-century French commentator. Grandson of Rashi (see below). 

[ii] 11th-12th century French commentator.

[iii] 16th-century Polish commentator on Rashi.

[iv] 19th-century Russian commentator.

[v] 13th-century French commentator. Unlike the Malbim, Chizkuni does not suggest that the angel Jacob is wrestling with is his own yetzer harah. 

[vi] The root of the word for embrace is kh.v.k. Ramban, a 13th-century Spanish commentator, in his comment on Rashi’s comment just cited, suggests that it is related to the root a.v.k., which would tie these passages together even more closely.


Depression has this in common with climate change:

You can watch the water lap
at the coast of New York,
the tide coming in a little
higher month by month
and still buy your groceries,
pay your phone bill and even
when rain shrinks the shore
to a sliver, you can throw on
galoshes and muddle your way
through, which is to say that it all
goes on even as it doesn’t,
and you can ask whether it’s ethical
to have children in such a world,
whether it’s worth investing in
stocks, planting a garden,
and the answer will always be
the same: move the manikin arms
of your body, your sock-puppet
mouth, and find higher ground.

(Originally published in Thimble Literary Magazine)

“This beauty that will decompose”

“People write the history of experiments on those born blind, on wolf-children or those under hypnosis. But who will write the more general, more fluid, but also more determinant history of the ‘examination’ – its rituals, its methods, its characters and their roles, its play of questions and answers, its systems of marking and classification? For in this slender technique are to be found a whole domain of knowledge, a whole type of power.” – Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

“And the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared to me in the house” (Lev. 14:35).

In this week’s double parshah, Tazria-Metzorah, the Torah discusses the steps one is to take should one’s house be afflicted by a plague. The discussion offers an opportunity to reflect on the porousness of health, the relationship between healers and those in need of healing, and our own fragility.

The above verse, which begins the list of instructions, is striking in its hesitancy. Rather than command the individual who suspects a plague to state outright, “I have seen a plague,” the text instructs them to hedge twice: “something like a plague has appeared to me.”

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, a 19th century grammarian and commentator known as the “Malbim,” addresses both of these questions. With regard to the former, he clarifies, “A person should not decide the matter as if he were instructing the kohen, but should rather state it dubiously: ‘like a plague.’” Hesitancy is required so as not to usurp the kohen’s authority.

With regard to the latter question, the Malbim states,

There is a difference between the active verb “I saw” [ra’iti] which indicates the intention to see, [i.e.] in a dark place one lights a candle and opens a window, and the passive verb, “it appeared to me” [nireh li, from the same root, r’ah, as ra’iti] as the passive indicates that it happened on its own without his intentional preparation in order to see.

For the Malbim, the phrase “has appeared to me” indicates that the speaker was not seeking out the particular phenomenon; it arrived over against him.

The Malbim picks up on another important distinction in the verse. “There is a difference between ‘telling’ and ‘saying,’ he writes, “as the ‘teller’ describes the details of a thing in all its specificity and reveals things the listener would not know on his own.” The Malbim describes a world that requires deciphering. Things may not be as they appear, and we require expert investigation to interpret the world around us. We do not know whether some detail that appears to us to be extraneous might be of critical importance.

Anyone who has ever had an undiagnosed and inexplicable medical issue will recognize elements of their experience in the examination by the kohen. When I began dealing with chronic pain in my feet, I would sit before each doctor and recite all the manifold details of the onset of the pain – how I had started running more, was wearing new sneakers, didn’t stretch enough, had just started using insoles – in the hopes that some obscure clue might explain what had gone wrong. Doctors also made it clear to me their relationship to my condition was different than my relationship to it: they were investigating my condition, while my condition had happened to me. Foucault writes that the examination “manifests the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected.” I was reminded, in small and significant ways, that the doctor was subject and that I was object.

In “Letter to a Young Doctor,” Johanna Hedva writes,

To us patients, this dynamic feels… one-sided, dangerously unequal. I have to give my trust to you [the doctor], but not because you’ve earned it. It’s because you work in the hospital, or the clinic, a place that is a metonym for medical expertise…

What if, instead… the patient was also [seen as] a specialist, like you, in possession of a set of knowledges, a vision of a world we’d like to build, that is different from this one, and so by collaborating as equals, utilizing each person’s skills, we might together build a world that contains multiple parts, a world that is not only one part—your part?”

When the kohen has determined that there is, in fact, a plague in the house, the inhabitants leave so that the kohen can purify it. As Hedva writes, doctors often do not seem to think that the fact that pain is in a person’s body gives that person any special insight into their condition. The patient is supposed to vacate their body and wait outside of it while the doctor inspects its walls, plumbing, sockets. Only when they conclude their examination is the person invited to return.

A series of Talmudic stories offers a different way of conceptualizing the relationship between doctor and patient:

Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba [one of Rabbi Yohanan’s students], fell ill. [Rabbi Yoḥanan] entered to [visit] him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him:[ I welcome] neither [this suffering] nor its reward. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. [Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba] gave him his hand, and [Rabbi Yoḥanan] stood him up.

Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rav Ḥanina [another of Rabbi Yohanan’s students] entered to [visit] him, [and] said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? [Rabbi Yoḥanan] said to him: [I welcome] neither [this suffering] nor its reward. [Rav Ḥanina] said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and [Rav Ḥanina] stood him up…

Rabbi Elazar Ḥanina [another of Rabbi Yohanan’s students] fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered [to visit him, and] saw that he was lying in a dark room. [Rabbi Yoḥanan] exposed his arm, and light radiated from his flesh, filling the house. He saw that [Rabbi Elazar] was crying, [and] said to him: Why are you crying?…[Rabbi Elazar] said to [Rabbi Yoḥanan]: I am crying over this beauty [of yours] that will decompose in the earth. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Over this, it is certainly [appropriate] to weep. Both cried. Meanwhile, [Rabbi Yoḥanan] said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? [Rabbi Elazar] said to him: [I welcome] neither [this suffering] nor its reward. [Rabbi Yoḥanan] said to him: Give me your hand. [Rabbi Elazar] gave him his hand, and [Rabbi Yoḥanan] stood him up. (Brachot 5b)

The boundary between healer and patient is permeable. We begin with a typical hierarchy: a healthy teacher visiting a sick student. Suddenly, the relationship is inverted: a healthy student heals a sick teacher. Finally, the healthy teacher once again visits a sick studentbut the roles become even more fluid. Though Rabbi Elazar (the student) is the one who is ill, he cries because Rabbi Yohanan (his teacher) will eventually become old and die. The patient is aware that the one who has come to care for him will one day, too, become a patient. Rather than reaffirm the distinction between his current health and his student’s current illness, Rabbi Yohanan allows himself to feel his own vulnerability and mortality, and the two mourn it together as equals. Only then does Rabbi Yohanan heal Rabbi Elazar.

“[M]ost of us will move in and out of disability in our lifetimes, whether we do so through illness, an injury or merely the process of aging,” writes Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in “Becoming Disabled.” As Susan Sontag puts it in Illness as Metaphor,

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

All of us – even doctors – become patients. The porousness of the boundary between doctor and patient is more obvious today than ever in recent memory, as medical professionals around the world risk their lives to treat people with coronavirus. “All men live enveloped in whale-lines,” writes Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick. “All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.”