A new 2018-19 series of articles shared on the roots and the prospects that unite Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions to the realm of Jewishness and Hassidism, Compared semantics and exegetical “paysages” by Archpriest Alexander A.Winogradsky Frenkel (Patriarchate of Jerusalem). Below the twenty-fourth article: “The Healthy Way”.
Strangely enough, the Bible does not prescribe to visit the sick. Weird! Really bizarre since the Bible is the document that should be aiming at living well, living together in a togetherness that is based on common good, common sense and common capacities to socialize. It is so, so much in vogue, rooted in the veracity of a life-giving set of Books interwoven with Divine Commandments. These should normally lead us to attain some spiritual and human heights and values.
The TaNaKH/תנ”ך (Books of the Torah, the Prophets and the Chronicles) assembles the oldest laws and codes of social and legal morality, law and justice.
However, it would be hard to clearly find a line prescribing each reader or believer that human persons have to really take care of the suffering, if any, of their fellow people. Strange indeed!
On the other hand, the Scripture and some specific texts (as Leviticus) tend to suggest that it would be safe to keep away from people whose defective health can harm the others (lepers are the persistent example of this supposed system).
The Bible focuses on the preservation of life in a context where nothing may ascertain that the survival of the human being is possible. The Bible consists in a very ancient heritage made of experience and precepts as how to overcome the power of death and eradication. It relies upon a very intimate and subtle analyze of the human propensity to constant and transgenerational fascination for destruction. In response to this in-born drifting tendency, struggle for life obliges to make considerable efforts. These can be defeated in uncertain circumstances and be wiped out by the hostility of devastating environments.
There may be another explanation. Needless to explain evident matters. The Torah describes creation as a finished work – though still on a permanent deployment – that goes through serious failing elements and occurrences.
As a rule, it is normal to face reality and to show some sort of humanness to the others. This is normal, so normal that it does not depend on the Written Law (the Torah and the written Commandments) only, but rather on the Oral Law (the Talmud and Mishnah) that verbally infuses the spirit of prophecy that aims at correcting the hardships of personal human life and the specific discomfort caused by nature; we love to discuss on ecological systems these days. It may evolve into such a paradox that some groups or individuals would be likely to save and help animals or fall in love in the techniques to sow bio-agricultural seeds of renewed purity for the soils. It does not mean that they would care for those who suffer.
The first Person Who visited a “sick person”, a suffering human being, was the Lord when He saw Abraham’s torment after the prescribed circumcision that he had performed on himself (Genesis 17, 23-18, 5).
The Talmud states that God visited him on the third day after this “self-operation” then unprecedented because, according to the tradition, it is always the third day that suffering is highly painful. Words of comfort and compassionate presence do accelerate the process of healing (Bava Metzia 86b).
Rabbi Akiva visited a sick and helpless student who was not cared for, because “He who does not practice the duty of visiting to the sick [bikur ‘holim/ ביקור חולים] is similar (to a murderer) who makes (human) blood flow” (Nedarim 40a).
Rabbi Akiva, having visited him, inquired about his state of health, but also about his needs: did the young man need money? or food? The Rabbi had even given a sweep in the student’s room. The student felt it was done with a real spirit of assistance and care and was really comforted.
All this seems picturesque and idealized, a sort of a too piety-by-example pattern. Charity is sometimes exercised with a spirit of some expectation of a return on investment “interests and principal”. It is more than a dernier cri à la mode – throughout all possible layers of Church principles – to show loving-kindness and care towards the poor and the needy. As if only the miserable and wretched people are in search of God’s helping hand and support… Good gracious!, the ill-fated and sick persons are to be found at all the levels of societies, penniless and over-pounded ones alike.
There is a special connection between the love shown to the sick by true acts of help and the way apprehend the ends of life. It corresponds to how we choose to follow the path to life or the path to death. “Whoever visits a sick person, reinvigorates in himself the forces of life – he who does not do so leads the one who suffers to death” (Nedarim 40a). We rarely reach to this degree of true consciousness and responsibility.
This is to say how much our ability to express the commandment “to love one’s neighbor as oneself / veahavta reakha kamokha-ואהבת לרעך כמוך “ (Leviticus 19:18) goes far beyond good intentions, good thoughts or faith, prayers uttered out of predetermined automatics. Acts are a part of the rules governing our sense of responsibility and have to be firm, concrete.
Rabbi Nahum Ish Gamzu is buried in Safed. He is known for his talents of a teacher. His words never stressed some fatalistic reflection on life. On the contrary, he concentrated on his personal trust in the Lord. Thus one interprets his answer to the announcement of any misfortune or harmful event, he said on every occasion: “Gam zu / גם זו – also so, (amen)”, while others read the word as “Gimzo”, a city from where he might have come from.
Rabbi Gamzu is a famous Tannai master of the first century. Rabbi Akiva was his disciple. When he grew old, Rabbi Nahum was lying on a mattress, his bones gnawed by bugs and he was happy to suffer such a fate.
To those disciples who were astonished by his reaction to such a condition, he used to answer this way: “One day, I was going to visit my father-in-law and my horse was loaded with food and various objects. I had passed a poor man who asked for food. As I was about to give him something, the man died”.
Rabbi Gamzu immediately asked God to become paralyzed, repelled by the sight of men because he had not come quickly enough to the assistance of this man in need who was so close to death. In short, when his disciples came to visit R. Nahum “Gamzu” they could be aware that loving our neighbor is directly connected to real assistance and basic help that we ought to provide to all creatures in need in order to save them. This allows to show the way to substantially embody the truth of the Commandments and the life of faith (Taanit 21a).
The question is not to lead others to some absurd suffering or, worse, to convince them that it is a blessing to suffer in order to achieve a spiritual fulfillment. This is sickening.
Just the opposite! The real matter is about how to choose kindness and true love towards every human being. This is definitely very difficult to understand and to explain positively in any society. In fact, R. Gamzu’s purpose was prophetic because he taught by his own frightful example that we are always in a state of emergency to act with authenticity whenever we pretend to live in a process of inclusive fellowship.
The Gospel offers a very parallel text with these words of Jesus of Nazareth: “If your right eye is for you an occasion of sin, tear it out and throw it away from you: for it is better for you than to perish one of your limbs and your body is not thrown into Gehenna … “(Matthew 5: 29-30).
Just read this again and again and carefully… because it has nothing to do with the power of imposing some threats or punishments upon the others. Jesus’ words are not morbid. They are not judgmental. In a similar way to R. Nahum’s testimony, it calls to be aware of real situations and be responsible for one’s life – the life of the person who accepts to become a witness to the truth of conscience and the life/lives of those whom we are connected with, beyond our personal choice or will.
Still, these words are somehow rough but Jesus applied the same Jewish tradition (he knew of no other) that can, by extreme comparisons, challenge human beings to be merciful to all. It is dramatic to see how fanaticism and ignorance have often led believers to use such words to cause suffering. Life or death? Pain or suffering? Healing or despising the others?
Basically, the account of the Good Samaritan is similar to that of Rabbi Nahum of Gamzu. Jesus of Nazareth discusses Tradition with a scribe who quotes him the Commandment “Hearken, Israel” and questions him: “Who is my neighbor? That is the question.
Jesus responded to the young man with a story very close to the Master of Rabbi Akiva (who died elsewhere by reciting the Shm’a Israel / שמע ישראל). Almost in a caricatural mood, the kohen/priest, the Levite passed without seeing a wounded man while the Samaritan seized the man, made bandages, took him on his own horse, hired a place at the guesthouse and said to the keeper that he was ready to pay the fees and/or additional expenses… Definitely too true to be true, too much! Two professionals of religion versus a Samaritan said to be a stranger: it depends how we consider alterity in a region where tribes and mini-ilks met and separated, dialogued or excluded each other for reasons of convenience, irrationality and supposed interpretations of Divine Sayings. Today’s Samaritans at the Mount Gerizim (West Bank) or in Holon (Israel) marry Ukrainian women who had immigrated in Israel because of some kind of a Jewish background or an in between unclear ethnic and religious status. Jesus had never met any Druze, Mennonite, Roman Latin Catholic, Finnish Orthodox or Lutheran or the Buddhist on a journey to the heights.
Truth was and remains the same as for the Tannaim of the first century, for Jesus of Nazareth known and confessed as the Resurrected and nowadays: “Show mercy” (Luke 10, 29-37), the same tempo as on the Day of atonement, subsequently in the fundamentals of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Liturgies.
It is a pilpoul – a rabbinical system of discussing spiritual matters – made of paradoxes and counter-paradoxes. They allow to scan, survey, study, break, clip, crumble down each revealed or uttered divine word or expression in order to analyze with precision how human, mental attitudes may lead to acts of moral decency.
It is essential to overcome the contortions of history, its tragedies and ever-renewed crookedness. The Jewish tradition is based on a system of “repair, remedy” called a “Tiqqoun- תיקון “. The 20th century [= the 58th century after the Jewish comput (2019 = 5779)] has shown to be extremely violent despite the pretense to be faithful to existing Laws and Principals of morals and faith. It continues these days. Secular personalities call for a general repair of the “eco-system” and respect of the living. It seems to be methodically creeping, attracted by destruction while modern skills allow to heal or overcome some defects, abnormalities or wounds.
Whoever visits a patient without praying to ask that the Lord cover this patient with his mercy does not fulfill the duty of “visiting the sick” (Yoreh Deah 335, 4).
In this regard, the Talmud makes it clear that the sick, both Jewish and non-Jewish, must be visited indiscriminately (Gittin 61a, Yoreh Deah 335, 9).
It is not an act of charity. The word “bikkur/ ביקור = visit” means more: yes, to move and help – not just to express compassion. We know how many desperate people have called for help on the social networks and, thus, their “friends and contacts” disappeared, did not respond. It ended with suicides. We do live in a special generation because people can be saved over long distances, technical exploits. The Service of the Brother (and Sister) lauded by the Orthodox tradition has also to be reinforced. In many cases, groups select their “sick” and those they intend to help or to save and may ignore some others. A sick person requires assistance. it does not mean that support and relief is evident.
The word “bikkur” is also related to “examination, verification”: to see what are the particular needs of people and to help them in a concrete way (Nahmanide, Torat HaAdam).
Diseases are known or under survey. Some appear, disappear or show up again such as measles because human nature handles illnesses with much versatility or pride that some specialists will temporarily overcome. At times, instant moral behavors are more important than ignored suffering that may come up unexpectedly. Self-centeredness often crunches layers of societies and succeeds in bending moralities and conscience.
Jesus said: “They that are whole (sound, healthy, strong) have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (eis metanoian/μεταωοιαν)”. Good enough! Who is the “whole”, the healthy person? A man or a woman who does not know that he might be sick? Sickness of the shape, the appearance or invisible disease of the soul? Maybe both? Aramaic “Chalimey/ܚܠܺܝܡܶܐ” suggests that is healthy the one who is sound and can make use of strength. Nonetheless, compared to Greek, “healthy” is similar to “to dream, be dreamy”. Thus, this means, on the one hand, that it corresponds to a state that refers to real or unreal desires and, on the other hand, to existing factors because the word also means “cement”. It is unbreakably safe and sound.
We hardly experience in the Churches the playful capacities of the words of the Gospels inherited from the rabbinic tradition – that continues its route along with the numerous ecclesial bodies. They work on ambiguous play on words or double-entendres. A dream may become true. A reality can be a part of a dreamy development… health can be confirmed, neglected, denied as diseases can also be hidden because they are cause too much anguish and unexplained pains continuously bringing new forms of damages. The same for the distinction, if any, between “righteous” and “transgressor, sinner”. We cannot say that all of us are “sinners” in an indistinct way. Yes, indeed, each human being is a transgressor by the very nature of human existence. This only becomes a matter of authentic theological and spiritual concern if conscience frontally faces the Presence of God, the Master of the universe and submits to His project.
We know and feel how deeply this affects the social and cultural diseases that endanger the vitality of human activities in insidious and subtle ways.
In this respect, Prof. Viktor Frankl and many others have detailed the morbid and sickening process of hatred that seems impossible to eradicate in societies that consider themselves as intelligent and endowed with reason.
St. John Chrystosom said: “We should not dread any human ill, save sin alone; neither poverty, nor disease, nor insult, nor malicious treatment, nor humiliation, nor death”. These “ills” are only words; they have – some would say “should have” no reality for those who are living for the Kingdom of Heaven. The only real “calamity” in this life is offending God.
At the present, we tend to consider violence and criminal attitudes of the humans against humans and being submitted to their judgment… and subsequently to the Lord’s Court under societal control. People would then call to the Living God in order to settle these systems of violence, crimes, irrationality, hatred. The paradox is that each group pretends that it will get the true answer from High, twisting on the notion of “righteous” or “transgressors”. These violation and abuse show in quivering theological interpretation, seizure and superseding of what God manages and cannot be mastered by any human soul.
The present danger is different: who would accept to say that they violate the living Word of the Lord? As said at the very beginning of the Psalm 102: “Prayer of the Poor (One)/תפילה לעני – tefilav le’Ani”. The Poor is God whose courts in heaven and in this world continues to feel lonely because the humans too often abandon Him, renouncing to the true privilege of being vigorous and stable.
Christ is risen. He is truly risen!
Nota: In the Semitic traditions, “bones” are the skeleton of our being human and correspond to the “consonants” while the vowels are added to dynamize this skeleton as the “anima – soul, spirit”. The picture had been published five years ago as the Christians of the East were wildly attacked by the Daesh. Think of the words of Saint Paul “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 2:6b).