“The Blessing of Health”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Toward the end of this week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, G-d promises Moses that He is sending an angel before the Jewish people to protect them as they travel to the Promised Land. The Al-mighty assures Moses that the people will arrive safely in the land and eventually conquer Canaan and its inhabitants.

G-d then instructs Moses to caution the people to listen to G-d’s emissary, which will result in their enemies’ defeat. In a moving prophetic statement found in Exodus 23:25, G-d promises: “Va’ah’vah’d’tem ayt Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem, oo’vay’rach et lahch’m’chah v’et may’meh’chah, va’ha’see’ro’tee mah’chah’lah mee’kir’beh’chah,” You shall worship the Lord your G-d, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst.

In the very next verse, G-d promises that no woman will miscarry or experience infertility. The Al-mighty concludes with a grand assurance (Exodus 23:26): “Et mis’par ya’meh’chah ah’mah’lay,” I will fulfill the number of your days.

As a Beginners Rabbi for almost 35 years at Lincoln Square Synagogue, I’ve had the good fortune of “ministering” to a wonderful congregation. Although the weekly congregation is rather small, usually between 30-40 people, the cumulative number of attendees over the years probably exceeds 6,000 or 7,000 individuals.

“Beginners” are supposed to “graduate” the service after attending for a reasonable amount of time. I occasionally have to ask reluctant attendees to leave the service after a year and half, or after they’ve heard my jokes three or four times.

While some former Beginners remain on the Upper West Side, many more move away and become involved in their new communities. Some, however, always see me as their “rabbi,” and I, not infrequently, find myself fulfilling life-cycle duties for them. For the first 20-25 years, it was almost always s’machot–weddings, children’s births, Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs. There was the occasional death of a young person, which was always bitter. But I really enjoyed a surfeit of s’machot, joyous occasions. As I aged and the congregants did as well, funerals became more frequent, and by now I’ve had my fair share.

On occasion, I find myself at funerals that are held in old Jewish cemeteries. If I have time, I amble about the grounds and examine the tombstones. I often notice that individuals who passed away in the early 20th century were frequently quite young. Sometimes those tombstones are shaped in the form of a tree stump, symbolizing a life cut short in its prime.

When my maternal grandparents passed away in the late 1940s and early 1950s each at age 72, it was considered a ripe old age. Now, a person who passes away before age 80 is considered on the young side. In the early part of the 20th century, life expectancy was about 40. Now life expectancy in the United States is rapidly approaching 80 and beyond.

Unfortunately, we often fail to acknowledge those additional years as a gift from G-d. We simply attribute the added years to better nutrition, vastly improved medical care and more sophisticated sanitation.

The advances of medical science over the past century have been rapid and remarkable. One of the primary reasons that more people suffer from cancer today is because medicine has virtually eliminated many diseases, like tuberculosis, small pox, polio, malaria, and dysentery that previously claimed the lives of large numbers of young people. We read about new medical tests in the pipeline that will enable physicians to diagnose and treat maladies at their earliest stages, before they become life-threatening. The tragedy of AIDS has resulted in radically new developments in biochemical research that have actually made it possible to treat diseases that were previously untreatable. To me, at least, it all seems to be a fulfillment of G-d’s promise to remove illness from our midst and to fill the number of our days–-whether deserved or not!

In a previous parasha message (B’shalach 5767-2007) I recalled the story of my parents moving from the Bronx to northern Flatbush in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, after a few years, the neighborhood changed, but my then elderly parents were reluctant to start packing again. It was only after a burglar broke in through the fire escape and stole a small television set that they agreed to relocate to Boro Park.

For my father, moving to Boro Park was like moving back to his shtetl of Biale, Poland. He was ecstatic. One day, when I came to visit, he was not his normal cheerful self. When I asked him why, he exclaimed in feigned anger: “Oh, would I like to get my hands on that thief!” I asked him to explain, after all it was only an old, small and inexpensive black and white television. He answered with a big smile: “I’d like to get my hands on that thief and give him a big ‘Yasher Koach’– a big Thank You, because had it not been for him, we would have never moved to Boro Park!!”

We often fail to recognize the wonders of the Al-mighty. Advances in medicine and sanitation have eliminated many illnesses that would regularly kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, across the globe. How is it that we don’t seek out G-d and say to Him, “I’d like to give You a big ‘Yasher Koach.’

Perhaps, the best way to thank G-d is by fulfilling the implied message of that very verse, “Et mis’par y’meh’chah ah’mah’lay,” in which G-d promises to lengthen our days. To us the message of the verse must mean that not only will we benefit from G-d’s gift to lengthen our days, but that we will strive to utilize our days to their fullest by walking in G-d’s path and harkening to His life-affirming mitzvot.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also Parashat Shekalim. It is the first of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim, on which an additional thematic Torah portion is read. This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the army of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover.