Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk
Former Rosh Kollel (Melbourne, 1998-2001)
Currently Head of the Beit Midrash in Netanya College
Leprosy is the name and subject matter of our parsha. Ramban and most Mephorshim interpret this disease as being generated by spiritual causes. Leprosy presents itself when there is a deep seated spiritual problem in the particular individual. It is an unnatural, divine disease whose function is to act as a warning signal to the person that he has been scrutinized and found wanting in the realm of the religious and spiritual. It is therefore no surprise that the Leper is to find cure and relief not amongst doctors but by the Priests (Kohanim) who can offer spiritual guidance thus curing the very cause and not merely the symptoms.
It is this parsha and interpretation, I believe, which serves as the fulcrum around which Ramban builds a much wider approach to disease and sickness in general. In Parshat BeHukotay Ramban espouses his attitude towards the phenomenon of illness. The truly devout, when ill should seek relief not from the world of medicine but from the prophet. The first cause and primary source of all illness is spiritual malady – resolve the spiritual crisis and the physical problem will evaporate. That Ramban should adopt this position is all the more curious in light of the fact that he was a practicing physician.
Rambam, a no less accomplished physician, vehemently opposed this opinion sarcastically commenting that perhaps a person suffering pangs of hunger should spend his time in prayer and devotion rather than biting into a juicy apple. When sick, says Rambam, a person should most certainly approach the doctor while at the same time thanking Hashem for providing Man with intelligence and wisdom to heal and discover healing agents in Nature, and with the realization that ultimately his fate lies not on the blade of the surgeon but in the hands of Hashem.
This argument is characteristic of Ramban and Rambam. I suspect it can be traced back to a difference in attitude and perception towards nature itself. Apparently, Ramban does not recognize an autonomous existence of ‘nature’. On numerous occasions he talks about ‘hidden’ or ‘subtle’ miracles rather than ‘nature’, as opposed to ‘evident’ miracles. Doctors, basing themselves on ‘laws of nature’ are thus deprived of a leg to stand on. Rambam, on the other hand recognizes an autonomous existence of nature. Indeed, he claims, contemplating nature is a path to achieving love and faith in Hashem – the architect.