Rabbi Jonathan Ganger
by Published on April 27, 2020

Image result for illnessSeveral close friends have gotten the covid-19 virus, and luckily, have emerged relatively unscathed with a minor cold and fever. But what is the function of illness in the world? So it depends which type. One may find it quite surprising that according to Jewish tradition, when it comes to terminal illness, we asked for it! I don’t mean we asked for it as in we had it coming, but quite literally, we asked for it! It says in a midrashic text that Abraham asked for ageing, Isaac for physical weakness, and Yakov for illness before death. In a classic case of finding the positive, the midrash states that illness before death allows for everyone to tie loose ends with ones’ children and to have final conversations.
              What about temporary illness? There is a fascinating insight by Rabbi Nachman that explains one of the benefits of illness.  To summarize, we usually go about life and are often distracted from the big questions such as why do we exist and what is our personal purpose within the world.  After sufficient distractions, the soul says, enough is enough! I need to shake things up. So he weakens the person sufficiently to catch an illness.  During that illness, a person suddenly become very focused on becoming healthy.  Their schedule changes and they are willing to eat healthy and put aside their normal desires to swallow bitter medicines to get better.  The person realizes that they are not controlled by their desires and distractions and if necessary they are able to stay focused on what they need.  Of course, spiritually speaking, knowing our purpose and having meaning in life is not a luxury but a necessity to keep the soul healthy.  The goal is that post recovery, the body remembers that just like it needed a program to stay healthy, the soul does to and not to sabotage its needs. 

              Finally, a third idea comes from the Talmud. It says that a person that visits an ill person shouldn’t sit on the bed with them, and not on a chair next to the bed. Rather, one should wrap himself in awe and sit before the person. Why? Because next to a sick person, there is a divine presence. Whenever we feel fragile and outside of normalcy, our instincts call out to the divine and the divine responds with Her presence. There is no greater synagogue than the one that sits in the Sha’rei Tzedek hospital in Jerusalem. Everyone prays there with sincerity and urgency, which should always be the case.  As we sit at home this Shabbos, against our will, we should recognize the change that has taken place and use it as an opportunity to appreciate our fragility and reach beyond our self.