A Call to Live / Torah Guidance on Healing
~Avraham ben Yaakov
When you wake up from your sleep only to feel pain all over your body... when you look around you, and even familiar surroundings seem strange and alien... and you rub your eyes and you ask yourself, "Where in the world am I?" this may seem like a question born of confusion and chaos. But in truth, asking this and other searching questions about the new reality you face in your life is a sign of an awakening mind and spirit.
Serious illness or injury may bring a welter of different thoughts and feelings, some so private that we cannot begin to share them with the healthy, chirpy people around us going about their business in such blissful ignorance of our own pain, shock, grief and anxiety. We may be bitter and angry: "Why me?" Perhaps we feel betrayed by our bodies. We worry about the future: "Will I suffer pain? Will I be permanently disabled or disfigured? Am I going to die? What's it like in the grave?"
It is right and natural to be seriously concerned about what is happening to you. But don't let anxiety push you into despair. Admitting physical vulnerability does not mean you will necessarily remain permanently weak from now on. Confronting the fact of your mortality does not mean you are going to die soon.
Your worries and concerns are in fact a signal to you to embark on an extensive examination of yourself and your life. You must now act as doctor to your own inner self. Just as a medical doctor first carries out a thorough examination and then prescribes treatment, so you should now take an honest inventory of yourself and your life. Then you must start developing your own self-healing strategy. This is your part in the healing process.
Don't think only about your physical condition and how you are going to get well. Consider also all the other issues in your life, including any problems within yourself, in your work, your relationships or other areas. Be ready to face things you might normally prefer not to think about. Be willing to ask the deepest questions -- about your body and your soul, what this life is about, how you've been using your time, and how you'd like to use it in future. Where do you want to go? How are you going to get there?
Starting to work on yourself in this way is a major step forward on your self-healing journey. You'll come away with a new inner confidence founded upon greater wisdom and understanding. You'll be able to live your life more freely and joyously. And living is what healing is all about.
Who is in control?
For many people, the most frightening aspect of illness and death is the loss of control. After having been born helpless babies totally dependent on others, we gradually gained control of our hands and legs and our various faculties. We grew from childhood to adolescence and onwards, taking ever more control of our lives.
And then came the illness or injury... and suddenly we find ourselves helpless again, maybe to the point that we cannot even move. We hope that the doctors have things under control. But at times it seems as if everything is haywire -- as if some wild force has taken charge and is beating us down time after time.
One of the things we have to learn to accept in this life is that sooner or later we are going to have to give up our control com- pletely. We all have to die, and death is the ultimate loss of control.
For much of our lifetimes we are given a certain ability to direct and control things. Not that we can control everything. We can't fly. We don't choose our parents, our bodies, our minds and many other things. Yet there are major areas in which we do have a degree of control, if we choose to exercise it. In fact some of us put enormous energy into trying to manipulate other people and things in the hope of being able to keep various aspects of our lives under control.
But in the end we have no control. We may try to hold on for as long as we can. Sometimes death seems to stare us in the face, and we beg: "Not yet! Please! Let me get through just this one time!" But in the end there is no escape. Death is the ultimate loss of control. A dead body can do absolutely nothing for itself.
One of the greatest mysteries of this universe is how man enjoys his allotted time of glorious freedom -- he flexes his muscles, runs out into the world and does what he wants... but at last his strength is exhausted, he shrinks back into second babyhood... and finally surrenders. His body becomes a useless clod that rots and turns to dust. All the pride and splendor are forgotten.... And then God is in control.
"God" is the English name for the ultimate Power that sustains and controls the entire cosmos and everything in it -- from the furthest reaches, way way beyond the most distant of galaxies, right down to the smallest, finest details of creation, such as the eccentric, sauntering path of a single leaf that's fallen from the tree and is gently tossed and patted by a breeze until it comes to rest at its appointed place on earth, there to decay and merge back into the ecological cycle.
Take a few moments to think about the wonder of this universe. Think about the diversity and complexity of the natural world of plants, trees, insects, birds, animals, microorganisms, molecules, atoms, particles, waves, energies.... Consider the diversity of teeming humanity -- all the different faces, types, ages, stages, activities, thoughts, feelings and secret inner worlds.... Think about this planet: the cities, plains, hills, mountains, forests, deserts, rivers, seas and oceans. Think of the moon, the sun, the stars... galaxies upon galaxies stretching out for endless millions of light-years, further and further away... until the human mind is totally overwhelmed and you have to turn your thoughts to something more immediate and graspable.
The divine Being that sustains this unimaginable richness and diversity is utterly beyond the power of the human mind to envisage or understand. Jewish tradition refers to the ultimate Power that is the source and cause of all existence as Eyn Sof. The Hebrew means "No End!" The human mind is only able to grasp things that are finite, i.e. things that have limits and boundaries. But Eyn Sof is literally without end -- beyond all limits -- and therefore cannot be conceived in any way.
This amazing universe is not an accident. It is a system, albeit one so vast that our minds could never grasp it, though at times, when we experience certain quirks of fate, strange coincidences, mysterious happenings, beautiful serendipity and the like, we may be granted a faint glimpse of how everything ultimately fits together.
The unity that underlies the entire universe is expressed in the main name of God in the Bible: YHVH (traditionally pronounced as Adonai when praying, or as Yud Keh Vav Keh when referring to the name at other times). The Hebrew root of this name is HaVaH, which means "is" or "exists." The name YHVH signifies "the One that causes existence or being," i.e. the Source of all phenomena on every level, a Power beyond space and time, One that has been always, is now in the present, and will be for ever and ever.
Another biblical name of God is Elohim (pronounced as spelled when praying, but referred to at other times as Elokim). This name signifies that the One God is the supreme power underlying and controlling all the multiplicity of different powers manifested in the universe.
Refining your understanding of God
In childhood many people develop their own images of God, only to reject them as they grow older and find them inconsistent with what they have learned about the way in which the world seems to work. Modern science has made some traditional conceptions of God appear primitive. Many find it hard to relate to conceptions of God as a kind of super-person who "speaks," "creates," "works miracles" in nature, in history, and the like.
Religious traditions frequently refer to God as "Father." This may be problematic for those who have experienced difficulties in their relationships with parents. Some resent the idea of God as a ruler with a set of laws telling people how to behave. The image of a strict, reproving, chastizing God may be perceived as a repressive threat to one's freedom to make one's own choices in life. Some reject the authority of religion because in their experience it has been falsely invoked by human beings to serve their own mundane interests.
The rejection of false and outworn images of God is indeed necessary in order to develop a more mature conception that will aid rather than inhibit us in our personal growth and development. Sometimes childhood ideas about God remain embedded deep within us. It may take a conscious effort to exorcise them in order to reach a higher understanding. Thus the young Abraham, founding father of Judaism, smashed the idols in his father's house before setting off alone on his journey to the Land of Israel -- a journey that was really into his own self and soul.
Ultimately each person must find his or her own way to conceive of and relate to the supreme Source of this universe and of our very lives. Re-examining our ideas about God in the light of authentic Jewish teachings on the subject can help us clarify and deepen our understanding.
Choices and consequences
Whether we like it or not, ultimately God (however we understand God) is in control. We cannot control death, and there are many other circumstances in our lives that are chosen for us, such as the family and socio-economic group we are born into, our bodies, minds and other endowments, and the many other external and internal factors that leave their imprint on us down to our very core.
Yet amazingly, within these parameters we are free. Far from being a repressive tyrant, God gives us complete control over vital aspects of our lives and destinies. It is up to you whether you put your time, energy, money and other resources into food, drink, sex, work, play, household, family and other relationships, hobbies, sports, entertainment, art, intellectual development, spiritual growth, service of others or anything else. It is up to you whether to strive to make the best of the advantages and disadvantages you've been given, or to rail against fate and say "to hell with trying."
You are free to choose. And then you must live with the consequences of your choices. No matter what you do or don't do in life, there are always consequences of one kind or another. Every one of your choices leaves its mark on your body, your soul, the quality of your life and the lives of those around you.
Our predicament as human beings is that while we have no option but to make choices, the long-term effects of our decisions are usually unknown at the moment we actually make them. Science may provide information about the probable effects of certain courses of action. But science can tell us nothing about whether they will bring happiness and fulfilment.
It is our very inability to know in advance the long-term consequences of our choices that gives the real edge to our freedom. If at the very outset we already knew the evil consequences of wrong choices, we would never make them.
As you take stock of yourself and survey your life, you must take responsibility for any poor choices you may have made. Consider carefully whether your own behavior may have been a factor leading to your present illness or other undesirable aspects of your life. This does not necessarily mean that you bear responsibility for causing these problems. Many of the things that happen to us are sent by God for reasons that cannot be understood in worldly terms.
Yet there are also many cases where people's lifestyle, attitudes and behavior do cause or contribute to their problems, including actual physical illnesses. The point is not to grieve over your past mistakes, but rather to admit them honestly in order to take responsibility for your life and make wiser choices from now on.
But how can you make wise choices when you don't always know what the consequences of your choices are going to be? The Torah -- God's teaching to mankind -- gives us guidance about good choices to make at each of the different junctures in our lives in this world, from birth to death.
The Torah views human life from the perspective of eternity. We are more than merely people living here and now in this world. Each one of us is a soul with roots and branches stretching out into the entire cosmos, a soul that has existed for much longer than we can remember, a soul that will be alive and aware long after our bodies are dust.
God is good. Good is by nature expansive: good seeks to spread itself. Thus God desires to bestow good on all creation. God wants every single soul to have the very best -- eternal good. And God wants it to be our very own. Thus God placed us here in a world where we have to earn the good for our souls through our own efforts.
In a world filled with falsehood and confusion, our mission is to strive to do good and be good, and thereby know God, who is all good. Our actions in this world affect not only our lives here but also the destiny of our souls in higher realms after death. The soul enjoys the good earned in this world for ever.
The Torah gives guidance as to how to earn this eternal good by following simple pathways of conduct in practical, everyday life. We should eat and satisfy our other needs in moderation, with gratitude on our lips. We should show kindness and compassion to others. We should conduct our business affairs with honesty and integrity. We should strike a balance between work and recreation, celebrating Shabbat and festivals... And so on.
The Torah prescribes and suggests, but the actual choice remains ours. We see no police going around compelling people to be kind, give charity, pray, observe Shabbat, follow the dietary rules, etc. The Torah code is "advice" which everyone is totally free to take or ignore as they choose -- and live with the consequences of their decisions.
Do you believe in the medical treatment you are receiving? If you do, is it because you yourself are a medical expert and you know that the treatment is bound to work? Or do you have faith (or hope) that the doctors know what they are doing?
In critical areas of our lives there are many things we have to take on trust. This certainly applies in healing the inner self. It takes a leap of faith to believe that Torah pathways of kindness, charity, prayer, meditation, Shabbat and so on can bring inner healing and fulfilment.
No scientist can measure the greater sense of meaning and happiness to which these pathways lead. Fulfilment in life and connection with the divine are levels of experience barely discussed by science. But that doesn't make them any less real and important to you.
God is on a plane that science cannot reach because science deals only with phenomena that can be experienced with our physical senses. God, as the ultimate cause and source of these phenomena, cannot be experienced directly.
Knowledge of God comes not from scientific enquiry but through the stance or mental attitude we call faith. People often find their faith to be confirmed by what they see around them. But you don't get faith because you've seen proof. First you have to decide to have faith; understanding comes later.
To have faith is to have the humility to admit that there are mysteries about our existence in this world that our minds cannot understand. The essence of faith is to believe that everything we see around us is part of one vast, single, unified system that encompasses many other planes of existence besides the material world with which we tend to be so preoccupied.
Interpenetrating this material world of space and time are emotional, intellectual and spiritual realms that are also called "worlds." Life in this world is one leg of a journey that leads to a higher plane of existence in the "next world." Belief in the afterlife is one of the fundamentals of Judaism.
It is this faith that gives meaning to many aspects of life here in this world that would otherwise be incomprehensible. In terms of this world, injury, illness and death are the antithesis of life. They signify destruction and the negation of life as we know it. Why should people have to work and struggle so hard and endure so much in their lives, only to end up helplessly ravaged by pain, suffering and physical destruction before finally dying? Often the end of life is like a shipwreck that makes everything seem so futile.
But what to our eyes seems like meaningless suffering is a cleansing of the soul in preparation for its eternal journey. What we see as death is in fact a transition to a new state of being. When the time comes for the inner self and soul to move forward, the worn body, having served its purpose, is discarded like the skin of a caterpillar, while the soul takes wing and flies to new horizons.
From our perspective in the material world it is impossible to imagine what this new, higher life might be like. But deep inside, the soul knows its destiny. This is why it happens that at critical moments in our lives we naturally begin to wake up and ask, "Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?"
The destruction wrought by injury, illness and death is not purposeless. It is to enable the soul to build anew on a higher level. Having this faith will enable you to live more happily in this world, because you will know in your heart of hearts that all your struggles, efforts, pain and suffering have meaning and purpose. If pain and illness are the antithesis of life in this world, they will lead to a higher level of synthesis and harmony in the world to come.
People ask: "Why did this illness or injury happen to me?" But what has happened is a fact you cannot change. What you can change is the way you live your life in the face of your problems and difficulties. And this way you can change the meaning they have in the wider canvas of your life as a whole.
As soon as you accept your present condition as a necessary stage in your spiritual journey, you can learn to use it for your long-term growth and development.
Faith means more than having faith in God "out there." You must have faith in the God who is with you here and now: the God within your heart and your innermost self. You must have faith in the divinity contained within your highest hopes and aspirations, in your finest traits and faculties, in your subtle thoughts and feelings.
You must have faith that you are important and what you do in this world matters. The goodness you bring into this world is very precious. Your struggle is important and worthwhile.
Have faith in the power and resourcefulness of your soul and its incredible capacity to heal. For the soul is invincible.
One of the most amazing features of the creation is that everything is unique, down to the smallest detail. God is a master artist who loves originality. Nothing displays the infinite power of divinity more spectacularly than the uniqueness of every blade of grass, and especially the uniqueness of every human being, each with his or her unique individuality.
Because you are unique, you have to find your own unique way of relating to God and developing the divine spark within yourself. You must develop your own understanding of how to apply traditional spiritual guidance in your life and circumstances. God dwells with each person in the very place and situation in which they find themselves. God "hears" them there, and subtly guides them in their chosen path in order to bring them to their ultimate goodness and fulfilment.
To be yourself, you must discover who you really are and clarify what you want in your life. Our upbringing and life experiences often leave us with a tough protective mask that we wear even to ourselves. It gives us a certain identity, outlook, opinions and attitudes. But deep inside us there is a sensitive, often wounded inner self that may have been repressed and stunted owing to background, upbringing and other factors. We have to tend and nurture that inner self. We must have the courage to be who we really are and live.
In the revelation at Mount Sinai, God introduces Himself as "I am." "I am YHVH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt..." (Exodus 20:2). It can be disconcerting to realize that God is a live "personality," as it were, with a "self," an "I," just like we have. Some people experience this as a threat to their own independence, which is why they prefer an impersonal God or none at all. But in the end we all have to acknowledge that God alone can say "I." "I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal, and there is no-one that can deliver out of My hand" (Deuteronomy 32:39).
The inner reality of that divine "I" is totally beyond the grasp of the human mind. But even so, as long as we are alive, we do have some idea of what it is, because each one of us is also an "I." Within limits, we too are free to create and control. Only the all-powerful God could create an independent being -- an "I" -- that can also create and control. The inner "I" -- the soul -- is the most Godly part of us.
God's intention was not that this "I" of ours should be timid and repressed. We must be humble, yes. We have to know our limits. We have to know where our power comes from. But true humility is to rejoice and exult in the gift of power and creativity that God has given us. God wants us to use this power to create!
Whether you know it or not, control of your destiny is in your hands. Wake up to your freedom and grasp the reins of control. Take your life in your hands and direct yourself to where you want to go.
Set your goals and work towards them! It is the process of striving to attain your goals, with all the ups and downs this involves, that will bring you true happiness and satisfaction in life.