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Thought for the Day: Why We Need Permission to Let a Doctor Heal Us

Here's the scene.  The NASA computer system is down and the space station (with full a full crew) is out of control.  Without ground control guidance, the space station is in danger of either flying off into space or spiraling down into the atmosphere; death for the crew by freezing or incineration -- neither very attractive.  The janitor, seeing all the commotion, speaks up to the assembled scientists and engineers: "I am pretty good with machines; I've keep our washing machine and vacuum cleaner going for years!  Let me try a few things."  I am not a betting man, but odds are that they'll call security before letting that lunatic anywhere near the computers.

So why do you let a physician near you?  Your body is orders of magnitude more complex than the world's most sophisticated computer system, and much more poorly understood.  The most brilliant minds in the world know a bare fraction of what's going on in the human body; much, much less than that janitor knows about computers.  That, said R' Avigor Miller, ztz"l, is why the Torah has to give us permission to heal.  R' Miller was saying this derech mussar/d'rush about why you have permission to let a doctor work on you. 

There is another side to that question, though: how does the doctor himself have permission to work on you?  There is at least an issur of tza'ar ba'alei chaim, after all; yet we take it for granted that a doctor has a right to poke you, cut you, give you noxious potions, make you wear a silly gown with no back, and even send you a bill.  Where do they get that right?

The Torah tells us that when one Jew damages another, the assailant  is required to pay for the actual damage, lost wages, pain, embarrassment, and medical bills.  How do we know he must pay medical bills?  The words "v'rapo y'ra'pei"/he [the assailant] shall surely heal [the victim] (Shmos 21:19).  Since the assailant must pay the victim's medical bills, obviously a doctor is allowed to heal and charge for that service.  In addition to that requirement to pay medical bills, however, these words address a deep philosophical question.

The Yeshiva of R' Yishma'el taught: the words "v'rapo y'ra'pei" (Shmos 21:19) grants permission to a physician to heal (Bava Kama 85a).  If permission is being granted, it means that there is a default assumption that this should be forbidden.  Why in the world would it be forbidden to heal someone?

Rashi says that the "permission" here really means to prevent one from saying, "G-d made you sick; only G-d can make you better.".  After all, if the king throws someone in jail, anyone who would spring him is himself committing a crime; unless, of course, he has permission.

Tosafos takes a slight umbrage and says that there are two kinds of damage: (1) one person damaging another, and (2) HaShem making a person sick.  Tosafos says that without this d'rash, I certainly would permit a doctor to work on wounds inflicted by one human being (or his property) on another.  However, without this drash, a disease could be seen as a decree from on High; interfering with that (ie, healing the disease) could be construed as contradicting a heavenly decree.  Hence (according to Tosafos), the Torah needed to give its permission for a doctor to heal diseases.


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