Four of My Favorite Jewish Texts for Teaching About Disease

By Rabbi Daniel Brenner

What sources do we, as Jewish educators, draw from when encountered with a global pandemic?

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a little book entitled “Embracing Life and Facing Death – A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care.” Doing the background research immersed me into the world of Jewish texts that focus on disease and suffering.  Given the current pandemic, I decided to return to these texts and share some of my favorites with clergy and educators.

Text 1:

Rava, on the first day of his illness, said to his visitors: “Do not reveal to anyone that I am sick!” Later he said “Go and tell everyone in the market…so those that care for me will ask for mercy on my behalf.”

Talmud Nedarim 40a

What I love about this text:

First, I love how human and vulnerable Rava is—his basic instinct is to keep his frailty a secret. Then, when he has accepted that it is a secret that is perhaps impossible to keep, he tells them to broadcast his condition.

What I would pair this text with:

An Israeli psychologist, Dr. Shlomo Breznitz, describes the seven stages of denial that are associated with serious illness in the following way:

  1. Denial of Personal Relevance: “This is not such a big deal for me”
  2. Denial of Urgency: “I’ve got time. Nothing is going to happen for a while.”
  3. Denial of Vulnerability: “Plenty of people do just fine with this condition.”
  4. Denial of Feelings: “This doesn’t change my life that much.”
  5. Denial of the Source of Feelings: “I’m much more upset about other things in my life.”
  6. Denial of Threatening Information: “They are always trying to scare me with possibilities.”
  7. Denial of All Information: “I’m surrounded by idiots.”

Thoughts and questions related to these texts:

  • Why do we as humans have the instinct to deny disease?
  • What are the ways that people today are trying to ‘downplay’ their fears?
  • What are we telling ourselves? What stage accurately expresses our denial?
  • The opposite of denial is acceptance – accepting the fact that illness is real, that we are limited in what we can do to treat it, and that in some cases illness leads to death. How do we accept our current reality?

Text 2:

It is said that anyone who lives forty days without experiencing any suffering is considered to have experienced what life is like in the heavenly realm. Any form of discomfort is regarded as suffering, including such minor inconveniences as uncomfortable clothing.

—Talmud, Arachin 16b

What I love about this text:

I love two things—I love the forty-day streak idea (a reminder that any long stretch without suffering is atypical) and I love the last line. I think that the idea that any minor inconvenience can be experienced as suffering is important to stress right now, especially for young people who are experiencing all sorts of discomfort.

What I would pair this text with:

Here I am going to draw on a text from the Buddhist tradition. A woman named Kisa had a sick child and the child died. She carried the child’s limp body hoping that someone would have a medicine to bring the child back to life. She came to the Buddha and said, Can you cure him? He said that a cure could be made if she gathered mustard seeds from homes that had not been touched by death. She walked from home to home hoping to gather seeds but every home in her village had been touched by death in some way. She finally realized that everyone on earth had been ‘touched’ by death and that she too had to accept the death of her child.

Another great text to pair this with is Leah Goldberg’s poem In Everything (translation by Marcia Falk)

In everything, there is at least an eighth

of death. It doesn’t weigh much.

With what hidden, peaceful charm

we carry it everywhere we go.

In sweet awakenings,

in our travels,

in our love talk,

when we are unaware,

forgotten in all the corners of our beings—

always with us.

And never heavy.

Thoughts and questions related to these texts:

  • Why is it so hard to accept that suffering is a normal part of life?
  • Once we understand that all people suffer, how does it change our view of others?
  • Is Goldberg still right that the bit of death we carry is “never heavy?” What changes that?

Text 3:

A soul learns more from suffering than from rejoicing.

—Zohar iv 232b

What I love about this text:

I love the idea of the soul as a student and the idea that even though rejoicing is a lot more fun, that it is through suffering that we gain wisdom.

What I would pair this text with:

There is a wonderful teaching from University of Virginia professor Dr. Vanessa Ochs that she shares about her own personal journey through disease:

“My story is mine alone, it does not help when someone says that I will learn from illness, that one day I will be grateful…I know, too, that if I cannot make my experience meaningful in some fashion, it is really too trying to go on.”

Thoughts and questions related to these texts:

  • Even though we do not glorify suffering in Judaism, and, in fact, we have more of an emphasis on pursuing pleasure within appropriate boundaries, I like the idea that there is a connection between learning and suffering.
  • What do we learn from suffering and disease?
  • How can disease teach us to be better people?

Text 4:

Whoever visits the sick removes a portion of the sickness and gives the sick person relief…but we do not visit the sick in the first three hours of the day or the last three hours of the day, because that is when the caregivers are taking care of the medical needs of the sick person.

—Maimonides, Hilchot Avel 14:5

What I love about this text:

I love the idea that we balance the mitzvah of visiting the sick with a deep respect for the caregivers and their workday. In this text, Maimonides is giving an alternative to the reasons stated in the Talmud for not visiting the sick—the Talmud is concerned that if we visit the sick in the morning that they won’t seem sick and so we won’t pray for them and if we visit them at night we’ll feel like they will never get better.

What I would pair this text with:

I would pair one of the many personal narratives of nurses and doctors and other health care professionals who are doing the front-line work of treating people who have the virus.

Thoughts and questions related to these texts:

  • With this virus, it will often be impossible to visit the sick in the same way as we could a non-contagious illness. But with phones and video chat we can still help those who are sick by being present to their realities. Others are bringing food to those in isolation and leaving it at their doors.

As the disease spreads, we will need to ask: How can we all support one another through this difficult time?

Additional Resources

Teens and Coronavirus: Living Life During a Pandemic

Blessing for B’nai Mitzvah Impacted by the Coronavirus

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