October 21, 2013
Of Torah and Merck Manual
When I was younger, I anticipated the taking out of the Torah. I enjoyed the prayers but the Torah signaled my time to play. It was break time. I could not connect to a book whose stories were unbelievable, whose characters were incredulous, filled with disappointments and misconduct, brothers who killed each other, and families who tricked one another. And every Yom Kippur I read what kind of sex I should avoid, while being told not to think of sex. Can you walk across a football field without thinking of a pink elephant?
I met the same challenges in medical school. Hours of didactics, boring texts, medications whose names put learning German to shame. We memorized equations and formulae which I yet have to use after some twenty years of practice.
It wasn’t until I stepped onto the wards, those alcohol ridden hospital corners where bargaining and despair mix, and held the hand of my very first patient dying of AIDS that suddenly like fireworks, my synapses started shooting, the physiology course, the dissection of the cadaver, all jumped into light against a dark sky, liberated, presenting themselves to me for the first time.
I wish someone had told me the secret when I was younger. Get over it. The Torah was not entirely written by God, the characters not actual, the timelines off. The Merck Manual is a guide to treating physical ailments. The Torah is a guide to treating spiritual derailments, not a book of physics, medicine, or astronomy. Simple but not simplistic. The Torah is a torch which sheds light on our spiritual travels, a rope which pulls us toward a Greater Force, the language that connects us to the Intangible. The Merck Manual is full of physiologic illustrations; The Torah with spiritual images. One with specific instructions on how to cut with a knife, the other how to orchestrate one’s life.
A manual is a guide. It must be taken both literally and with a grain of human fragility. Flexibility in interpretation is paramount both in medicine where the guide must be tailored to the patient’s desires, psycho-socio-economic needs, and in the Torah where our creative interpretation tempered with time, relearning. Rigidity leads to physical and spiritual death. When I started medicine, patients looked at me suspect, and rightly so, full of enthusiasm, but unmarinated with experience. Now, years later, they respect my fatigue which dulls the blade enough to reconsider the risks of intervention vs. letting time heal through her magic.
Illness is far easier to define than health. And perhaps it is easier to define the sinner (he who is far from God) than it is the righteous, for human behavior is too complicated, our character too weak and easily tempted, the bends of our secret lives too shadowed, and the intentions of our hearts jaded. Without years of medical training, to the extent that a layman can read the Merck and treat diseases accurately, to the same extent can he undertake the dance of the soul and its yearning for The Beloved without due study, guidance, prayer.
The Torah cannot be subjected to the scientific method. Science demands reproducibility. The Torah seeks meaning. That the Earth was thought to be flat and turned out to be round came out of man's progress. Spiritual lessons of Torah yield through time, man's struggle with man, and man's struggle with God. Truth demands foreplay before disrobing. The Torah casts meaning beyond the limitations of the physical, and guides that energy toward love. To attempt to reconcile science with the Torah detracts from delving into creative reading, engaging with the text, missing the beauty of the flowers, while searching for the garden. The heavens belong to God and the earth to man, we are told. Approaching spiritual truths is asymptotic: we can get ever closer, but can never touch. The heavens belong to God! Our finite brains find limited truths of the physical world but, together, given enough time, we can get there. The earth belongs to man!
If sight is physical, then vision spiritual. If sex is physical, then love spiritual. One can be tested scientifically while the other intangible. One is of lower animals, while the other characteristic of man at his best. The light that is Torah arises out of the friction between man and man and man and God. Many eloquent atheists dismiss God, relying purely on their internal moral strength, their own superior brains. To them, humans are no different than animals, once gone, our remains but fertilizer, our lives without purpose. How dull to miss the meaning beyond the principals of relativity, string theory. Science applies to animals and objects. But for man, the journey to find purpose and meaning takes years of wondering in the desert, and eventually leads to a promised land, after revelations and miraculous connections. The human heart pumps blood, but not without hope, not without love, not without God.
The last of the Mitzvot- the 613th- commands each Jew to write his or her our own Torah. When each of us pens our Torah though the secret struggles of our years, the urging of our souls, the painful cracks in our cores, that collective work becomes The Torah. The Torah not written by God, was inspired by the Holy interaction of His people with their Creator. The Torah is a love story between Jews and God, its pages overflowing with transforming lessons. The greatest I have learned is that something can come of nothing if there is enough love! God Loved man before creation, before anything, and as result of that intense love He retracted His Light to make space and lay down the blanket upon which his beloved could thrive. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that matter and energy are neither created, nor destroyed, merely transformed from one form to another. But when spirit soars, a new dimension bridges man to God.
Today I anticipate the taking out of the Torah to revitalize me with love and compassion towards the lives I am privileged to guard. Let us create man in our image says God. Inside each of us is good and bad, flesh and blood, hormones shared with animals, our cells bursting with electrons that by shifting give rise to different hues on the windows of that spark of God inside. We are of earth and of Merck. We are of heavens and of Torah. And so are we co-healers and co-creators with God. In the end, medicine becomes obsolete, treatments démodé, but faith endures.