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Wednesday
Sep062017

THE SEVEN BLESSED ILLNESSES

CURSES OR HIDDEN BLESSINGS

This week’s parsha contains the harshest threats of pain and suffering for the Jewish people if they fail to follow G-d’s commandments. This lengthy section is called the Tochecha (rebuke).

In truth, the Tochecha can be read on two levels. On the first level, these harsh admonitions sound like horrific curses, intended to jolt us out of our reverie and make us take life seriously.

On a higher and deeper level, however, these “curses” are actually sublime, but hidden, blessings; even more powerful than any of the overt blessings in the Torah. To capture the positive dimension of these “curses,” one has to dig deep beneath the surface.

Let us examine, as an illustration, one of the “curses”:

“G-d will strike you with inflammation, illnesses, burning fevers, unquenchable thirst, with the sword, with blasting and withering, and this will pursue you until you perish.”

How can we possibly interpret this verse in a positive vein? How can illnesses or death by sword be a blessing?

LOVESICK!

To understand the hidden meaning of this verse, we must first define illness. In the physical sense, it is a debilitating deficiency in one’s physical, emotional or spiritual well-being. But there is also a positive form of illness that is described in the Biblical Song of Songs (2:5) as “lovesick.”

In Chassidic thought, this sickness arises from our passion to get closer to G-d. We discover that, no matter how close we can get, G-d will always be unreachable, because He is infinite. To satisfy our desire to get close to and “capture” G-d in our lives, we must study Torah, G-d’s wisdom, for He and His wisdom are one. With Torah in our minds, G-d resides in us.

This love is especially alive when we pray. Prayer awakens our inner passion for G-d to the point of lovesickness. We then quench our thirst for Him with Torah study.

In general terms, during weekdays when we reflect on the mundane activities that occupy most of our time and how far we are from G-d, we can arouse this lovesickness. It is on Shabbos that we are able to satisfy our love for G-d because we rise to a higher spiritual plane and can feel G-d’s closeness.

On a more general level, throughout our stay in exile we are lovesick for His elusive intimacy. The more elusive it is the more we pine for G-d’s closeness and love for us. This we will fully experience in the endless Shabbos of history, the Messianic Age.

With this introduction in mind, we can see how the “curses” enumerated in the foregoing verse are actually manifestations of our lovesickness for G-d.

SHACHEFES-COOL LOVE

The first manifestation of our illness is shachefes, which, according to Rashi, refers to a disease that debilitates and causes swelling of the body.

In a positive vein, bodily disfigurement is suggestive of those who are so passionate about getting closer to G-d that their physical lives become disfigured. This does not mean that their physical health suffers, for a Jew is required by Biblical law to maintain good health. Rather, it means that they change the configuration of their physical life. All their physical activities are designed to accommodate their spiritual needs. Moreover, because of their blissful state when they are filled with G-dly love, they feel pleasure in every aspect of their lives; everything they engage in becomes a source of pleasure and delight.

The swelling of one’s body can be understood as a positive sign that one’s physical life has improved. This is based on a story in the Talmud concerning a fateful meeting between the Roman General Vespasian and the great Sage, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. Vespasian was informed that he had been elected Emperor. Strangely, when he heard the good news he could not remove his shoe. The rabbi explained that the swelling of his feet was caused by the delight he experienced when he heard the good tidings. The rabbi quoted the verse in Provers (15:30): “Good tidings fatten the bone.”

When people are filled with uplifting spiritual feelings they also experience the lifting up and expansion of their natural feelings. Their feeling of emotional and physical well-being is enhanced as well.

This form of love is a “cool” love; we experience it when we are enjoying the pleasure of G-d’s presence in our lives.

KADACHAS AND DALEKES-FIERY LOVE

The second manifestation of lovesickness is kadachas, which means fever. In the positive sense of the word, it refers to the fiery passion of the soul. This form of love is the opposite of the former one. This is a fiery and passionate love.

The third illness, dalekes, is a more intense, fiery love to the point of delirium.

The difference between kadachas and dalekes, is not only in degree of their passion, their difference is also manifest in their ability to function. A person with a fever may not have any other symptoms and it alone may be the only indication that he or she is suffering from some illness.

In spiritual terms, the kadachas form of love does not get in the way of a person’s normal life. By contrast, the dalekes individual will become “delirious” and be unable to function in any venue other than having passion for G-d.

CHARCHUR-“I’M SO THIRSTY!”

The fourth form of illness is charchur. This is an even more intense fever, which causes a tremendous thirst. An afflicted individual can only quench his thirst with Torah, which is Biblically identified with water. But no sooner than these afflicted individuals drink thirstily, they find that they are still famished.

A story is told of the great Chassidic Master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who cried out immediately after Yom Kippur, “I’m so thirsty.” Because of his old age and weakened physical state, his family became concerned, and rushed to bring him a glass of water. But Rabbi Levi Yitzchak ignored the water, opened a volume of the Talmud tractate Sukkah and began to study with gusto. An hour later, his family heard him cry out again, “I’m so thirsty.” Quickly they ran to bring him another glass of water, only to realize that he had not touched the first glass; he was continuing his study of the Talmud.

This routine continued through the night. The next morning, and after many untouched glasses of water, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak completed the Tractate (more than 110 sides of intricate Talmudic law). At that point, he still had not broken the fast or had anything to drink. The bewildered family members asked him why he kept on crying that he was thirsty and yet did not take even one sip of water.

He answered that he was thirsty for Torah study, since throughout the day of Yom Kippur he had been engaged in prayer. He needed to learn Torah, G-d’s “love letter” to us, and could not get enough.

This is the model for one afflicted with charchur.

These four forms of illness have one thing in common: they are internal illnesses.

In spiritual terms, this means that we have the power to generate love for G-d from within. The Alter Rebbe, in his classic work, the Tanya, explains that we have a natural propensity for loving G-d. Even a Jew estranged from his or her Judaism possesses a hidden love for G-d embedded deeply in his or her soul. To arouse this love, one must reflect on G-d’s greatness and His presence in our lives, among other meditations.

EXTERNAL MOTIVATORS

There are other ways a Jew can develop a love for G-d. These are through external influences. They are suggested by the three final forms of affliction:

The fifth form is called cherev, the sword. Rashi applies this to foreign armies that attempt to attack us.

In a positive and spiritual sense, this means that when we see the threats from the outside, we are inspired to become more committed Jews.

More to the point, this refers to the powerful negative impulses we all possess. In relation to our soul, our inner identity, they are considered to have come from a foreign invading army. The realization that we have been attacked by this hostile external force jolts us into action and awakens our love for G-d.

SHIDAFON AND YEIRAKON

According to Rashi, the sixth and seventh threats are called shidafon and yeirakon; both forms of drought. The former is caused by strong winds, and the latter, which causes the crops to turn yellow, by heat and dryness.

There are times when we look around at the world and hope to see a world that can inspire and excite us, but find a drought instead.

In their milder forms, the winds of empty slogans, inane fads, heretical views and hedonistic pursuits make us want to flee the world in which we live. We must come to the realization that there is no need to escape our world; instead we should look for the good and holy within ourselves and the world around us. Realization of the bankruptcy of society should spur greater passion for truth and meaning in our lives.

In its more destructive form, the drought which we witness, particularly in the last two centuries, is the utter moral bankruptcy of the secular world. It is a world that has given us violent and destructive revolutions, two world wars, a Holocaust and communist tyrannies that have claimed the lives of tens of millions.

Initially, reflection on this bleak fact, especially on the recent troubling events, can demoralize us and lead us to depression.

However, the Torah’s hidden blessing here is that when we realize the bankruptcy of the world, we recognize it also as a sign that we are living at the end of Galus-exile and that evil is making its final, bitter stand.

Moreover, this frightening hubris of evil is meant to inspire us to unleash the opposing positive forces of our souls and get us to actualize our hidden love for G-d. This will inevitably pave the way for us to greet Moshiach even before we enter the New Year of 5778.

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