At the beginning of my career, I encountered a very religious, Hasidic woman in one of the hospitals associated with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in which I provided pastoral care to Jewish patients from the world over.
She had come to the Mayo Clinic in order to receive a diagnosis for her illness. It was not the diagnosis for which she had hoped and prayed, in fact, it was one with a dire prognosis. Almost upon entering her room and identifying myself as a rabbi, she began crying, an understandable response to the news she had received.
Most difficult for her to comprehend, however, was that her punctilious observance of halachah (Jewish law/tradition) failed to prevent her from contracting this disease. “Surely, there should be some reward for my lifelong observance,” she posited. “Instead, I feel as if it was all for nothing!”
Now, nearly everyone who is hospitalized regresses to more immature levels. It is natural. However, in this woman’s case, this question was not the result of regression but of decades of belief that fidelity to Jewish tradition would protect her.
Needless to say, most who face such crises wonder, “Why me?” It is healing to take a personal, moral inventory at times such as this in order to see that the “punishment” does not fit the “crime!” There are those, however, who view religious faith/observance as a “magic wand.” Wave it, and all will be well. Believe this, and you will be healed. Observe this, and your disease will go into remission.
In another city, in another hospital, a rabbi would visit patients around certain holidays. During Sukkot, this rabbi brought a lulav and etrog to patients, shoved them into their hands, and told them to wave them. One patient expressed fear that if he refused, he would not be healed. His perception was that this rabbi was treating the mitzvah of lulav and etrog as a type of magic wand.
Clearly, this is the model of the leading character in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. Balak, King of the Moabites, hired Bilaam, a man renowned for his blessings and curses. Whomever he blessed was truly blessed, and whomever he cursed was truly cursed. Balak hired Bilaam to curse the Israelites, because he had heard of their successes in battles of late. Bilaam led Balak to three different high places, known to be “residences” of the local deity, and prescribed a ritual sacrifice to this deity, so that the deity would be manipulated in granting Bilaam’s curse. Each time, however, instead of a curse, Bilaam uttered a blessing, frustrating Balak and demoralizing him. The notion that deities could be manipulated was the difference between the magic associated with paganism and the relationship with God enjoined by Judaism. The latter was characterized more by inspiration, encouragement, and marshalling one’s own resources to meet challenges. For example, when Moses kept his hands lifted high in the battle with Amalek, it was not his hands that won the fight, rather it was the inspiration and encouragement that the people gained from seeing them uplifted that won the war.
Even today, mitzvot can be viewed as magical means by which to manipulate God instead of means by which life is sanctified and given meaning. In their song, The Rolling Stones reminded us of a very important life lesson, ”You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you’ll find you get what you need.”
The rabbis (Pirkei Avot 4:2) remind us that the reward for performing a mitzvah is the opportunity to perform yet another one. Mitzvot are not magic wands by which we get what we want. They are opportunities to draw closer to God, to fellow Jews, and to a life of purpose.
When we do not get what we want, the performance of mitzvot enables us to see that we may have gotten what we need.
Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.