Our sages credit the righteous monarch, King Hezekiah, ruler of the Kingdom of Judah for 29 years, with a number of achievements.
One of these accomplishments was the hiding of a certain "Book of Remedies" (M. Pesahim 4:10; B. Pesahim 56a). This feat was so lauded by the Talmud that it is offered as one of two possible merits that Hezekiah invoked when he was beseeching God to be healed of his fatal illness, saying: "I have done that which is good in Your eyes" (Isaiah 38:3) - that which is good, namely, the suppression of the Book of Remedies (B. Berakhot 10b).
What is this Book of Remedies? Who authored the work? And perhaps most importantly, what is so commendable about its censorship? The commentators have long debated these questions.
As far as the author of this work is concerned, there are those who credit the wise King Solomon (Radak, 12th-13th centuries, Provence; Ramban, 13th century, Spain-Eretz Israel). Others attribute the book to one of Noah's sons, who procured the information from an angel (Tashbetz HaKatan, 13th-14th centuries, Germany).
One commentator sees these remedies as dating back to Moses and the desert years, when the loyalty of the wandering Jewish people was tested by the knowledge of these cures. According to this approach, the Book of Remedies was a compilation of natural tonics, describing the healing properties of plants, herbs and the like found in nature.
In Hezekiah's time, the people had come to rely on these cures instead of turning to God, perhaps praising and expressing their gratitude to the Book of Remedies rather than extolling the Almighty. The monarch hid the book that was leading people astray so that the ill would be compelled to recognize God (Rabbenu Bahya, 13th century, Spain). Hezekiah's act was, therefore, a demonstration of his faith in God and was acclaimed as such by the sages.
This approach may have profound implications for modern medicine. Would Hezekiah advocate the suppression of the vast, and often life-saving, medical knowledge we are fortunate to possess, because some people do not acknowledge God's hidden hand?
Maimonides (12th century, Egypt), himself a well-known and much sought-after physician, harshly criticizes this reading. Branding this approach as one that befits fools, Maimonides incredulously asks: If people are famished and eat bread to conquer their hunger, would we say that they have lost their faith in God because they have turned to food for sustenance rather than to the Almighty? Rather, says Maimonides, people should thank God for the medicine, just as they thank God for bread.
Maimonides, therefore, presents a different understanding of the Book of Remedies. He suggests that this work was a book of magical healing that prescribed incantations for the sick. Written originally for permissible academic purposes (B. Shabbat 75a; Sanhedrin 68a), it was later put to practical use - an act forbidden by Jewish law. To combat this crime, Hezekiah censored the book.
Despite the protests of Maimonides, the Talmudic sages may indeed be relating to the pitfalls of medical knowledge. Elsewhere in rabbinic literature, we find a harsh and unusual statement: "The best of the doctors is destined for Gehenna" (M. Kiddushin 4:14).
Jewish scholars have offered different explanations for this unsympathetic verdict, all of them limiting the judgment to a certain class of doctors: doctors who cause death when they could save lives (Rashi, 11th century, France); doctors who act in bad faith (Ri, 12th century, Germany); doctors who act recklessly and callously (Ramban); doctors who pretend to be experts when they are truly ignorant of the profession (Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, 14th century, Provence) or doctors who act when there are others who have greater expertise than them (Rabbi Simon Duran, 14th-15th centuries, Majorca-Algiers).
One commentator, himself a recognized physician, appended this adage to doctors who perform internal operations, perhaps reflecting the state of medical knowledge in his day (Rabbi Isaac Lampronti, 17th-18th centuries, Italy).
We might offer another possible understanding of this unforgiving declaration. The best of doctors may be inclined to credit their own acumen for their medical achievements. Such foolishness, say the sages, leads one from the path of God. The faculties with which we are endowed and the opportunities that befall us, should not be seen as the strength of our own hands. Rather, it behooves us to remember God and His role behind the scenes as the playmaker and facilitator (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).
An oft-recounted parable tells of a person drowning at sea; as he struggles in the water gasping for breath he fervently prays to God for salvation. Seemingly out of nowhere a boat sidles up to him and throws a buoy in his direction. The man refuses the assistance proferred: "I am waiting for God to save me!" he calls, and continues to gallantly tread water, praying for redemption through God's mighty hand.
A helicopter miraculously flies by and offers the drowning man a rope-ladder to climb out of the clutches of the ocean. Once again the help tendered is rebuffed: "God will save me!" he shouts and continues to valiantly keep afloat, passionately beseeching the Almighty to save him.
As his strength wanes and his demise approaches, the man lets out one last heartfelt prayer, and a piece of driftwood slides within reach. Instead of clutching it, the man pushes it aside, thinking: "Surely, God will not forsake me."
Alas, the waters finally overtake him, and the man appears in Heaven before God: "Why did You not heed my heartfelt prayers? Where were You in my time of need?" he complains.
In a booming voice God responds: "Who do you think sent the boat, the helicopter and the piece of driftwood!?"
Seeking medical advice is not folly. The challenge is to recognize that professional medical assistance attained is truly a gift from God. As such, the doctor is a messenger of God, charged with the eminent task of saving lives. But it is not the doctor who heals, nor is it the medicine or ointment; God is the true healer.