Thursday, October 6, 2016

Physical and mental illness does not devalue a person - Vayelech

I saw his fear filled eyes and anguished face across a crowded room. How long has it been since I saw him last? Thoughts of pity filled my mind. He was clearly suffering from a severe mental illness. Then I caught myself. Did I value him less because of his illness? Did I see the person and respect him for his intrinsic worth or did I see him primarily through the lens of his condition?

Jane Caro once said about ageing: "Your outside deteriorates, but by God, your inside improves". Yet, still, physical strength seems also to be erroneously equated with virtue. In the US presidential election, ‘Hillary’s health’ has been highlighted, not just because it is necessary for a demanding job but, in my view, as way of devaluing her as a person (especially as a woman) aspiring to leadership. Trump’s sniffles at last week’s debate were also jumped on by commentators, for the same reason. I object to that. Surely, there are people whose physical or mental health is not optimal; they might tire more quickly, be unable to walk, be in pain, depressed or anxious, yet they can be intelligent, compassionate and productive. It is wrong to suggest there is something shameful about a loss of physical strength or mental health difficulties. As the late Stella Cornelius used to say; The best things in this world have been done by people who were not feeling well that day” (1).  

The tendency to equate physical strength with virtue can be inferred from the commentary on the following verse. Moses, said simply “"Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come” (2). Rather than take this at face value, some of the classical commentators jump in with denial of his physical decline. “You might think that his strength was weakened, so the Torah tells you (in another verse) that although “Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his moisture” (3). His being unable to “go and come” is interpreted as him being denied divine permission to enter the promised land (4).

In one dramatic commentary we have Moses feeling afraid that the people might take his words literally and think that he is not physically strong. To counter this “Moses walked (5) the length and breadth of the whole camp quickly or vigorously to show that his strength at this time (at the age of 120) is the same as it was then (when he was younger)” (6).  

Alternative commentators, however, have no problem acknowledging the changing degree of physical strength or prowess of the great man of the spirit (7). A compromise position is that although Moses was still physically strong at the time he told the people “it is not proper that I fool myself that it will always be thus, because due to my being elderly, despite my current good health, I have no doubt that it will not be this way in the future, per force, weakness will come upon me quickly…” (8) Clearly, there is no shame in physical weakness, it is the way of all men and women, including the greatest.

At this holy time of the year for Jews (leading up to Yom Kippur when our fate for the following year is “sealed”), I wish everyone optimal physical and mental health and strength, and for those of us for whom that might not be possible, let us be spared the pain of stigma and judgement and instead do the best we can. This is certainly virtuous and honorable.


  1. Stella Cornelius, cited in a comment on my blog by Paul Reti, and also quoted to me by Donna Jacobs Sife
  2. Deuteronomy 31:2
  3. Deuteronomy 34:7
  4. Talmud Sotah 13b, based on Sifre, cited in Rashi, and second opinion in Daat Zekainim M’baalei Hatosofot. The interpretation is made more plausible when reading the second half of the verse that mentions the matters of permission: “and God said to me you will not pass this Jordan river”. This argument is challenged by Mizrachi and Maharsha who argue that the letter Vav means “and”, and we don’t find it used as “because”. Tzeda L’Derech counters that in fact in Genesis 2:5 the letter Vav which means: and, is taken to also mean ‘because’. The verse states: “God had not made it rain and, -meaning because- there was not a man to work the land”. Ramban also does not accept the simple meaning of the text and instead suggests that Moses’ comment was (a false) comfort for the people, implying that his imminent death was not such a great loss.
  5. This is the reason for “Moses going”, mentioned in Deuteronomy 31:1
  6. Klei Yakar
  7. Ibn Ezra, Bchor Shor and implied in Seforno
  8. Abarbanel

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