Chizkiyahu's illness, like all others mentioned in the Torah, had a direct spiritual cause: he had refrained from marrying and starting a family. The prophet Yeshayahu instructed him to give his final instructions to his household, for he was going to die (see Melachim II 20:1-11). Chizkiyahu replied: “Finish your prophecy and get out! I have a tradition from my forefather [King David], even if the point of the sword is on the neck of a man, he should not hold himself back from mercy.” (Brachos 10A)
Chizkiyahu immediately prayed and cried to Hashem from the depths of his heart. Before Yeshayahu could get far, Hashem spoke and told him to return with a message for Chizkiyahu. He would be granted another fifteen years of life and would witness miraculous salvation from the powerful Assyrian army that had besieged Jerusalem. (This could have been the ultimate redemption and Chizkiyahu could have been Moshiach, but the opportunity was lost [Sanhedrin 94A].)
Yeshayahu then instructed Chizkiyahu to place pressed figs on his inflamed skin, after which it healed. Chazal teach that such a treatment should have been harmful even to healthy skin, but Hashem performed a miracle within a miracle to show that He is in charge of all healing, and nature is really nothing more than a camouflage for His intervention (Melachim II 20:7, Rashi, Radak). This is one of the reasons we must engage in reasonable natural efforts, to maintain “plausible deniability” for those who wish to deny God's intervention, and thereby preserve free choice (see Ralbag). Without the camouflage of nature, that would be impossible. Nevertheless, the true cause of illness and healing (unless one sabotages his own health) is entirely spiritual.
Deep down we all know this. Even those who trust doctors and scientists far more than they ever deserved nevertheless pray in times of medical distress. We do not pray for the plumber to find the cause of the leak and successfully repair it (though perhaps we should). Ditto with the auto repairman, the electrician, the tailor, and so many others whose services and expertise we rely upon to fix that which needs fixing. We know that there is a step-by-step process to their work, the outcome of which – short of negligence – can be entirely predictable.
Yet when it comes to curing an illness or healing the body, we innately understand that the outcome is never entirely predictable. No doctor has ever cured a patient. The most they can do is facilitate the body's healing, with God's permission for it to heal. This is why people are nervous even when they undergo “routine” procedures or take medication, and those with sense pray for it to be successful. The step-by-step process of medical treatment includes a lacuna that no doctor can control: the body's response to treatment. Unlike repairing a car or a shoe, anything can go wrong.
Despite this, doctors have a vaunted belief in their own abilities (a big reason why “the best doctors go to hell”), and most people place doctors on a pedestal. Faith in science and the abilities of doctors has become a religion unto itself, if not a cult. Even most religious people look to doctors with reverence, the sort of reverence that is given to great rabbis and few others. The stereotypical Jewish mother takes the greatest pride in her son, the doctor.
Chazal teach us that Chizkiyahu did six controversial things, three of which received the approval of the Sages and three of which did not (Pesachim 56A). The three which received approval all countered avoda zara: he dragged the bones of his father, an idolater, on a bed of rope, he pulverized the copper snake that Moshe fashioned (Bamidbar Chapter 21) which the Jews later began to worship, and he hid away the book of cures.
The latter is most intriguing. Rashi explains that people used this book of cures (which the Ramban in his introduction to Bereishis attributes to Shlomo Hamelech) to heal immediately, and they didn't humble their hearts. Chizkiyahu hid it to compel the people to turn to Hashem.
The Rambam vehemently rejects this explanation (see his Pirush Hamishnayos). He suggests that the book of cures might have contained information about how to prepare various poisons from plants, what illnesses they would cause, and how to cure them. When Chizkiyahu saw that this scientific information was being used to murder people, he hid the book.
However, the Rambam's preferred explanation appears in Moreh Nevuchim Part 3 Chapter 37. There he writes that the book of cures was based on the idolatrous ideology of the Sabeans, which dated back to the times of Avraham. This ideology was dominant at the time; it combined nature-worship, star-worship, and sexual perversity. Their cultish behaviors were not merely religion, but the accepted science of the time. Consequently, one who veered from their behaviors was considered a heretic, a science-denier, and a threat to society. The Rambam is adamant that the cures in the book were idolatrous and fraudulent.
The Talmud Yerushalmi's version of the teaching refers to it as a tablet of cures (Pesachim 64A). The Pnei Moshe and Korban Ha'eida commentaries both explain that remedies based on astrology were engraved on the tablet, and it was a great sin for people to follow it. This is similar to the Rambam's explanation.
When Chizkiyahu was deathly ill, he prayed for Hashem to remember that he had done what was good in God's eyes. Both Rashi in Pesachim and Radak in Melachim say that this refers to hiding the book of cures. It's interesting that they single out this action. Perhaps Chizkiyahu's effort to turn the Jews to Hashem as the source of healing merited his own recovery.
Even more interesting, Chizkiyahu knew that hiding the book would indirectly cause some people to die. He reasoned that the book of instant cures was causing more spiritual harm than it was worth. Although this was most controversial, the Sages agreed with his decision. Did his miraculous salvation after turning to God – when the book of cures was no longer available – validate his decision?
According to Rashi, Ramban, and Radak, it was meritorious to suppress authentic medicinal cures because the people had put their faith in medicine over God. In our day, the cultish faith in modern science and medicine is on steroids (pun intended). This mindset is equated in the Gemara with actual idolatry, and warranted a swing to the opposite extreme – banishing the book of cures – to set people straight.
According to the Rambam, the book of cures was fraudulent, and therefore its banishment was no loss to the sick. If anything, removing this “misinformation” could only benefit them! It seems strange that Chizkiyahu's decision to hide a book of false, idolatrous, presumably harmful medicines would be controversial. Perhaps the Sages needed to approve this obviously righteous act because Chizkiyahu might have ended the people's dependence on the fake science without burying an important historical record.
Either way, the Jews of Jerusalem, with a Beis Hamikdash and true prophets in their midst, were so attached to fake science and cultish behavior that it took the brave action of a Moshiach-worthy king to put an end to it.
Stop and reflect on this as you compare to present times. Read the previous paragraph again, and just reflect on it.
Even if the science was authentic – even if it contained the wisdom of King Solomon – it was still appropriate for the book to be hidden, because the people relied on the science too much. When people give power and faith to science over God, it is idolatrous, and it is better for the science to be suppressed.
Compare to present times and reflect on that as well.
A reader recently emailed me the following remarkable comment: “I noticed a special fact today while reading the Torah. In the Greek translation (Septuaginta) I read that Pharaoh called his magicians to perform miracles. The word for magician in Greek is “Pharmacon” as you surely know [I didn't]. These are the Pharmacists of today. They could only make some plagues worse but not take them away. How topical…So this biblical story from Egypt now gets a whole new perspective.”
If modern pharmacology does not have its actual roots in idolatry, the slavish worship of white coats, degrees, and establishment “experts” is clearly idolatrous. There is overwhelming evidence that the system is rife with corruption and that much of what is taken for granted as “scientific fact” is more akin to faith in cult leaders. Those who scorn religious faith have created a substitute that demands complete faith and ritual obedience.
Natural interventions are intended to be a camouflage for God's intervention, not a substitute. This is even when the science behind them is indisputable, all the more so when it is shrouded in deceit, greed, politics, and conflicts of interest. Those who gamble their wellbeing and their lives on such science are certainly turning away from God and committing a great sin.
We pray three times a day in the Shemoneh Esrei for God to heal us, referring to Him as the רופא נאמן, the faithful healer. There are many doctors, but only God is the true healer, only God can be relied upon. If we must turn to doctors at times, we must do so with the understanding that they are nothing more than a camouflage for God's healing. Their place in society deserves no special reverence, no more than anyone else who does a job and relies on God for the outcome to be successful. Doctors and medicine exist to provide a cover for God's intervention, not to replace it.
We are blessed to live in a time when the idolatry of medical worship is being destroyed before our eyes and its priests exposed as frauds. Let us live according to the Torah, turn to God, banish the fear, and enjoy life.