- The Kli Yakar discusses mental/spiritual illness, its cause, and its remedy, and its parallels to physical illness. (Unlike today's mere lip service to treating mental illness just like physical illness, the Kli Yakar actually does it.)
- We also take a look at what the Pele Yoetz has to say about addiction, its treatment and its cure.
"So he [Moshe Rabbeinu] cried out to Hashem, and Hashem instructed him concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet..." (15:25)
"And He said, If you shall surely heed the voice of Hashem, your God, and that which is straight in His Eyes you do, and you listen to His commandments and observe all His laws, all the ailments that I put in Egypt I will not put upon you, for I, Hashem, am your Healer." (15:26)
He quotes Devarim Rabbah, which compares Torah to an olive because an olive is initially bitter, but becomes sweet in the end.
Because those who are ill in the soul [cholei hanefesh/חולי הנפש] are like those who are ill in the body [cholei haguf/חולי הגוף].
Just like the majority of those who are physically ill, their way to healing is by taking bitter herbs. And if the ill person doesn’t trust the doctor, he [the ill person] will refuse to accept them [the bitter herbs].
Likewise, those of ailing souls who fell ill by buying into the bad beliefs that they acquired in Egypt, the Holy One Blessed Be He wanted to heal them by their accepting the Torah, which is analogized to an olive because its beginning is bitter like an olive.
Although based on what he writes throughout his commentary on the Chumash, the Kli Yakar clearly loves the Torah and mitzvot and personally found immense pleasure in Torah and mitzvot, beyond any possible pleasure in this world.
Yet he still acknowledges that before you start to enjoy Torah's pleasure, you can initially experience Torah and mitzvot as bitter.
So Hashem’s intention at the bitter waters was that:
...they would also believe that through Torah, the bitterness of the soul shall be sweetened.
Just as your eyes see that it is within My Hands to heal a bitter thing with a bitter thing, so from now on, you shall accept upon yourselves to heed the voice of Hashem and to do that which is straight in His Eyes. And even though the Torah and mitzvot seem difficult and bitter at the beginning, nonetheless, their end is sweet because they are a medication to the bone and a healing for the navel [a paraphrase of Mishlei/Proverbs 3:8], and they save you from all the disease that I put in Egypt: whether they be diseases of physical bodies, whether they be diseases of souls, resulting from them stiffening their neck.
And if you don’t sense the facilitative remedy [segulah] of the Torah, that it will be for you as medicine in that way, then behold, I am God your Healer. And only the healer/doctor alone needs to know the remedies [segulot] of the healing substances.
But the one being healed doesn’t need to know that, he only needs to trust the trustworthy healer.
Why do I warn you? So that you will not come to disease. For I am God your Healer and it is the way of every doctor to warn those who love him that they should guard their souls from things that cause illnesses so that he won’t need to deal later with healing them.
Likewise, I teach you how to benefit from things that guard health so that you won’t come to disease because I am God your Healer Who guides you in the way you shall go.
The Kli Yakar was obviously familiar with “diseases of the soul” and clearly acknowledged there were such ailments back in ancient times, too.
Interestingly, the Kli Yakar, taking a lesson from how we treat physical illness, insists that bitter remedies are vital for healing the soul, too.
This is so different from today’s “just take a pill!” approach to mental illness.
It seems that we just want the mentally ill person to feel better, rather than to truly heal the illness at its core.
This superficial approach to mental illness isn’t done on purpose, of course, but is simply the result of a poor understanding of mental illness and its roots.
Yet the Kli Yakar clearly grasps and describes the roots of mental illness (or soul-sickness):
- Bad (or harmful or false) beliefs
- Stiffening your neck (i.e., being inappropriately mule-headed)
- Not trusting the Healer (i.e., God)
- Refusing to swallow the necessary and bitter "medication"
Similarly, in his chapter on Drinking/Shtiyah/שתיה, the Pele Yoetz writes of the initial bitterness when breaking alcohol addiction. First, he advises the addict to refrain from even the most minimal ingestion of alcohol - except for Kiddush, Havdalah, and the 4 cups of wine during the Passover Seder.
(With the lack of refrigeration, I’m not sure whether switching the above with grape juice was a realistic solution.)
Here's what Rabbi Eliezer Papo writes in his book, Pele Yoetz:
And just as it is the way of a man to hate his enemy and to seek that which is bad for [his enemy], all the more so should one hate drinking. He knows the bitterness of the soul and the greatness of evil that the drinking has caused him. And how can he appease his Master [God] and what can be his sacrificial atonement?
Surely, it is the distress [tzaar/צער] with which he distresses himself by refraining from drinking.
And that will have atoned for him, that which he sinned on his soul by drinking.
Applying These Lessons to Mental Illness and Addiction Today
Addicts definitely talk like those suffering from personality disorders (which is also known as “addictive thinking” or “stinkin’ thinkin’”) and I just see mental illness as an addiction of sorts to certain behaviors, rather than to an actual substance.
I could be wrong, of course, but that is what my research has shown me.
So expanding on the Pele Yoetz’s attitude toward treatment and recovery from alcoholism, one should accept the initial pain and discomfort of self-denial as a kaparah, as an atonement, for all that he did while under the influence of his addiction or mental illness or soul-sickness.
Adapting positive behaviors and beliefs while resisting negative behaviors and beliefs is definitely distressing and bitter at the beginning.
But the sufferer can take comfort in the fact that the initial suffering is not meaningless.
On the contrary, the initial suffering is very meaningful and profoundly cleansing, spiritually speaking.
And then later, comes the sweetness of good spiritual and mental health.
May we all merit the complete healing of our bodies, minds, and souls.
Rabbi Eliezer Papo (1785-1826) was born in Bosnia before later moving to Bulgaria where he served as chief rabbi and wrote his seminal work, Pele Yoetz, in 1824. After realizing that a Heavenly decree of deadly plague hung over the entire city, Rabbi Papo made a deal with Heaven that he would take that entire plague upon himself. After some terrible suffering, Rabbi Papo passed away during Sukkot on 20 Tishrei in 1827. Before he passed on, Rabbi Papo promised that anyone who would immerse in a mikveh and then pray to God with a broken heart at Rabbi Papo's grave would have their prayers answered. Today, his grave is located near the Danube River.
These are my own translations and any errors are also mine.