Rabbi Yochanan’s Healing
In Berachot 5b, in the middle of a discussion about the essence of suffering, the gemara relates a series of stories centered around Rabbi Yochanan and the sick:
Rabbi Yochanan once went to visit a student of his, Rabbi Chiya bar Abba, who had fallen ill. Rabbi Yochanan asked the sick student, “Is your suffering dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya responded, “Not the suffering and not the reward.” In response to this declaration, Rabbi Yochanan grasped his student’s hand and lifted him up, healing him.
Later, Rabbi Yoachanan fell ill, and this time Rabbi Chiya came to visit him. They exchanged the exact same dialogue, though with their roles reversed. The healthy student inquired about the suffering, and the sick teacher replied that neither the suffering nor the reward is welcome. Rabbi Chiya then took Rabbi Yochanan’s hand, lifted him up, and healed him.
At this point the voice of the Gemara interrupts to ask a question: If he could heal his student, why wouldn’t Rabbi Yochanan heal himself? The Gemara responds to itself, “A prisoner cannot free himself.”
The Gemara continues with a third story. Rabbi Yochanan once visited another one of his sick students, Rabbi Elazar. The darkness of the room shocked Rabbi Yochanan as he entered the room. He uncovered one of his arms, which instantly radiated light, illuminating the room. Seeing this light, Rabbi Elazar began to cry. Confused by the tears, Rabbi Yochanan offered reasons why Rabbi Elazar had no need to cry over insufficient Torah learning, poverty, or the death of children. Rabbi Elazar retorted that he was crying over Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty, which would one day disintegrate into the earth. Upon hearing this Rabbi Yochanan replied that, in that case, Rabbi Elazar had every reason to cry. The two of them wept together.
After sufficient weeping, Rabbi Yochanan asked if the suffering was dear, and upon receiving the same reply as given by Rabbi Chiya, he seized Rabbi Elazar’s hand and healed him.
These stories contain great details that provide us with important insights into the concept of suffering and healing.
We can find one lesson, embedded in this story, in the dialogue exchanged between every healer and sick person. First, the healer asks if the sick person’s suffering is “dear to them,” as if asking permission before healing, in case the sufferer enjoys suffering. Then the sick person rejects not only the suffering, but also its “reward.” This dialogue highlights that we sometimes grow attached to our suffering. Emotional and physical pain can become part of our identities. The story suggests that healing requires us to give up our suffering in its entirety — even the bits that we might come to love.
Another insight that the gemara delivers is apparent in the line “A prisoner cannot free himself.” The gemara implies that sometimes even the strongest and most powerful need help from others to recover. Rabbi Yochanan, a great rabbi, known for his healing powers, couldn’t heal himself because even he needed external support. In this story, the gemara teaches us that when we suffer emotional or physical pain we need to accept the support of others; we cannot just bear it alone. Whether the visitor holding the sick person’s hand actually heals them, or just gives them the power to heal themselves, the story suggests that healing requires someone else’s help.
The method of the healing contains a third message delivered by these stories. Rabbi Yochanan does not administer medicine to his students, pray to God, or perform religious rituals. He simply visits them and holds their hand. He heals them through the power of his presence and touch.
In fact, in Rabbi Yochanan’s encounter with Rabbi Elazar, he initially fails to realize that presence alone can heal suffering. When he sees his student crying, his first reaction is to convince him that there is no reason to cry. He uses his words, going on and on, invalidating the tears for every reason he can imagine. Rabbi Elazar counters this verbal barrage of invalidation with just a few words. He simply expresses that he is crying because of beauty that will die. He puts into words an essential sadness that exists in the world: everything good is temporary. There is no way Rabbi Yochanan can think of to argue someone out of that sadness because it is universal; everyone must one day die. Rabbi Yochanan realizes his mistake. Here he was, trying to intellectually outmaneuver a student to prove that he should not be sad, when in fact, all people on earth always have a reason to be sad. At this moment of realization, Rabbi Yochanan simply sits and weeps with his student. He holds his hand, and he raises him up. He saves Rabbi Elazar through these second actions, not the first.
Our story clearly displays the power of the human connection. Rabbi Yochanan’s visit, touch, and tears — his physical expressions of caring — healed his student without invalidating his emotions. Rabbi Yochanan’s stories show us that the healing process is not easy. It requires releasing the “rewards” of pain and accepting outside help, presence, and plenty of love.