Spiritual Medicine

November 5th, 2021

Avodas Panim’s humble advice

During the summer of 2021, Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein, a friend and colleague, recommended a new sefer (Jewish book) for me to study. He said it had inspired him, was a great read and could be something we could learn together. I was in the middle of moving, so I promised I’d order it and I’d get back to him.

Finally, after a few months, I was able to order it and it arrived last week.! It is called Avodas Panim by Aharon Yosef Luria. (Sometimes, I’ll write Avodat Panim instead.)

Luria’s story is an interesting one. He was a Slonim Hasid who lived in Tiberias, who died in 1969. You might be familiar with the Slonim sefer Netivot Shalom by the then Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky. Luria was the son of a Rosh Yeshivah of a Slonimer Yeshiva in Tiberius and was described as a very serious and devoted Torah scholar even at a young age.

In 1914, he wanted to go visit the second Slonimer Rebbe in Europe but it was World War I and he couldn’t go safely. Unfortunately, that rebbe died in 1916 and he never got the chance. However, a number of years later, he encountered the third Slonimer Rebbe and is described as having been profoundly changed.

Today, I want to share the introduction he wrote to his book because I believe it offers, not only profound wisdom on its own, but also lessons on how we might walk through the world. It is a bit long, but I’m going to put the translation below in its entirety and then break it down. The book begins like this (with translation support from Rabbi Rubenstein):

This book is about the healing of the soul (nefesh), which stands for, the inner point of the heart (Nekudah Penimit She’balev).

[This book] will not be useful for people who are spiritually healthy [already], because they do not need a pharmacy [to get medicines] but a grocery store to get food. And those who engage in the study of the Tikkunei HaZohar (mysticism) and the four rows of the Shulkhan Arukh (Halakhah), these are food for the spiritually ravenous. And the entire time that a person is healthy, they do not need healing, but only when they get sick, do they go to see the doctor.

However, sometimes a person appears, on the outside, healthy, but [in reality] has an inner illness, which is to say, they do not notice it. And for this [kind of illnesses] books of Mussar (spiritual and moral discipline) were written that show a person who learns them, their great [spiritual] illness, as it were and this [can be] dangerous. Therefore, one must learn the teachings of the student of the Baal Shem Tov z”l (Hasidut), for they teach the ways of healing for all [types of spiritual] illness.

There are two types of medicine at a pharmacy, there is [prescription] medicine that it is prohibited to use without a doctor, and [over the counter] medicine that it is permitted to take without a doctor. Because there are types of “medicine” that you can take that work [for general health] that aren’t dangerous.

Sometimes, when there is not a doctor available, sick people talk to each other [for advice healing one malady or another], and perhaps one knows of a medicine that is good and effective. And this is my prescription, for myself, what I deem to be good for me, and perhaps, it will also be effective for people who struggle like me. [And by doing this] I will live out the saying in the Torah, “do not withhold good from one who deserves it.” (Proverbs 3:27)

So what can we learn from Luria’s introduction?

We need to feed our spiritual health and we might not notice when we need help.

We know that exercise and eating healthy is good for your body, self-care and meditation might be good for your mental health, but we must also recognize the need for spiritual health. That prayer, study, and community have a role in helping us stay healthy. And Luria is reminding us that we’re not all in the same place.

Some of us are just fine going to the metaphorical grocery store and getting what we need and we’re good to go. Some of us, on the other hand, need more support, guidance, and assistance to get to the same level of health. Luria is not placing judgment, but a recognition that we are not all the same with the same needs.

Along with that, it might be challenging for us to notice that we might not be a spiritually healthy as we might hope. We don’t talk about this concept very much. What might it look like for us not to be as spiritually healthy? What can I do?

Many things can feed our souls.

Luria reminds us that there is Jewish literature that speaks to the challenges we might face as we navigate our spiritual wellbeing. Mussar literature, focused on character and discipline, can be very useful. On the other hand, I know that I find some of that literature overwhelming. When I read it, I sometimes think, “I’ll never be like that. What kind of Jew am I?” This is what I think he means when he expresses that there is a danger. He also points to Hasidic literature, focused on simple faith and broad spirituality. (Not that there aren’t deeply specific and complex concepts, there are.)

He talks about Halakhic literature and mystical literature, expanding our minds and our actions.

Different types of spiritual medicine help us in different ways.

This leads us to a later teaching, he explains that there are many ways to draw close and serve God, and sometimes it is good to change your methodology for one reason or another. This is like studying a different tractate or changing clothes. There is always some way to engage with the Divine that suits your current moment.

“Therefore a person needs to always listen to their heart to what God wants from them now. And [the Tradition] says this: ‘A person is joyous who listens to your Mitzvot'” (Avodas Panim Foundations of Inner Service 20)

We can learn to become internally aligned to recognize what we need. This itself is a spiritual discipline of self-awareness to be able to check in on oneself and understand our needs. What is the way that I can find spiritual healing at this moment?

This is why his metaphor of prescriptive medicine and over the counter medicine is so powerful. Sometimes, I have a headache and it doesn’t mean I need to visit a doctor, and sometimes I’m really sick and need help. Understanding what we need at the moment is a part of the process. Finding the right advice is key.

When you can do good in the world, do it.

He ends the introduction by suggesting that what he offers is the “over the counter medicine that helped me and might help you too.” This is a profound statement of humility and awareness of what he’s writing. He’s not suggesting that it works for everyone or that it is a panacea of any kind, but rather, an understanding that he has something to offer, like all of us do.

This is why he concludes with the quote, “do not withhold good from one who deserves it.” (Proverbs 3:27) It is a reminder that we each have something amazing to offer the world and we should not stop ourselves from bringing it into existence.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.