The verse actually states (Genesis 2:17), “Ume’etz hada’at tov va’ra lo tochal mimmenu ki beyom achalcha mimmenu mot tamut – And of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat, for on the day you eat from it you shall surely die.”
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 16:10) notes that the verse concludes with the words mot tamut, a repetitive phrase from which we derive that the infraction of eating of the fruit of that tree will cause death for Adam and Eve as well as death for all their future generations.
Thus, the violation of this commandment meant that this mitzva was lost forever, and it altered the course of history in that death was introduced, counter to G-d’s original plan for humanity.
However, since man did not withstand the evil impulse to violate this one mitzva, he caused the circumstance whereby death comes at the end of man’s days, and he has to leave the living behind.
The Midrash on Parashat Toldot (Bereishit Rabbah 65:4) relates that Abraham requested signs of old age so that we may be able to differentiate between the young and the old, and the young would be able to honor their elders accordingly. Isaac requested pain and suffering so that the harsh judgment meted out to man could be lessened by the pain and suffering he endures while living. Jacob requested that illness precede death so that a person will not die suddenly, before having had a chance to sit with one’s children and discuss matters, whether it is to rebuke them and thus set them on a straight path, or to discuss their inheritance.
The Midrash then adds that King Hezekiah requested that one may be healed from a sickness, and only die from his final illness. This, too, was granted.
My uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, was asked a similar question many years ago (Responsa of Modern Judaism, Vol. 3 p. 201). We conclude with his discussion:
“The reasons for illness, pain and tragedy are discussed in various sections of our Torah (Leviticus 26:14-46; Deuteronomy 28:15-69, etc.), and it is pointed out that these troubles come upon us because of our bad behavior and because we have forsaken the Torah.
“No one asks for illness,” my uncle explains, “which, unfortunately, visits us at various times in our life. The Gemara (Eruvin 13b) states that for two-and-a-half years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel had disputed on the subject whether it were better for man not to have been born, seeing the many tragedies which befall him, or in the long run, it is good for man to be born. At the end they came to the conclusion that it would be better if man were not born, but since he was born, let him examine his deeds.
“When something bad or tragic befalls man he always blames G-d, not himself. When a catastrophe occurs it is called an ‘act of G-d.’
“The Gemara (Shabbos 55a) points out that death, pain and suffering are the result of our own sins. Therefore we are taught not to blame G-d but to examine our own behavior. The Gemara (Berachot 5a) reiterates this view by stating: ‘If a person incurs illness and pain, let him examine his behavior and deeds.’
“The Gemara (Berachot 33a) emphasizes this view with a story of a poisonous snake that would kill passers-by. They notified R. Chanina ben Dosa, who visited the place and put his foot over the hole where the snake dwelled. The snake came out and bit R. Chanina ben Dosa, but instead of the sage dying, the snake died. R. Chanina took the snake to the House of Learning and announced: ‘See, my children, it is not the poison of the snake that kills but the sin of man.'”
My uncle continues, “Except for rare cases, no one wants pain and suffering. The rare case is told in the Gemara (Bava Metzia 84b): R. Eliezer b. R. Shimon prayed and brought illness upon himself to atone for possible sins he may have committed when, in his capacity as a government official, he sent many thieves to the gallows.
“When R. Chiya b. Abba became ill, R. Yochanan visited him and asked, ‘Do you enjoy your illness?’ To which he answered, ‘I do not like it, nor the reward which I may receive because of it.’ He gave him his hand and prayed for him and he became well. The same occurred to R. Yochanan and R. Eliezer (Berachot 5b).
“Illness will strike even the greatest and most pious of our tzaddikim. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 101a) narrates that when R. Eliezer became sick his disciples visited him and began to cry, but R. Akiva laughed.
“When questioned why he laughed, he explained, ‘As long as I saw that my master’s wine didn’t turn sour, nor was his flax smitten, nor his oil putrified, nor his honey become rancid (meaning he was prosperous in everything – he was wealthy, a great scholar and a righteous man), I thought, ‘G-d forbid, he may have received all of his reward in this world (leaving nothing for the next world), but now that I see him lying in pain I rejoice, knowing that his reward will be given to him in the next world.’
“R. Eliezer said to him, ‘Akiva, have I neglected anything of the whole Torah?’ (That I’m being punished for my sins?)
“R. Akiva replied, ‘Thou, O Master, have taught us, ‘There is not a just person on this earth that doeth all good and sinneth not'” (Kohelet 7:20).
Quarreling and aggravating other people, especially shaming a person publicly, are considered very grave sins (Bava Metzia 58b). Even the great sage Rabbah, who boasted that he was born under the planetary influence of Mars, was accused by the sage Abbaye as being a shedder of blood (an allusion to his strict behavior of punishing people who didn’t agree with him, thus embarrassing them – Shabbos 126a). The Gemara (Bava Metzia 58b) explains that when you embarras a person publicly it is considered as if you killed him, for the blood departs from his face as he turns white with shame.
“Rav Huna has another version regarding illness. He says, ‘Those whom G-d loves, He punishes with pain, as it states in Mishlei (3:12): ‘Those whom G-d likes He visits with sickness.’ Others call it a ‘pain of love'” (Berachot 5a).
“The Gemara (Horayot 10b) explains the view that the righteous suffer so that all their sins will be expunged in this world and they can enjoy the pleasures of the next world. To which Rabbah said, ‘Would the righteous find it so distasteful if they enjoyed both worlds?'”
My uncle concludes, “Therefore, let us pray and do good deeds (mitzvot) so that G-d will spare us any pain or illness. For we are taught (Avoda Zara 54a): Heaven decrees that every illness is given a specific time to remain in the person and is not to leave until ordered by the Heavenly Court. Repentance, prayer and good deeds will nullify any bad decree. Therefore we pray that it be the will of the Almighty to remove all sickness and pain from all our people. Amen.”