Once upon a time, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba were strolling in the streets of Jerusalem. They noticed someone who was visibly ill and they went up to him. The sick person said, “my teachers, please, rabbis, how can I be healed?” They gave him some advice on how to get better. The sick person asked them, “who made me sick?” They replied, “the Holy One of Blessing.” The sick man responded, “God made me sick? And you have the cure? You are out of your league.”
Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael asked him, “what is your occupation?” The sick man answered, “I’m a farmer, here is my sickle.” The rabbis asked him, “who created the vineyard?” “The Holy One of Blessing,” the sick man answered. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “You created the vineyard? God created vineyard and you take from it.”
The man with illness said, “did you not see the sickle in my hand? If I did not plow, sow, fertilize, and weed, nothing would sprout.”
Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “Foolish man!… Just as if one does not weed, fertilize, and plow, the trees will not produce fruit, and if fruit is produced and is not watered or fertilized, it will not live but die, so with the human body. Drugs and medicines are the fertilizer, and the physician is the tiller of the soil.[i]
Since the dawn of time, including the time of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael the 2nd century of the common era, healing and the healing arts have been part of life. Perhaps it is innate in the biology of our species to heal ailments, and maybe even more significantly, to help another human being to return to health if that is possible.
Illness and disease have been and remain a part of life. Ailments big and small, chronic, fatal, and short-term are part of the reality of being a human. Widespread contagions are nothing new, our world has known epidemics before: in the year 430 B.C.E., not long after a war between Athens and Sparta, Athens was ravaged by an epidemic.[ii] The Black Death of the 14th century was estimated to have killed half the population of Europe as the disease ravaged Europe and Asia.[iii] We’ve started to learn more about the Spanish Flu that afflicted the world just as the first World War ended, and in more recent history we can recall H1N1 Swine Flu, polio, Ebola, and the ongoing AIDS epidemic. We now add Covid-19 to this list and this pandemic is weighing on our hearts, minds, and spirits, as we celebrate and mark this new year.
Covid-19 has forced us to change our lives in so many ways. We don’t leave our houses without masks, who knows when we might shake someone’s hand when we meet them for the first time, and I don’t know about you, but I am acutely aware of six feet of distance when I am making necessary supply runs or taking a walk in my neighborhood. We have also been reminded of the wisdom of our Jewish tradition, more people are observing Shabbat mark time, and adults are flocking to online learning opportunities, especially Jewish content, in droves. Jewish tradition also offers us the wisdom of praying for healing.
As long as there has been illness, Jews have prayed for healing. Rabbi Dr. William Cutter teaches in his book Healing and the Jewish Imagination, “It is certain that our bodies do not last forever, and that they can’t even do everything we want during their physical lifetime. This condition makes life difficult and interesting, and it is a condition that has created much of the search for healing in Jewish tradition.”[iv]
Judaism has long engaged in all aspects of healing, from strange remedies described in the Talmud to prayers for healing. It is Moses who utters a healing blessing for his sister Miriam when he utters, “el na r’fa na la,” “God, pray, heal her, pray,”[v] in the book of Numbers. We know that in addition to being one of the greatest writers on Jewish law and philosophy, Maimonides was the court physician to sultan Saladin.[vi] And there are at least 20 mediocre to terrible jokes I could tell about a parent who wishes for their child to become a doctor or marry a doctor.
Jews pray for healing all the time in formal and informal ways. In the weekday Amidah there is a daily benediction for healing. We say, “refaeinu Adonai v’nirafe,” ‘Soften us up, O God, so that we may be able to receive healing.’ Open our hearts so that we can receive the gift of those who seek to heal. Help us to break down our own resistance to Your healing love!”[vii]
Then of course there is the Mi Shebeirach. Mi Shebeirach, “mi shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu” is a prayer form traditionally offered in the midst of the Torah service and is most versatile. It can be offered for the person doing the Aliyah blessing, for soldiers, and we know this prayer best as a blessing for healing. For many of us liberal Jews, it wasn’t until Debbie Friedman and Rabbi Drorah Setel wrote their iconic melody [in 1987] in response to the AIDS epedemic that this prayer became an essential part of our worship experiences.
As renowned historian Jonathan Sarna describes: this Mi Shebeirach prayer setting, “With a holistic view of humankind, this prayer asks for physical cure as well as spiritual healing – asking for blessing, compassion, restoration, and strength, within the community of others facing illness, of body and spirit…”[viii]
The Jewish healing movement, in some ways spearheaded by the Mi Shebeirach melody we all know and love, has transformed the way that we Jews pray. Take the example provided by Dr. Gila Silverman, an anthropologist did an ethnographic study in Tucson, Arizona to understand why nonreligious Jews pray and why they pray for healing by asking questions like, “what does prayer do?”[ix]
Silverman tells these stories:
In the early winter of 2014, I attended the monthly meeting of a support group for Jewish women with cancer… I was there to recruit women for my study on Jewish prayer and healing. In response to my inquiries, one woman told me, ‘I don’t pray.’ Another said, ‘I’m not religious at all.’ Several women told me, ‘We’re not sure we can help you.’ At the close of the meeting, the women all got up from their seats and stood in a circle at the side of the room, holding hands, shoulders and hips touching. Eyes closed they began to sing a modern version of the Mi Sherberach … by [Debbie Friedman].”[x]
As the song came to an end, the hands holding each other lingered a little longer. There were gentle squeezes, then a slow letting go, a shoulder rub, a hug, and a few small conversations, and then the women left to go on with their day. Afterward, I was chatting with one of the women. She told me that she doesn’t pray. ‘‘What about that?’’ I asked, referring to the closing with Mi Sheberach. There was a thoughtful pause. ‘‘Oh,’’ she said, ‘‘I love that. It’s my favorite part of the morning. I guess you’re right. That is prayer. I hadn’t thought of it that way.’’ Later, another woman, who describes her Judaism as peripheral to her life, saying that she is mostly an ethical Jew, but not at all a religious one, told me this: ‘‘When we’re all together, holding hands and swaying, when I hear the Mi Sheberach…something in me just responds. I guess it’s my Jewish genes! We have so much love for each other in the group, and we are just surrounded by that love right then. It’s so beautiful.”[xi]
Singing, “Mi shebeirach imoteinu…” truly praying the words of Mi Shebeirach is now a vital part of the prayer life for many people because this prayer gives us an outlet for our hopes and fears. As Silverman’s study elucidates, the practice of praying for healing also brings connection, comfort and strength, agency, and identity to the ill and those who are offering prayer. People find connection with their community as a whole and with specific individuals who they knew prayed on their behalf. Comfort is found when reciting the Mi Shebeirach as it provides “some sort of emotional relief, often expressed as ‘acceptance,’ … both for those saying it, and for those for whom it is said.”[xii] Prayer also serves as a vehicle for “agency in a time and place characterized by increasing biomedicalization and technoscientific innovations.”[xiii] Finally, the practice of singing Mi Shebeirach connects or reconnects Jews to their religious identity in new ways.
More than ever, in the midst of this pandemic and on the dawn of a new year we need blessings for healing. Individuals, congregations, communities, cities, nations, and our world are crying out for healing. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Eric Weiss writes:
All healing is a journey towards wholeness. Most of us know ourselves best when we are healthy and well. When we become ill, we are suddenly estranged from our familiar surroundings and often by ourselves. It is as if we are in a foreign terrain with no guide … Spiritual reflection – in prayer or ritual – is the form that allows us to link our history to our personal story. It is a glimpse into a moment of life that longs to be held, to find comfort, to strive toward wholeness.[xiv]
Healing comes in many forms. Maimonides taught that it is an obligation, religious duty for those with the skills to create healing. In his explanation of the verse, “and you shall restore it”[xv] Maimonides explicates that this includes the person’s body, “that if she saw him lost and she can save him, she must save him with his body or with her money or with her knowledge.”[xvi] Should we possess the knowledge or the capacity to heal the body or heal the spirit it is up to us to do it. If we can offer words, we must pray.
So on this Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat morning we pray: R’faeinu, our Healer, we cry out to You like our ancestors of old to bring Your healing blessings to those individuals in need of healing of body, mind, and spirit. May those suffering with the Corona virus know wholeness and good health quickly. Continue to grant wisdom, compassion, and patience to the health care workers tirelessly working to aide, heal, and support all of those who are ill. May those who worry find small relief from their anxiety. May we all find wholeness, healing, renewal, and peace in this year 5781. Amen.
[i] Dorff, E.N. Matters of Life and Death: a Jewish approach to modern medical ethics. P. 28. I have edited this story from the version in the book slightly to appeal to a listening congregation.
[ii] https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html. Accessed 09/09/2020.
[iv] Cutter, W. Healing and the Jewish Imagination, p. 3.
[v] Num. 12:13.
[vii] Green, A. Healing and the Jewish Imagination, p. 55.
[ix] Silverman, “’I’ll say a Mi Sheberach for you’: Prayer, healing, and identity among liberal American Jews,” Contemporary Jewry 36(2)p. 173.
[x] Silverman, G., p. 170.
[xii] Silverman, 179.
[xiv] Weiss, E. Mishkan Refuah ebook edition. CCAR Press. Location 153.
[xv] Deut. 22:2.