By Rabbi William Kuhn
One of the great mysteries of life is why we become ill. People can be living a perfectly normal happy life, when all of a sudden they fall sick, seemingly out of the blue. We often wonder if there is anything Judaism can do to make us well, to bring us healing. Perhaps there is no magic cure Judaism can offer, but our tradition teaches us that there are a number of ways to find comfort in our sacred texts.
I would like to recommend the Book of Psalms in our Bible to anyone who is ill and in search of comfort, insight or healing. Anyone who is down or grieving or sick at heart could find the writer of the Psalms understands you and offers solace. It has been said that the Psalms are a travelling companion for those in pain.
For centuries, people have turned to the Book of Psalms for solace, comfort and guidance, as these sacred words offer us meaning, hope and reassurance. They help us find spiritual healing. Our tradition has designated ten of the 150 Psalms as “healing Psalms.” The first one of these is one that is familiar to us at Rodeph Shalom because the first four words of Psalm 16 are inscribed upon the ceiling of our magnificent sanctuary, “Shiviti Adonai L’negdi Tamid,” “I have set the Eternal before me always.”
“I have set the Eternal before me always;
Surely God is at my right hand,
I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices’
My flesh also dwells in safety;
For You will not abandon my soul to the nether-world;
Neither will You suffer your godly one to see the pit.
You make me to know the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy,
In Your right hand bliss for evermore.” [Psalm 16]
The message of this Psalm 16 is that God grants us life, but we are afraid of death or illness. And we are afraid that if God were to leave us alone, and if our bodies had to operate on their own, subject to its physical laws and those who know how to minister to it from a solely scientific perspective, then our body might give out. But the Psalm says that there is more to life than the physical body. God gives us life and adds an additional, spiritual strength that may help us through whatever trial we are suffering.
This is at the very heart of the Jewish concept of healing. Our tradition has long believed that prayer and healing can go hand in hand. Even though there seems to be a renewed interest in “healing services” in Judaism, this is not a new trend at all.
Today, we are seeking ways to connect to God for a higher purpose. This may be a result of a breakdown of values in society, which is creating more anxiety than ever before. Many believe this anxiety leads to illness, and we seek a way to heal ourselves through a renewal of our spiritual selves by asking God to give us health.
But, of course praying to God for health has been an essential part of Judaism since biblical days. One of the most powerful healing prayers of all occurs in our Torah in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 12. Moses’ sister Miriam becomes ill, and Moses pleads with God to heal her, “El na Refa na la,” “Oh God, please heal her, please!” It is a desperate cry for help, profoundly moving in its plaintiff cry, and it goes right to the heart of what a healing prayer is. It is a recognition that we are only human, and when we are faced with the tragedy of serious illness, we are overcome with grief, and we are helpless to do anything on our own to heal ourselves. Then we realize that we must appeal to a higher power for help, and we ask God for the power of healing: “El na Refa na la,” “O God, please heal her, please.” This is not just something separate in Judaism, but an essential part of our religion and an essential part of our services.
I have been amazed over the past year by the overwhelming response to the healing prayer of our Shabbat services. Recently, we have given the congregation the opportunity to call out the names of loved ones who are ill, and for whom they would like to pray the “Misheberach” healing prayer. At each service, before we join together to sing the “Misheberach” healing prayer, we ask if anyone would like to call out the name of someone of whom they are thinking and praying. The first time we did this last year, we did this as an experiment, as several people had requested the opportunity to do this. When we asked for people to call out the names of their loved ones, I was absolutely astonished by how many people responded. Ten names, twenty names, more and more names were called out. No one shouted out a name, but quietly and almost under their breaths, people called out the names of loved ones who are ill and in need of God’s healing power.
What does this say about our congregation? I believe it says that we come together at Shabbat services to help support each other in times of need, or grieving, or concern for our loved ones who are ill. During the Misheberach prayer, we feel as though we are wrapped in a blanket of love and caring by our fellow congregants. We are a family, and we care for each other in times of need.
The Misheberach prayer is a prayer asking God for health. The prayer is: “May God, who blessed our ancestors, our patriarchs and matriarchs, source of blessing, bless our loved ones with a refuah shleimah, a complete healing, a renewal of body and a renewal of spirit.” The wonderful singer and composer Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, wrote the version of this lovely prayer that we sing at our congregation.
But the question still remains, is it effective to pray for healing? I believe each of us has an answer, and it is intensely personal. We probably ask for God’s help many times in our lives especially at times of illness or pain. But do you believe prayer can help. What effect does it have on us, as individuals and as a community? I believe it does. Also, Judaism believes that there are other actions that may help, such as doing good deeds, study of Torah, giving to charity, helping people, having a positive outlook. I believe all of this helps, because Judaism is holistic religion; it is a religion of action, and of the total person.
There are even some studies that say religious people live longer. Studies prove that people for whom religion is important are less likely to contract heart disease, cancer or mental disorders. It is so importat that one-half of the nation’s medical schools now offer a course on the subject of the effect of religion on health.
But we already knew this in Judaism. We have known it for thousands of years, just as Moses knew it when he prayed that God heal his sister and just as the Psalmist knew it when he prayed to God out of the depths to help him. And just as we know it when we sing the Mishebeirach or when we sit with a loved one in a hospital room and try to give strength and spirit to them in a way that no shot or pill ever could. Sometimes ill health or serious injury comes upon us in a mysterious way. We don’t know how we got sick and we don’t know why it happened to us or to our loved one. But it happened, mysteriously. Perhaps through an appeal to God, it can be lifted mysteriously too.
As these beautiful words of our prayer book say, “Eternal Spirit, make Your presence felt among us. Help us to find the courage to affirm You and do Your will, even when the shadows fall upon us . When our own weakness and the storms of life hide You from our sight, teach us that You are near to each one of us at all times, and especially when we strive to live truer, gentler, nobler lives. Give us trust, O God; give us peace, and give us light. May our hearts find their rest with you.” L’shalom,