Praying for Healing When There is No Cure

A few moments ago, after the third aliyah was read from the Torah, we rose together as a congregation and sang with the Cantor the mishbeirach prayer, a prayer that we describe as a ‘healing’ prayer. In that moment we call to mind those we know who are sick and struggling with illness, and I think also their caregivers, those who have the burden and the blessing of sharing with a sick person their journey.
When I first came to Beth El, now 17 years ago, many of you may recall that we did not recite the healing prayer during services. It was something we added intentionally, perhaps a few years after I arrived, and the reason we added it was to give people a personal connection with the service, a moment in the midst of all of the communal prayer that would address an individual need and concern. And we’ve found over the years that is precisely what has happened with the mishebeirach – people often will tell me how important it is to them to be able to offer those personal prayers on behalf of loved ones, at the synagogue, during the service, especially when the Torah is out and resting on the shulchan.
Some of you have probably heard me say this before, but I personally have always struggled with the healing prayer. My first real encounter with it was back in the days when I was a young rabbinical student at the seminary, when it was said during morning services, much the way we do it now at Beth El. At the time a close college friend of mine and Becky’s was dying of cancer, and in the morning at services I would stand while the mishebeirach was being said, thinking of my friend, and then in the evenings I would take the subway to lower Manhattan to visit him in the hospital. He was getting sicker and sicker, a bright and talented young man, 32 years old, a promising and caring doctor. Clearly the prayer was not ‘working’ and when he died in my own mind I think I simply shut the prayer down, decided that it wasn’t worth its own weight in words, and I stopped reciting it entirely.
But after ordination and coming here to Beth El, I soon discovered that in congregational life the mishebeirach is an important prayer, one a rabbi is asked to say quite often. Not just at services, but also at the bedside of someone who is sick, who may even be dying like my friend was dying, and countless times over the years I have asked family members to join me around a loved one’s bedside, to hold hands, and I have recited that prayer that once made me so uncomfortable. And over time I have recovered a sense of the prayer’s meaning, or perhaps a better way of saying it is a sense that the prayer has meaning, and strange as it may seem one of the things that has helped me with that is the double Torah portion that we read this morning, Tazria-Metzorah.
Last night Rabbi Saroken did a good job of describing the challenges of this reading. It deals largely with skin diseases of various and sundry kinds, and when it isn’t worrying about rashes and sores it turns its attention to bodily fluids that most of us wouldn’t think about discussing in public – and this is about as public as it gets! But what these portions really are about is illness – what happens when someone gets sick, seriously sick? Just the fact that the Torah devotes several chapters to that question is in and of itself interesting. It means, first of all, that God cares about those who are ill. The Psalmist said it best – הרופא לשבורי לב ומחבש לעצבותם – God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. The Torah teaches us that when someone is sick God is involved, God cares, God can be there as a presence, as a source of hope and courage and strength during dark and difficult times.
But the Torah also suggests that we have to be there as well. As Rabbi Saroken noted last night, the Torah tells us the sick person had to go outside of the camp. It was a kind of quarantine, a way of protecting the community. But the person was never isolated. In fact, the Torah mandates that the most respected person in the community, the holiest person in the community, the Kohen, was the one who ministered to the sick. The Kohen had to go out to see the person, to examine them, the check on them, and when they were better, to bring them back to the community. The Torah seems to be saying if the Kohen, the person with the highest standards of purity, could be in the presence of the sick person, even touch him or her, then surely others could as well. It was the Torah’s way of making sure a person was given back their dignity, that they would be treated with the respect they deserved when they returned to the community, and that the stigma too often associated with illness would be overcome.
And it is in the Torah’s description of the Kohen’s duties and responsibilities that I found the key to unlocking the meaning of the mishebeirach for myself. If you read the Torah text carefully you will see that the Kohen was not expected to cure the sick person, but to heal him. On the surface that might sound like the same thing, and you could fairly ask – what is the difference between curing and healing? But what the Torah really charges the Kohen with is the responsibility of establishing the sick person’s relationship with God and with the community during his illness and afterwards. The person’s ‘cure’ was understood as being in the hands of God. But healing was a different matter – healing was about wholeness and holiness. It was about caring and sharing, about supporting and helping. It had more to do with making sure the sick person knew they were not alone.
And that is how I understand the מישברך. The prayer that we say is not about curing someone of their illness. Reciting it doesn’t change someone’s diagnosis, or heal their broken bone, or make a tumor shrink, or take away a fever. It doesn’t make a difference in a person’s physical condition, so in that way the מישברך doesn’t cure.
But it can bring healing. It can first of all bring to our attention the fact that someone in our community is ill and may need our help and support. When a person is feeling isolated and alone it helps them to know that others are praying for them, that others are thinking about them, that their name was recited during a service in their shul. It helps them when someone in the community comes to visit, or calls. The מישברך opens up that possibility, and in that sense it is truly healing.
It can also help a person unlock an inner sense of strength and courage and hope that they may not have known they had. It can help us to see the blessings of a present moment, it can encourage us to seek reconciliation with loved ones, it can help us renew our relationship with God. Even someone suffering from a terminal illness needs a מישברך- we pray that they will be able to close up the loose ends in their lives, to make peace with death, and to say farewell to loved ones. And that is also healing.
Finally, when we stand together, every person, for the מישברך, it reminds us that every life, at one point or another, will be touched by illness. And when that time comes, we pray that we will truly be able to find a sense of healing in the warmth of community, in the love and caring of family and friends, in the recognition of life’s blessings, and also in the sense of God’s presence, not only in the heavenly realm, but also in our own hearts. May the One who blessed our ancestors bless us and our family and friends as we move forward in our lives –

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Praying for Healing When There is No Cure

  1. Joe Yousem

    What a beautiful way of expressing the concept! I, and I am sure, the congregation as a whole, were moved. Thank you.

  2. Myra Katz

    I remember your sermon of years ago about your friend. It was powerful then and powerful now. Thank you for,sharing this again.

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