In shuls across the world this Shabbat we will hear five short, simple Hebrew words: El na, refah na lah (Please God, heal her now).
Our prayers are never more heartfelt than when we ask for intervention in the process of sickness and death. God, we are saying, we acknowledge that the control and the timing are ultimately yours. We will provide the doctors and the medicine, the care and the concern, but the ultimate timing is Yours.
Please be gracious. Please.
Once a month we include a special healing service as part of our Saturday morning Torah service at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. We form a healing circle, first stating the names of all our loved ones who are ill.
"El na, refah na lah," we chant, "Please God, heal her now."
Our focus then turns to the personal. We take out the Torah scroll, and pass it around the room, all the while continuing to chant the five words of this week's portion. Some enter the circle while holding the Torah, receiving the energy of the group, while others quietly complete a silent prayer for their healing while holding on to the Tree of Life. There is no magic, no miracle cure involved. It is merely a formalized way for us to acknowledge the support of the community, and our own vulnerability. It is prayer.
Often, the question is asked, "Does prayer work?" If the proof of the efficacy of prayer is that no one remains ill or, God forbid, dies, then prayer is clearly a bust. Despite the studies of numerous healing groups on the power of prayer, no one can report that prayer defeats death. With proper medication, good support and much "luck," some will heal from an illness, others will not.
The Hebrew word "na" in our formula for healing means "please." It takes up two of our five words. Please. It's all we can ask.
So why do we pray? On one hand, we seek and provide community support for the one who is ill. The misheberach list each week, which asks for the blessing of healing to be bestowed on ill members of the community and all of those who suffer, alerts us to the needs of those around us. In the recitation of healing prayers, there is no need to detail the challenges facing each person mentioned, only their names. It is up to the rest of us to complete the mitzvah of "bikkur cholim," visiting the sick, in our own timing and our own ways.
For the ill person who prays, prayer provides a direct engagement with the Source of All Being. We can only struggle through the essential questions of why me? Why now? Yet, in the process of prayer, we begin to appreciate and understand the larger perspectives of life and death, and the gratitude for every moment that we enjoy in this life that has been granted to us.
Like Moses, we pray to hold on to life, to be able to fulfill our goals to the end. Please God, please, is all that we can say. Should death occur, the first response of the living must be, baruch dayan ha emet, or blessed is the true Judge. But up until that final moment, we are to beg, wheedle, plead for God's mercy -- and often our very engagement with life will prolong and improve the time we spend on this earth.
Can there be healing even if a person dies? There are those who speak of "healing unto death," and the process of prayer that opens the lines of communication between the ill person, their inner circle, and the Holy One. To die healed, or consciously, is to heal the wounded relationships of one's life before passing. It takes tremendous effort but can be done.
Last spring, I was honored by a connection to a young woman who consciously met with, and healed, the relationships with all of the key players in her life before her eventual death. The wounds of mother-daughter, sister-to-sister, even old loves were pursued with conscious love and forgiveness. She healed and entered death in peace. I pray to have the courage to do the same.
It is patently not fair when a young person dies of cancer, no matter what their state of healing. Our Torah portion, in Numbers 12, tells a story that is riddled with inequities. Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses "because of the Cushite woman he married."
They are also jealous of Moses' power and position.
"Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?" they say.
God overhears, and calls them into the front office, along with Moses: "Come out you three to the tent of meeting."
God chastises Aaron and Miriam, and when the cloud of God's glory withdraws from the tent, Miriam is stricken with snow-white scales. Not fair! What about Aaron? He was gossiping, too -- gossip seen by later sages as the source of her illness. Why only Miriam?
We ask this question every time one person gets cancer and another does not.
There is no fairness, no quid quo pro. All we can do is step up, pray and ask the Source of healing for mercy. Aaron does exactly that saying, "Let her be not as one dead," and Moses cries out to the Lord, saying "Please God, heal her."
Miriam is shut out of the camp for one week to heal. But she is not abandoned.
She is but prayed for by her family and community, and perhaps she, too, prays to the God of Mercy. Likewise, we do not turn our backs on those who are ill among us, nor do we despair in illness, no matter how unfair the situation may seem.
Together, we unite, and we pray for those who are ailing with those five words that resound through time, a gift of this Torah portion. El na, refah na la.
Please God, heal her now. May it be so.
Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.