In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha, Moses faces the fragility of life as he watches his sister, Miriam, struggle with tzara’at, a dangerous skin disease. Overcome with anguish, Moses cries out to God. His five-word prayer, the shortest recorded in the Torah, beseeches the Holy One: El na r’fa na la (O God, please heal her). God hears, and miraculously Miriam is healed (Numbers 12:1-16). For some, this parasha provides comfort that, indeed, our prayers for healing work. And then there are people like Sarah.
Sarah walked into my office, sat in a chair and confessed, “My mother doesn’t know me anymore.” Tears began streaming down her face. I recognized that a while had passed since I had seen her around the synagogue. She continued, “My mother sits in the convalescent home, weeks now after her fall. Her hip is on the mend, but her mind continues to deteriorate. I tell her, ‘Ma, it’s me. Your daughter.’ Sometimes she looks confused. Sometimes she smiles. Then … then it is as if she’s gone. She just doesn’t remember me.”
‘God is a fraud’
“Rabbi, I haven’t been to services in months. I really want to come to temple — to be with friends, to hear the cantor’s calming music — but I can’t. Every time I hear the misheberach [prayer for healing], all I can think is that God is a fraud! I wanted to come by to tell you that. So you will know.”
God is a fraud. Those are harsh words, but not the first time I have heard that sentiment. Still, the concept is not nearly as harsh as the new life stage into which this woman and her mother had entered. Roles had suddenly switched. The nurturing mother and her rebellious daughter became the cared-for elder and the care-taking adult. Neither saw it coming; neither was prepared for the emotional, spiritual and physical turmoil this change forced upon them. Neither could understand why the Source of Life would allow their lives to become so painfully messed up.
God is with you in your pain
So I held onto Sarah’s hand as she cried in my office. We spoke about God. I said, “The Holy One can hold onto both your love and your frustration. Even your anger. Your pain will not, and cannot, overwhelm God like it so often overwhelms your relatives and friends. The Source of Life stands with you throughout all the stages of life, not just the easy or the pleasant ones. Know that when the exhaustion overwhelms you such that you wonder if you can even get out of bed to face a new day, God is there patiently prodding you on. When sadness seeks to smother you, God offers you the strength to still play catch with the kids, or sit down and cuddle with your husband.
“You know, the misheberach [like Moses’ prayer for Miriam] is about healing, not necessarily curing. In my reading of Jewish tradition, I have not found any guarantee that God offers a cure. To cure is to remove the illness, the depression or the disease from our bodies and minds.
The promise of wholeness and healing
“The One Who Heals always offers us, and our loved ones, the promise of refuah, of healing. Healing is about finding a way to face whatever is ahead. It is about shalom, that sense of wholeness amid the brokenness of our lives. Healing is about ometz lev, the courage to go on and face the new day.
“So perhaps next time you hear the misheberach, you will think of your mother, and ask for shalom. Maybe you will say it for yourself, asking for the strength to get up each day, the courage to sit through the visit with your mother, to have the willingness to do homework with your kids even though you really just want to collapse into bed.
The One Who Heals surrounds you always
“And maybe, just maybe, you will remember that even in the midst of your suffering, God — the One Who Heals — is with you, surrounding you, holding you, helping you carry on. And reflecting God, we at Congregation Or Ami are prepared to listen and hold your hand through it all.
“Remember, too, that the misheberach, like most prayers of healing, can be a source of comfort for you, when you are ready to receive its blessings.”
It was not long before we began seeing Sarah at services again. More recently, she began to reach out to other adults struggling with the newfound role of being caretakers. Together they are finding a way to offer each other support.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. His recollections about his Grandmother Esther’s bout with Alzheimer’s is published in “Broken Fragments” (URJPress, 2012). He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and tweets @RabbiKip.