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Vayeitzei 2021

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

In our parashah for this week, Vayeitzei, we read: “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or else I die.’”[1]

Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, suffered from infertility. The emotional pain was so severe that if felt to her that death was the only possible outcome. From this, the ancient Rabbis taught that any time our bodies do not work in the way that they were designed to work, it is a kind of a death.

We go through life expecting that our bodies will function the way they were created to work. Yet, for most of us, at some time, something will go askew. We deal with pain, illness, suffering, perhaps a life-threatening disease or a chronic condition. How clear this has become to us over the past 20 months.

We have lived with COVID now for well over a year and a half. Perhaps we have had it, had loved ones who have had it, fear getting it, know someone who died from it, or all four. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had a special Mi Shebeirach list for healing with the names of congregants, family members, and friends who were first line medical providers for whom we said a prayer for their safety. As these people became vaccinated, I stopped the special Mi Shebeirach. Now, after reading the names on our list, I add “and all those who have been affected by COVID.”

For as long as Jews have gathered together in worship, we have offered prayers on behalf of those who are ill – or, as the Rabbis noted, those whose bodies were not working as they were designed to work.

Praying for healing begins with Moses, who cries out to God after his sister Miriam is stricken with some kind of skin affliction, El na r’fa na la, “please, God, heal her.”

The Talmud recognizes the human need to pray for healing – and not only praying for someone else. It offers a prayer for an ill person to say before undergoing a particular regimen for recovery: “May it be Your will, Adonai, that this treatment be healing for me and restore me, for You heal with devotion and Your healing is true.”[2]

The Jewish need for praying to God has appeared throughout Jewish history, in Jewish legends, and in Rabbinic teachings. According to one fable, King Solomon wrote incantations – prayers – by which diseases were alleviated.[3]

Prayers for healing eventually became a part of the traditional Jewish liturgy.

In the weekday Amidah, during the thirteen silent blessings, we have a chance to utter in our hearts the names of loved ones about whom we are thinking in the prayer entitled, R’fa-einu, “Heal us.”

During the Torah service, a person who is ill or whose loved one is ill may be given an aliyah – so that the rabbi or cantor can pray a mi shebeirach for healing on behalf of the sick person after the Torah is read.

Reform Judaism did not embrace prayers for healing until the late 1980s. We were the movement of the rationalists, who had little patience for mystical, spiritual, or even superstitious notions that God healed. Our movement’s prayer books eliminated all prayers for healing from the 19th century until the 1940s. Even when they returned, God was praised for consoling us and healing us through emotionally difficult times. No reference was made of God who physically heals.

With Gates of Prayer in 1975, however, our R’fa-einu prayer changed to read, “Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed; save us, and we shall be saved; grant us a perfect healing from all our wounds. Blessed is the Lord, the Healer of the sick.” But even with this clear theological statement, few Reform Jews would have prayed this prayer – as we rarely hold weekday services and the prayer is not said on Shabbat or holidays.

But a shift occurred in 1988, when Debbie Friedman began performing her song of healing, “Mi Shebeirach.” She clearly touched a raw nerve, as her song was picked up by myriads of Reform congregations and integrated into Shabbat services. So important has praying for healing become in our movement, that Mishkan T’filah contains both the traditional mi shebeirach prayer for healing and Debbie Friedman’s. And while Debbie’s in the most well-known in our movement, many other musical settings for healing prayers exist.

Today, in most every Reform synagogue, we take time to say a prayer for healing. This part of the service has become vitally important. Why do we go through this ritual? Some of us pray the mi shebeirach for healing because we believe God has the power to heal. Others say the prayer because we feel helpless in the face of a loved one’s illness and this gives us something concrete to do. Many of us cannot say why we utter the words, but we feel incomplete when we don’t and we feel better when we do.

We used to speak of members coming to services to say Kaddish. Now many attend regularly to recite the Mi shebeirach for healing. We, Reform Jews who inherited the rationalist strain of our religious tradition, have abandoned rationalism in order to pray for healing. COVID has only heightened this practice.

Jewish healing is not only about prayers to God. It also requires that we be open to the healing power that other people bring. Although Miriam is the first person in Torah to be prayed for when she is will, she was not the first to fall ill in Torah. That would be the fate of Jacob. In Genesis, we read: Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.”[4] Joseph immediately pays a visit, one of the examples of bikkur cholim, visiting the ill, we find in Torah.

The Rabbis teach that through bikkur cholim, we take away 1/60th of the illness. They did not believe it literally. It was the metaphor to emphasize the mitzvah of visiting. The point is made through this Talmudic story.

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba fell ill and Rabbi Yochanan, a great healer, went to visit him. Rabbi Yochanan said to him, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba answered, “Neither they nor their reward.” Rabbi Yochanan said to him, “Give me your hand.” He gave him his hand and he raised him. Then Rabbi Yochanan fell ill. Rabbi Hanina went to visit him and asked, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” Rabbi Yochanan replied: “Neither they nor their reward.” Rabbi Hanina said to him: “Give me your hand.” He gave him his hand and he raised him. The Talmud asks, “Why couldn’t Rabbi Yochanan – the great healer – raise himself?” The Rabbis replied: “The prisoner cannot free himself from prison.”[5]

We need each other. On this Shabbat, I wish to you and your loved ones wholeness and healing – and that all of our bodies work as they were meant to. Shabbat shalom.


[1]Genesis 30:1

[2]B’rakhot 60b

[3]Josephus, Antiquities VIII, 2.5

[4]Genesis 48:1

[5]B’rakhot 5b.

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784