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Yom Kippur 5783: The Healing Power of Prayer

Rabbi Shira Stern, D.Min., BCC

By a show of hands, how many you have said a misheberach prayer for someone who was ill? Please put your hands down. How many of you believe it will do any good? How many of you don’t know if it will, and are only hedging your bets? How many of you feel awkward doing so, but do so anyway?

When I was newly ordained, I came to a tiny shul in New Jersey as their first full-time rabbi. This is significant only insofar as it meant that any ritual, any service, any liturgical change I wanted to make was possible, because there was no one to say “we’ve done that and it didn’t work.” So early on, I introduced the chanting of the mishberach each time I read from Torah and at Aleinu when I didn’t. At first, very few people offered me the names of those for whom they were praying, but gradually, the tradition became important enough for my congregants to stand and call out the names on their own. We learned about parents in the hospital, grandparents recuperating, children afflicted with diseases serious and less serious. I could see by the strength of their voices how well the patients were doing, or how poorly, and I was instantly reminded to call, to visit or to send a note of support.

Why did my congregants come? They were a group of loosely affiliated Jews, some with Orthodox backgrounds but secular practice and others deeply committed Reform Jews who had never seen this ritual in the synagogues they grew up in. Why did they feel so strongly about our custom? Perhaps it was acknowledgment of their anxieties, or a public request for support, or a magical connection to God in their eyes. Maybe they thought praying for healing couldn’t hurt, and surrounded as we were with large Catholic communities who regularly offered to light candles even for our sick relatives, it meant finding an appropriate Jewish corollary. At the least, chanting the misheberach gave us something concrete to do when we feel helpless and impotent to do anything but “kiss and make it better.”

I, however, felt like a fraud.

I stood at my bimah, solemnly receiving these gifts of names, watching the reactions of the families who, on hearing their pain and fear articulated and acknowledged, sat down in relief and visibly relaxed. I would wonder why such a simple act left them feeling transformed. I knew it was important to them, because if I neglected to read off a name they had requested, they would jump up to interrupt the service, so that my inadvertent mistake could be corrected immediately. What difference could this possibly make in the scheme of things? Did God personally hear my prayers – and theirs – and act upon them?

Twenty years later, after returning to chaplaincy as a full time career, I began to see what had happened long before in my congregation. 

I don’t always pray for patients; many times, in ICU or the ER in the middle of the night, I have prayed for a family to find the strength to say good-bye, before it’s too late. I have tried to feel the intense and overwhelming love of a spouse who can’t imagine a day without the other one after 60 years of marriage, so that I can use that palpable emotion to comfort them later. I fully expect God to pay attention.

But do I think my prayers will work?

When I sit with a patient of mine and hold their hand and sing to them until they go to sleep, or pray with families surrounding loved ones in the process of dying, or calm a patient frightened of the uncertainty of prognosis, I feet a distinct change in the room. I have prayed that my patients find healing, or release from constant pain, and I have seen changes in those for whom I have prayed. When I have sung at the bedside of a patient in ICU, monitored with machines that provide blood pressure, heartbeat and oxygen levels, I have seen the pressure go down, the breathing become less labored and the heartbeat slow to normal levels.  And I have seen the tension and then the relief in neighboring patients who grab me as I leave a room and say, “Look, rabbi, I don’t know if I believe in God, but please, will you pray for me too?”
What do I believe or hope or intend that God will do when I pray on another’s behalf? I believe that on some level I cannot yet fathom, God will hear my voice. I hope that God will open the gates of healing wide enough to let this person slip through, and I intend for those I pray that they be acknowledged and feel heard. I do not always pray for patients alone; many times, in the Intensive Care Unit or the Emergency Room in the middle of the night, I have prayed for a family to find the strength to say good-bye before it is too late. I have prayed for the surviving spouse who now is facing a lifetime without their partner after 60 years of marriage. When this connection is made, when this prayer works, I believe - I hope, I expect - that it will pierce the atmosphere and God will hear. What God does with it is God’s business. All I can do is ask.

As a community of committed Reform Jews, we acknowledge the inherent value of petitionary prayers for healing. At the same time, many of us who want to build on this value are asking ourselves, what more can we do? How do we “pray with our hands and our feet,” to paraphrase the famous reason of Abraham Joshua Heschel, as well as with our voices?  

We can be on that frontline where the most mundane tasks become sacred ritual. 

Several years ago, a young boy in our community was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia; Vincente celebrated his 11th birthday in the hospital. The neighborhood jumped into action, providing daily food deliveries, car pools, babysitting for his younger siblings and constant praying at his home parish. One of our congregants asked me why Judaism didn’t have the prayer circles that St. Mary’s could provide, expecting an apologetic from me. Instead, I told her we certainly did have a way to do this. So, we set up a chain of ten women, each of whom prayed one healing psalm a week, over ten weeks, rotating to the next psalm each Monday. On any given day, Vincente was surrounded by the entire Psalm cycle, and we prayed that God would listen to our combined our voices. We wanted our tears to count for something through both the saying of the mishberach and the psalm which follows it.

Did the prayers we recited work? (I don’t know.) It’s been three years, but Vincente is still in school, still very much alive.

Last year, however, I did a funeral of another child, a nine-year old who died quite suddenly, “even though” he was seriously challenged by his life-long struggle with a neurological disease. His death was totally unexpected; he was only in the hospital overnight. And I’m sure that within his very large, very caring and involved circle of friends, a great many prayers were being said on his behalf. And yet, he died.

When I went to the family’s house to prepare for the funeral, I fully anticipated and expected to hear real anger at God: how could God have taken Pesach (name changed to protect the innocent) when this child, with all his limitations, had given so much love to those who knew him? His laugh was contagious, his awareness of his surroundings was only surpassed by his inability to communicate his response verbally, his sweetness an invitation to the world to love him. And love him they did.

His parents, his brother, his brother’s friends, his school attendants, the receptionist at the school, his aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and bus drivers and doctors and nurses and strangers in the mall who would come up and smile at him, they all loved him.

It must have been very hard on his parents, who took him everywhere, and tried to make his life as normal as possible. So they went to ball games and swimming and last month, to Disney World. In their words, he was a “real trouper.” But carrying a nine-year old would be challenging for anyone. He could not stand, or walk, or sit up by himself; he could “eat” only through a tube through his belly.

But when they spoke about Pesach, they smiled with their eyes though they were crying, and with their hearts, though their hearts were torn. Had I known them before his death, I might have prayed for strength, not just for Pesach but for all the caretakers in his life as well. His father said to me, “I don’t know if I believe in God, but I do know that something made us take that 2-week vacation in late August, and some being brought this wonderful child into our lives.

Did the prayers NOT work in this instance?

I don’t know, but still, I expect that God doesn’t play favorites or worse, Russian roulette with the lives of people who need healing. I do expect God to be generous with healing for everyone. 

So why DO we pray the mishberach? Why do we ask God to protect those we love and those we know, maybe for us and sometimes, for those we’ve never met? Especially if we do not know if prayer works?

We moderns of the 21st century often require proof that something exists, or we don’t believe it.  Science has become our operative religion, and so it should come as no surprise that we have turned to researchers to help us deal with this pesky prayer problem. 

So far, more than 1200 studies have examined the relationship between religious activity and health, with more than half of the studies showing a significant positive connection. Most interesting, the federal government considers this so important that it has spent $2.2 million in the past five years on studies of distant healing. 
The result of this work around the world has started a small revolution in medicine. In 1992 only three medical schools had courses on religion, spirituality, and medicine; today, 90% of the 154 medical schools in the United States have such courses.  Apparently, the scientific studies have generated some interest in the mind/body/spirit movement and its impact on medical outcomes.

Now, isn’t that nice? But does it matter?

There are scientists who claim that there is no rational explanation for how this kind of prayer might work, and others believe that the power of prayer can be answered by quantum physics, in which distant particles can affect each other's behavior in mysterious ways, those "spooky entanglements between particles at a distance.."  But it really doesn’t matter.

Because I think there are major flaws in any scientific survey about the effects of prayers or religion. 

You can’t qualify or quantify prayer by using a scientific method, because there are so many variables to include that the results are meaningless. It’s comparing apples and orangutans. Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center makes the point well: "God” he says, is beyond the reach of science.” 

Belief is predicated on … faith, not scientific proof. If you pray a misheberach  despite not having any proof that it will work, you’re probably going to continue.
If major researchers believe that “prayer allows the body to heal naturally… freeing the body’s natural healing processes,” well and good.  But it doesn’t really matter, does it?

Maybe Pesach survived as long as he did with as many life-threatening illnesses as he had because the love that encouraged people to pray for him increased his life expectancy by many more years than he might have had.

Some of you will have stood tonight to call out a name, or whispered it under your breath or thought it. Maybe a few more of you will decide some time in the future to join those chanting the mishberach for a loved one.

Or maybe you’re still having trouble doing so. I understand, because sometimes I do too. But I continue to do it because it changes something in me. I once walked into the room of a young woman in the last stage of early onset MS. She was able to see with difficulty, and the sounds she made were incomprehensible. Until one day, as I chatted with her mother, I learned that as a child, this woman had loved Hebrew school, especially the classes in prayers. So, turning to her, I simply chanted the Shema. Maybe I just wanted her to listen, or wanted God to listen. Halfway through the first line, Adrienne (changed name) joined in with me in the clearest way. Every time I came to visit after that, she’d beam at me when told I was in the room and yell, “Rabbi Shma! Rabbi Shma!” If that was the only communication between us, it’s still fine, because it was pretty powerful for both of us.

When this connection was made, then yes, this prayer worked.

But praying for healing is not always easy.  So sometimes, before I enter a room of someone who is ill, I pray to be able to pray. When I wash my hands before going in, I do two things: I recite the prayer for the ritual washing of hands – al netilat yadayim – and then I stop to take a breath and say a prayer by one of my teachers in rabbinic school:

   “A Prayer for Prayer.” 

In Your openness, I find healing.
In the promise of Your love, I am soothed.
In Your wholeness, I too can become whole again.

Please listen to my call –
    
    Help me find the words
    Help me find the strength within
    Help me shape my mouth, my voice, my heart

So that I can direct my spirit and find You in prayer.” 

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783