So You Pray for Refuah/Healing?

The lecturer and author, Dan Millman, reflected on an experience that taught him courage.

Liza was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance to recover was a blood transfusion from her five-year-old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked if the boy would be willing to give his blood to his sister. Dan saw him hesitate for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save Liza.”

As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as they all did, seeing the color return to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?”

Being young, the boy had misunderstood the doctor, he thought he was going to give her ALL his blood in this transfusion.

Faced with a dying sister this little boy had beyond immense courage. The urge to be helpful beyond measure – to the point of even giving ALL his blood and facing his own death.

Like many of us who live with loved ones with illness, the young boy wanted to do all that he could to ensure that Liza became well, thrived and survived. In our less literal willingness to help our sick loved ones, we act as well. We send them wishes on Facebook, we deliver them chicken soup, we call to ask how they are doing, we look for the best doctors, we research disease and treatments. We call our synagogues and places of worship and have their names in English, or the more traditional Hebrew, placed on Mi Sheberach lists. Or we mention their names out-loud, or under our breath, in the middle of the service, and we sing with heartfelt desire, a Mi Sheberach prayer that asks for healing.

Most well-known of these is the Mi Sheberach we sang tonight by the late composer Debbie Friedman, a melody that has transcended congregational affiliations.

You may have attended Debbie’s concerts and will remember that she sang with the lights up in the audience, and no flash photography was allowed. In the last two decades of her life she lived with a chronic, often debilitating, and never conclusively diagnosed neurological illness, that could be set off by flashing lights.

This health struggle adds poignancy to her words which we sang:

May the Source of Strength,

Who blessed the ones before us

Help us find the courage

To make our lives a blessing…

Debbie was courageous in the way she lived her life. She put herself before us, her audience, despite the risks to her own health, providing us with the blessing of her melodies and special soul.

When Debbie finally died of complications to pneumonia at the age of 59, many asked how could someone, so talented, die so young? They asked the theological question that comes so naturally to us, when our friends or family are taken ill, or when a young person passes before their time. How could God let this happen? Why did God not listen to our prayers for healing, and intervene, and restore wellness to the one we love?

Debbie’s Mi Sheberach sings the words:

Bless those in need of healing

With r’fuah sh’leimah

The renewal of body

The renewal of spirit…

We hear the English words “renewal of body”, and there is the yearning childlike part of us, that understands, or wishes that God is all powerful, and can bring such a healing as result of our prayer. Like Liza’s brother who gave his blood to his sister, we understand the prayer literally. God can choose to renew the body, just as God can choose to renew the spirit. And we get angry when God does not remedy our own or our loved one’s physical ailments.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, along with advertising Executive Michael Shevack, wrote a short tongue-in-cheek book called: “Stupid Ways and Smart Ways to Think About God”. The idea that God is going to jump to our every desire and whim they call: “God the Cosmic Bellhop.”

They write to highlight the ridiculous: “Just ring the bell, and God becomes your Pavlovian puppy. Eagerly He goes to work, gratifying your every desire, indulging your every whim.” Of course, as they point out, if we expect God to literally answer all our prayers with a “Yes, Sir!”, when we make God our Cosmic Bellhop… it’s we who end up carrying the baggage.

We get angry because our prayers for renewal of body are not answered with a “Yes”.

An all-powerful God who can heal with the click of Her fingers, who can override the natural course of nature, is, I would suggest, also another stupid way, or in my preferred parlance, a limiting way, to think about God. Miracles can happen, but they are exceptions in nature, not the rule of God.

Tomorrow morning, we will read prayers that thank God and wonder at the miracle that our body operates – that our blood flows, our bodily functions work, that we can breathe, that we can get up, and get ready, and get out in the morning. It is part of our morning blessings. Health is a miracle because our bodies are complicated, complex and spectacular systems.

However, our bodies are not infallible systems. I would suggest, when things go wrong in this marvelous body we are given, God has nothing to do with it. We can hope, accompanied by a God who metaphorically holds our hand, for the renewal of body. Sometimes that wish is granted for God, and for us… and sometimes not.

Debbie Friedman begins the second stanza of her healing prayer with the plea: “Bless those in need of healing with a Refuah Shlemah.” Refuah is the Hebrew word meaning healing. Shlemah is the Hebrew word meaning wholeness. Put the words together, and we have an appeal for a “healing of wholeness”. A sense of unity of mind and spirit with one’s state of ill-health or the health of our loved ones that has gone awry.

Rabbi Simkha Weintraub writes about “Forgiving Those Genes”. He lists all his inherited health problems from diabetes to thyroid to acne and then proclaims “But that’s not fair to you, genes of mine! For I have also drawn on you… for some remarkable treasures – familial love, Jewish neshamah.., a tendency to hope, quirky sense of humor… Why impugn my gene package by highlighting only certain angles?… When I look at the whole picture, the big picture, which isn’t enough, I surely come out way ahead in the trade-off. That’s my prayer. To look at the whole picture. Thank you, God for giving me these genes. Your explanation will follow someday, I hope.”

Rabbi Simkha Weintraub puts into words written with good humor, the true sense of Refuah Shlemah, a healing of wholeness. He has come to terms, accepted, the genes he has been given, the illnesses it brings, alongside the blessings they have gifted him, and in reconciling the two, he has found a sense of whole in his soul. Ultimately what we pray for is that one who struggles with not being whole, physically or spiritually, finds Shlemah, wholeness with themselves and their situation. That we, who accompany them on their journey of illness, find a way to support them, and find our own healing of wholeness for their situation in our souls.

Illness is a time which tests our courage. It tests the courage of the one who is sick. It tests the courage of us who care for the sick. Our prayer, our Mi Sheberach is not a demand for the miraculous from an all-powerful God. It is a prayer that asks for wholeness, while not extinguishing the hope for healing of body and a healing of spirit, a hope that God shares with us.

May the Source of Strength,

Who blessed the ones before us

Help us find the courage

To make our lives a blessing

And let us say: Amen.



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