Prayers for health and well-being have been part of the synagogue service for years. They reflect a deep human instinct to combine the medical and the spiritual probably found in all religious traditions. In this week's Torah portion, we find an ancient and powerful example of prayer being invoked by a loved one to bring comfort, relief and healing to a member of a family.
In Numbers, Moses beseeches God on behalf of his stricken sister Miriam in a terse, powerful cry for help: Eil na r'fah na lah, or in English, "Please God, heal her!" Who among us has not wandered down a hospital hallway and, in a private moment, sought some outside, miraculous intervention for a loved one?
In actuality, though, modern Jews, like most modern people, turn to science and the medical arts for healing, and not to God or religion. Indeed, science has made tremendous progress. New medical technologies, pharmaceuticals and treatment are nothing short of miraculous compared to the paucity of possibilities 50, let alone 100, years ago.
Not surprisingly, many of the new crop of anti-religious books that have recently appeared attempt to demonstrate that there's no biological connection among faith, healing and good health. The shrillness of these works, however, belies a frustration with not only the endurance, but the expansion of alternative remedies and healing practices.
But what about prayer? What about Moses' plea for his sister? Is it valid? Does it have an effect? Indeed, why does almost every synagogue of every stripe today include some kind of prayer for healing? Have we sailed over the edge of the earth — or is something else going on here?
About 30 years ago, I remember attending an Orthodox Shabbat morning service in Cincinnati. My great-uncle was called to the Torah for an aliyah in honor of the 80th anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah. It was a remarkable moment, until he started asking for one Mi Shebeirach after another, seeking divine protection for just about every person he knew. It was not just the length of the activity that bothered some people, but also its premise. Can prayer really heal?
The subsequent appearance of Debbie Friedman's song, "Mi Shebeirach," signaled a turning point for many modern Jews in their attitude toward faith and healing. What was once viewed as a marginal, scientifically and philosophical improbable part of the tradition began to reposition itself toward the center of Jewish life. While most synagogues today probably don't offer actual healing services, my sense is that just about every synagogue of every denomination offers prayers of healing and comfort.
Emotional, Spiritual, Medical
What changed? As a student rabbi back in the late 1970s, I was part of a study at a secular, community hospital in Richmond, Ind., to study the feasibility of developing a pastoral-care office. At the time, it was a bothersome request. The medical staff didn't want it. Questions about charts, privacy and interference were raised. But the program was developed anyway.
Empathy, a friendly visit, a prayer, poem, moment of shared silence suddenly seemed not only tolerable, but desirable. Healing is an emotional — and therefore spiritual — as well as medical process. Today, just about every hospital in this country has some kind of pastoral care.
Whether or not prayer heals clinically will remain a matter of debate. The fact that many request it as part of the healing process — coupled with the fact that prayer seems to offer comfort to the ill, their loved ones and friends — is incontrovertible.
It doesn't hurt to offer a prayer for health. Most of the time, it actually helps somebody somewhere raise a smile. Perhaps it is heard from above with love and compassion, even if the ability to intervene remains limited.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.