From Sh’ma: a journal of Jewish Responsibility October 3, 1997
Reprinted with Permission
Serious illness affronts the whole person: body, mind and spirit. Early on, Jewish liturgy acknowledged that the ill person seeks healing on different levels. In our central prayer for healing, the mi shebeirakh, we pray for a complete healing: refuah shleima. The prayer then specifies what is meant by a complete healing: refuat haguf, the healing of the body, or what we sometimes refer to as “cure,” and refuat hanefesh, the healing of the spirit, the soul, the self. Modern western medicine mainly addresses our need for physical healing. However, at the same time as we seek physical health, we also seek spiritual healing in response to the assaults not to our body, but to our person: emotional upheaval, social dislocation, and spiritual discomfort.
I am a rabbi, not a physician. When I talk about “Jewish healing,” I refer to the spiritual, not physical dimension of healing. I speak of how the Jewish tradition and community achieves (or helps another person achieve) a sense of spiritual well-being, wholeness, perspective, fulfillment or comfort, especially around issues of illness, suffering and loss.
The key traditional Jewish resources for spiritual healing are the three pillars of Judaism itself: Torah (the study of Jewish texts), avodah (prayer) and gemilut hassadim (acts of loving kindness). As Jews, these practices are always at the core of our spiritual life. However, when we are confronted with serious illness, we refract these practices through a particular lens, and in so doing discover the Jewish genius of refuat hanefesh. In reverse order, I explore these resources below.
Perhaps the central healing practice which the tradition teaches is the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting those who are ill. There is a natural tendency toward isolation at times of illness. Not only are we often physically displaced from our usual roles as workers, parents and community members, but we often experience psychological isolation as well. The mitzvah of bikkur holim mitigates the existential aloneness and abandonment that illness often brings.
The core of the mitzvah is to be with someone and to be present, to provide company and to share some of the burden by empathically carrying it just a bit. In the world of pastoral care, this actually has a name. It is called “the ministry of presence.” We offer our full attention and our full love to the one we are visiting without our own agenda interfering, without expectation. We are just together in the moment. Our hope is that our loving presence will convey a sense of God’s own loving presence.
The second main Jewish resource for one who is ill is avodah: prayer or worship in its broadest context. By avodah, I mean to suggest such activities as individual and communal prayer, mediation, and the spiritual practice of offering berakhot (blessings).
Prayer is an essential spiritual tool to use at a time of illness. It is a natural tool. During a hard time, we need to engage our capacity to hope. Prayer allows us an opportunity to articulate our hopes for healing, for cessation from suffering, for blessing to break through in the mist of pain.
Prayer is also what we do when we do not know what to do, when we are aware that our well- being is not entirely in our control. In this sense, prayer can help us acknowledge that our lives are indeed, b’yado, in God’s hands.
Prayer can be a refuge, an inner sanctuary where we find retreat from procedures, treatments and all of the outer world with its many demands. We may find a sense of calm through prayer, a kind of “time out” for reflection.
In addition, when we pray in community and use traditional Jewish liturgy, we not only benefit from the company of others, but we find comfort in knowing that the words we speak have been spoken by millions of others who, like us, yearn for healing.
Meditation is a wonderful resource, as well. Chanting a niggun (wordless tune) over and over again can help calm us and connect us to the Source of peace and comfort. Mediating on a particular verse from the Bible or from the siddur can help us embody its meaning in a full way.
Saying blessings can help us lift and savor what is beautiful in the moment. We have blessings for pleasures of taste, sight and smell; blessings of gratitude for being in the presence of someone wise, or someone disfigured. In the latter case, we thank God for creating many kinds of human beings. We have a whole list of blessings for getting up in the mornings, so that our waking routine does not begin with a slam of the alarm clock, but rather with words of gratitude for simple miracles, such as opening our eyes, stretching, standing up.
It is also possible to use old blessing in new contexts, to sanctify the experience of receiving chemotherapy, of meeting with one’s doctor, of doing artificial insemination. The spiritual genius about blessings is that they help us reframe our experience in the context of divine reality.
Finally, torah study, in its broadest sense, is an excellent spiritual resource for those who are ill. Study of traditional Jewish texts and commentary is, of course, a fundamental pillar of Jewish religious life. Through Torah study we attempt to understand God’s will for us. Through study we can connect with God.
Thinking about what God has to do with illness, suffering and healing is an essential cognitive resource. Cognitive resources are just as important as non-cognitive resources (such as prayer, or having another person to be present to us). The reason for this importance is perhaps best explained by analogy. It is well-known that experiencing physical pain without knowing the cause often magnifies the experience of the pain itself. Once we get a diagnosis, particularly if the diagnosis is not life-threatening, it often happens that the physical sensations of pain are more bearable.
It is similar with emotional and spiritual suffering. If we can find or develop a framework with which to understand our suffering, then sometimes the suffering itself becomes more bearable.
Therefore, one may search the tradition and find comfort from any of a number of perspectives: the perspective of Torah that states that good is requited with good, and bad with bad: the perspective of the Wisdom literature which underscores the grand mystery underlying creation; early rabbinic suggestions that justice is meted out in the world to come or that suffering may come to offer us an opportunity to do teshuvah; contemporary rabbinic theologies which do not hold God responsible for suffering but rather see God’s roles as the source of hope, etc. At any one time, we may resonate with one or another perspective. Studying the tradition equips us with knowledge that can help us thinking about our suffering and search for healing.
Torah, avodah, and gemilut hassadim, the central pillars of Jewish practice, are indeed the central resources a Jew uses toward spiritual healing at a time of illness. These practices, which at all times form the basis of a Jew’s spiritual life lived deeply, can be refracted through the lens of someone living with serious illness to yield great treasures.
The Jewish people holds tremendous wisdom about living deeply, both at times of abundance, and at difficult times. Our task is to study and practice our inheritance, such that its living waters can nourish us.
Additional articles on Jewish healing may be found in the Sh’ma area of Jewish Community On- Line on America On-Line. Type in keyword “jewishnews” and look for Sh’ma.
Rabbi Nancy Flam is a co-founder of the Jewish Healing Center and serves as Program Consultant of the National Center for Jewish Healing.
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