In addition to bikur cholim, Jewish tradition teaches that we should pray for ourselves and others during a time of illness. Many modern Jews are resistant to praying in general, and especially skeptical about praying for something specific, such as good health or a cure.
One reason such prayer can be difficult is that we may not envision God in a classically Jewish way, as One who hears prayers and answers or fails to answer them. Another reason is that we often feel unjustly afflicted: when we have led ethical lives but nonetheless find ourselves struggling with disease, we may feel that God has been unfair. Instead of rejecting God, however, we might instead reject some aspects of classical Jewish theology (such as the idea that God rewards good with good), and search for a more satisfying way to think about God’s ways.
Prayer allows us quiet time for reflection. Like meditation, it can be calming and relaxing, thereby allowing us access to regions of our inner selves. It can help us get in touch with our strength and faith. Prayer can also provide release and relief from anxious thoughts that exacerbate both physical and psychic pain. The mental relaxation of prayer can bring us comfort when we take the perspective that our lives are ultimately in God’s hands.
In addition, when we pray in community and use traditional Jewish liturgy, we not only benefit from the company of other Jews, we find comfort in knowing that the words of the psalms and blessings have been spoken by millions of Jews past and present who, like us, yearn for healing.
Before Eve went into the hospital for surgery, she called me for counseling and support. Because she lived far away, I provided support by phone. At the end of our conversation, I asked her if she wanted to pray together. “That would be wonderful,” she said. After a moment of centering silence, I offered the Mi Sheberach prayer for her. When we were done, she told me that both her doctors were Jewish and asked if I would send them a copy of the Mi Sheberach. After her surgery, Eve called to tell me that the operation had gone well. Immediately following the surgery, the doctors had buzzed the administrator from the operating room and requested that she bring in a copy of the Mi Sheberach. Eve’s two doctors then prayed on her behalf. When her husband described this final ritual of the operating room to Eve after she woke from surgery, she was deeply moved and grateful.