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Does prayer heal the sick? #575

One of my most remarkable moments as a rabbinical student occurred when, during my first month of classes, I was challenged by one of my teachers.

In a class called “Personal Theology,” I was asked in front of fellow students, “Do you believe that when you pray for the health of someone, it actually makes a difference?”

After thinking a moment, I replied, “Yes, I do.”

“Then I think,” the rabbi told me, “that you're going to have to develop a more mature understanding of God.”

I was shocked. Wasn't this rabbinical school? Aren't we supposed to believe in the power of prayer?

As I sat there stunned, the rabbi continued. ”Do you think that God had the power on that horrible day, with the flick of a finger, to divert those two airplanes from crashing into the towers?

“Do you believe that God could have prevented the Holocaust?”

The interaction with my teacher affected me so profoundly that an hour later I walked into the head rabbi's office and declared, “I don't think I can do this.”

But the rabbi sat me down and calmed me. He said, “you have just wandered into one of Judaism's major debates: Does God intervene in our daily lives, or not?

“Get used to it,” he continued. “Throughout your career, you will face this dilemma, and will have to explain it almost every day.”

And as my career has unfolded, I've found that the head rabbi was right.

The matter of prayer, and God's interaction with it, not only perplexes those of the Jewish faith, but worshippers of all religions.

The issue takes center stage this week as our sacred scripture occupies itself with public health. This week's reading is not the most inspiring of the fifty — four yearly Torah portions.

All I have to do is mention rashes, skin diseases, leprosy, and blood purification — and, well, you get the idea.

But isn't it remarkable that the Torah shows concern — both this week and next — for public health issues, long before the field of medicine became a sophisticated practice?

Our tradition recognized the importance of diagnosis, hand washing, quarantine and prayer as part of a holistic approach to healing.

Indeed, Tazria, the Parashah of childbirth and skin diseases, is equally important as other portions because it takes us to difficult places.

This week, the Torah asks us to examine those things which afflict us, and — perhaps more importantly — to consider those who are affected: those which society often places “out of bounds.”

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of illness involves isolation. As the world continues to spin, those who are sick often feel forgotten, alone, and rejected.

And they are not the only ones.

Outside the borders of our daily lives, there are many living outside the margins. They include the aging, the poor, the disabled, whether in hospital or at home.

Perhaps this is why Judaism places such a high value upon Bikkur Cholim, visiting of the sick. 

As we learn from this week's Torah portion, our ancestors understood the need for isolation and quarantine in the case of contagious diseases. But while the Torah provides for such precautions, it never completely isolated the individual who was affected.

In fact, it was just the opposite. The person most respected in the community, the Kohen, the priest, was called upon to examine that person's sores in order to diagnose the disease or affliction.

It was his job as a community leader to get his hands dirty. And when the person was finally cured, through a public declaration or ritual, the Kohen again came forward to declare that person ready to re — enter the community.

In this way, the stigma of illness could be laid to rest. Indeed, if the Kohen could touch that person, then surely others could do so as well.

So this messy and seemingly nonspiritual Parashahis really about addressing an illness from beginning to end.

Really, when you think of it, that is the purpose of the Misheberach prayer which we recite each Shabbat morning as we publicly inform those in attendance of those who are ill among us.

Of course, prayers for the sick don't have a 100 per cent success rate. But prayers can heal. First, they bring the ill person to our attention, ensuring that they remain part of us.

Prayers for the sick are also serve as a call to action. They remind us to renew or maintain contact.

And while prayer cannot always cure cancer or heal a sick heart, they can provide a person with a sense of hope, or help us to cherish our blessings. They can also encourage us to seek reconciliation with our loved ones and help us to renew our relationship with God.

Someone sitting near us has spoken a name during Prayers for the Sick. That sharing of concern is profound. Have we noticed?

Tradition tells us that someone who visits the sick takes away one sixtieth of that person's

illness. So maybe this is the purpose of it all: to lessen a person's suffering by sharing it.

So, this week, perhaps above all, we need to absorb the Parashah, Tazria, for Judaism cannot be only about stories, morals and ethical lessons.

Judaism challenges us — to learn as much from the difficult, as we so from the pleasant.

As for the debate regarding the role of God in healing — I now see the matter within a wider context.

God has set in motion a partnership, by which, we work together to perfect this broken world. That includes a fellow human being who may not, at this moment, be whole.

God cannot do it alone. When we call, visit, text or otherwise reach out, we remind that person that they are not alone. We honor their lives, their hopes and their wishes for a Re'fu'ah Shelaimah — a full recovery.

Can God heal through prayer? I still believe that to be true. With one addition. Through the wisdom and concern of physicians, nurses, other health care staff, family, friends, and even strangers — healing comes faster than the alternative.

As the Torah tells us, we are a nation of Kohanim — of priests. Each one of us possesses the power to heal.

And we thank God for the power to heal another, for in so doing, in some way, we heal ourselves

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780