Heal Us and We Shall Be Healed

Image: Healing hands. (Image by chiisaihana20200 /Pixabay)

I’ve introduced several prayers from the Amidah, from one of the core prayers in the daily service. Here is one that I find particularly helpful for stressful times, and for maintaining my balance in unbalanced times:

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed, save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete healing to all our wounds,

(Prayer to add for a sick individual: May it be Your will in front of You, O Lord, my God and the God of my forefathers, that You quickly send a complete recovery from the Heavens – a recovery of the soul and a recovery of the body – to the the sick person, insert name, the son/daughter of insert mother’s name, among the other sick ones of Israel) for You are God and King, the faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who heals the sick of his people Israel.

Siddur Ashkenaz

Am I asking God to magically fix things? No, I’m asking for the strength to do what I need to do, and for God’s mercy on all those who are suffering (who may include myself.) It’s another great prayer from our siddur.

Then it’s up to me to do what I can for myself, for my community, for my sick friend. We are the hands of God in the world.

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May We Be Renewed

Image: People running joyfully into the ocean. (Pexels / Pixabay)

I had the honor, this week, of serving on several batei din (plural of beit din, rabbinical court,) examining and talking with candidates for conversion. In each case, after a good conversation and agreement among the members of the beit din, we proceeded to the mikveh for tevilah, immersion. These are the age-old rituals at the close of the process of gerut, conversion, and I am always moved when I am a participant.

The adults I heard this week have spent months and years in study, living Jewish lives, learning about mitzvot. What may have become routine to me is still precious to them, and I am grateful for the opportunity to see Judaism again through beginners’ eyes. They remind me of my own path to Judaism (indeed, I became a Jew 23 years ago in that same mikveh) and they sharpen my appreciation for the joys of a life of Torah.

I notice what is different, too. In 1996, there was a presidential election, with Senator Robert Dole running against incumbent President Bill Clinton. In 1996 the Oslo Accords were in effect, and expectations for peace in Israel were very high. In 1996 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States were upsetting but infrequent. In 1996, if a Jew made reference to “Pittsburgh” I assumed they were speaking of the Pittsburgh Platform, the first official statement of belief and practice from the Reform Movement. In 1996, no one was questioning either my loyalty to the United States or my relationship to Israel. We live in a different world now.

What I know for sure is that Torah itself doesn’t change. Hillel’s lesson, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person – Go and study!” still holds. I am still commanded to love God and to love the stranger. I have spent much of the past 25 years studying Torah, and I still have much to learn. The “sea of Talmud” – really, “sea of Jewish learning” – is wide and deep.

The Jewish People have endured for thousands of years and we’ve seen it all: war, revolt, defeat, destruction, persecution, and even genocide. As a community, we have survived all that, although the individual losses are each excruciating and do not become easier over time. As I listened to the splashing of the mikveh water, as candidate after candidate became a new Jew, I reflected that this, too continues over thousands of years. We are renewed: renewed by each new baby emerging from the womb, and by each new Jew stepping up out of the ritual bath. We are renewed as rabbis lead the ancient blessings. We are renewed with each returning Shabbat.

That’s what I shall pray for, this Shabbat: let us be renewed. Let us pray, as our ancestor prayed in a much worse year, after the destruction of Jerusalem:

Help us turn to You, and we shall return. Renew our lives as in days of old!

Lamentations 5:21

Jewish Prayer Keeps Me Going

Image: A person holds a book, hands resting on top of it. (Pixabay)

More than anything else, prayer keeps my boat afloat in turbulent times.

Jewish prayer has two major forms, public prayer and private prayer.

Public prayer keeps me going by reminding me that I’m not alone. I’m part of something much larger than myself: Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. The words of the prayers often remind me of other things, mitzvot I need to fulfill, or of my true place in the world (neither the highest nor the lowest in creation.) The ancient words are a lifeline to sanity.

Public prayer happens in the synagogue or sometimes in the home, very occasionally other places. It involves minyan or a family. It generally is composed of words that are familiar in their repetition.

In the synagogue, there will usually be Shabbat services on Friday evening and Saturday morning. Most synagogues offer services at that time. Some offer weekday prayers as well: Morning prayers called shacharit (dawn), and evening prayers called Ma’ariv (west). There is also an afternoon prayer service called Minchah, which may be said anytime from noon but which in practice is often said immediately before the evening prayers.

If I can’t get to synagogue, I can say the prayers at home in the spirit of saying them with my congregation. Even if my own Temple Sinai doesn’t have a morning service on Wednesday mornings, I can read the shacharit service and know that there are other Jews, somewhere in my time zone, who are saying it too.

In the home, there are prayers before and after meals, and holiday observances like the Passover seder or the prayers for lighting Chanukah candles. I call those “public prayers” because they are usually said with a group of people.

Elsewhere, there are prayers that are said in a funeral chapel or at a graveside, as part of the funeral service. There may also be prayers at a public event, but those are usually said by one person with everyone chiming in after with “Amen!”

For suggestions about how to approach Jewish public prayer and get something out of it, read New to Jewish Prayer? Nine Tips for Beginners.

Private prayer includes both individuals reciting familiar prayers, and spontaneous prayer.

Before I eat a bagel, I quickly say the blessing for bread. I may not think about the words, but it is a pause to appreciate the fact that I have a bagel, and that this little piece of bread comes to my hand as the result of a series of miracles. Other things I ingest have their own blessings: vegetables and fruit, and even a glass of water. The Jewish Virtual Library offers a one-page introduction to kinds of food and their blessings.

There are also blessings for natural wonders, large and small: for a lovely fragrance, for one-time events, for seeing a wonder of creation, and for the pleasure of Torah study.

Saying each of these blessings slows me down and invites me to pay attention, either to the words of the blessing or, better, to the experience for which I am blessing. Without them, I am more apt to rush through life “sightless among miracles” as Rabbi Chaim Stern, z”l wrote. The blessings are speed bumps, slowing me down to smell the roses.

I say the prayer Modah Ani when I wake up, giving thanks for the fact that I woke up. I say the morning blessings, either publicly or privately, and they walk me through the miracles of beginning my day.

Sometimes prayer is simply silence. Someone might call that “meditation” but I like to think of it as listening. I sit quietly and let the thoughts running through my mind run themselves out. When I finally get to silence, it feels like sitting in the presence of the Holy One.

At the close of day, I say the Bedtime Shema, another reminder that I am not alone in the world, that my interactions and relationships with others are important. It also helps me release the day and settle down for night.

You may be wondering about now, how I manage to get anything done, with all this praying! Some of it happens in a mumble, between one moment and the next. Some of it is imperfectly done, too – I strive to say all my prayers every day, but I am an imperfect person and sometimes they don’t get said or done. What prayer DOES impede is mischief: if I’m doing all the mitzvot I’m supposed to, including prayer, I don’t have time for gossip or resentment or nonsense!

Ideally we bring our imperfect selves to prayer and we become better people – that’s the goal. Praying reminds me of the person I wish to become, and points me down the road to becoming that person. It kicks me in the pants, reminding me of mitzvot I’ve not yet done. In happy times, it insures that I don’t overlook the good in the world. In upsetting times, it readies me for challenges, and steadies my resolve. Prayer keeps me going in times like these.

Prayer for the Country in a Time of Division

Image: People watching the sunset from a bridge. (By Gerd Altmann / Pixabay)

El Rachum v’Chanun, Merciful and Gracious God, Healer of the sick, Source of all Wisdom, we ask You for Your help in this time of trouble. Help us to see Your world as it truly is. Help us to tell the truth, and to recognize lies and half-truths. Give us discernment, and share some small measure of Your Wisdom, so that we may find our way through the present discord.

We ask that You, whom we call Erech apayim v’rov chesed, “slow to anger and abundant in kindness,” grant us the ability to look upon one another with eyes of compassion. Help us look past our anger, past our fears, past our grudges and recrimination to truly see one another in all our humanity.

Give us a thirst for true justice, instead of the poisonous drink of revenge. Open our eyes to genuine need, and open our ears to the cries of the hungry and the sick.

Make us bridge builders, instead of grave diggers. Inspire us to bind up each other’s wounds. Open our ears to each other’s stories, and soothe the defensiveness that rises like bile in our mouths. Help us listen, and truly hear.

O God, who has commanded us, “Be holy, as I your God am holy,” help us find our way to goodness.

Help us, O God, and we will try harder.

Amen.

Storm-Tossed? 10 Spiritual Stabilizers

Image: A ship on a stormy sea. (comfreak/pixabay)

I have spoken to many people who are suffering from extreme emotions right now. Some ideas for keeping your own ship on course:

  1. If you have a spiritual practice, stick with it. Go to services, or meditate, or take a walk in a peaceful place. Connect to the Holy One in whatever way works for you. Don’t say, “I’ll do it when I feel calmer.” Do it in order to feel calmer.
  2. If you have children or vulnerable people in your care, compartmentalize. As helpless as you may feel about the world, remember that the people who depend on you will find it doubly frightening if you radiate panic. Comforting others can be a tonic for a troubled heart: concentrate on making those around you feel calm and safe and you will feel calmer yourself.
  3. Do mitzvot. That is, do the good things that our tradition teaches us to do. Greet people cheerfully, honor parents, teach children, count your blessings and express gratitude for them. For more ideas about this see Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  4. Get Enough Sleep. If falling asleep is a problem, try out a time-tested Jewish tradition, the bedtime Shema. To learn about it, check out What is the Bedtime Shema?
  5. Be Moderate with Food, Drink, and Chemicals. Chocolate, ice cream, liquor, or drugs may seem very tempting as a quick feel-better fix. Be careful about them, and if any of them have been trouble in the past, don’t invite trouble now – you already have plenty, right? Of course, if there are meds you take for health, then be sure to take them as directed and on schedule.
  6. Help someone else. Helping others can be a great way to get out of our own heads and get a little perspective on life. However, take care to fuel it with love or duty rather than anger. Focus on the person you are helping.
  7. Take time to recognize the humanity of every person you encounter. Do you know the name of the person who runs the cash register at that store you visit once a week? Take time to introduce yourself and ask their name. Then use their name. Focus on them as a person, not as an opinion. This spiritual discipline (and yes, it is a spiritual discipline) can transform your day.
  8. Bless. Take a moment to be grateful for anything that is good. You don’t need to know the Hebrew, just say, “Blessed are You, God, this weather is beautiful!” “Blessed are the hands that picked this produce and brought it to market.” “Blessed are You, God, who created friendly little dogs.” See how many things you can find to bless and for which you can express gratitude. For examples, see Blessings for Vegetables and Fruit.
  9. Pray. This may be a time to try prayer, if it is not something you’ve done before. Prayers take all sorts of forms: those blessings of thanksgiving are prayers, for instance. Another kind of prayer is petitionary prayer, and you don’t have to believe in God to do it: “Please let our country be just and safe for all.” Lift that wish up; express your hope or your fear or your anger. Let the heart of the universe, whatever you want to call it, hear what is in your heart.
  10. Breathe. In Genesis, when God creates human beings, God breathes life into them. The Hebrew word for soul is the same as the word for breath: neshamah. When I cannot be grateful for anything else, I can be grateful that the air is still moving in and out of my lungs. When I am upset, I can calm myself by breathing slowly and deeply. When I don’t know how I feel, I can often find out by noticing my breath: fast? slow? sighing? or holding? Breath is a tangible aspect of the soul.

May the Source of all Tranquility bless us with peace and wholeness, and bring peace to all the world. Amen.

Sickroom Exegesis

I’d been feeling below par for a while. I kept imagining reasons that might be so, but mostly I pushed the feeling aside. Then one morning while working out, I realized something was truly wrong when my muscles suddenly went limp. My trainer took me to the emergency room and after a bunch of tests, it emerged that I had blood clots in my lungs again.

A lot of people don’t survive their first pulmonary embolism. I’ve now survived two.

I am grateful: for the doctors and nurses at San Leandro Hospital, for CT scans and science, for my trainer Brittany, who did not let me shrug it off again, and for good health insurance. Without any one of those messengers of the Holy One, I might be dead now.

Once they wheeled me into the room where I am now picking this out on my phone, I saw the sign in the photo above. It says “Goals” and under that, “No S.O.B.” and “No Pain.” Just as with Torah, I see this text as having levels of meaning.

The pshat, or simple literal meaning, is that the doctors hope for me to get to the point that I have no shortness of breath (S.O.B.) and no pain. Those are certainly my goals, too!

But on a deeper level, I wonder, what is it telling me? I am in a situation where I have little control. Indeed, I’m here because my body is out of control. I’m scared. I’m annoyed. I’m tethered (via needles!) to machines I only dimly understand. It would be easy to be cranky and whiny. But there in front of me is a mitzvah, a commandment: “Don’t be an S.O.B.! Don’t be a pain!”

I am reminded of a sermon I once heard. A chaplain was speaking to a group of residents in a Jewish nursing home. He said, “I hear some of you say, ‘I am retired! I have no job any more!’ but the truth is, a Jew always has a job.” He looked around the room. “Anyone know what that job is?”

They looked back at him blankly. He said, “A Jew’s job is to be a mensch! No matter what your body can or can’t do, you can be a mensch.”

It is good to be reminded of these things when I feel scared and uncertain. I can be a mensch. Or as my little sign puts it in a negative commandment, “Thou shalt not be a pain.”

We are living in uncertain times. Many things frighten some of us. We realize how little control we have of much of life. It is tempting to lash out, to behave badly.

But even under the most difficult circumstances, a Jew has a job. We are commanded to live lives of Torah, to be kind to the vulnerable, to deal honestly. We are commanded to care about our impact upon others.

My nurses were amused by my exegesis of the sign in my hospital room. I like being reminded that even in an undignified hospital gown, even with scary news, even with small and large irritations, I have a job that I can do.

That’s what it means to be a Jew.

Jewish Prayers for the Sick

Image: A purple iris in my garden.

I got a question via Twitter: “How do Jews pray for the sick?”

The simplest prayer for the sick is one we learn from Moses. In Numbers chapter 12, Moses’ sister Miriam falls ill with tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a terrible sickness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El na refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.

In this story, Miriam gets the disease because she gossiped with Aaron about their brother Moses. Tzara’at was understood to be the result of the particularly pernicious sin of evil speech. Notice, though, that Aaron was not struck ill even though he was a full participant in the sin. Some suggest that Aaron’s punishment was to see his sister suffer when he knew he was partially responsible. I think it is a message to the reader that wrongdoing and sickness are not always linked.

Today this is only one prayer we say for the sick. We recite a “Mi Shebeirach” (mee sheh-BAY-rach) (“May the One Who Blessed”) prayer during a Torah service for the sick, and in some congregations the same prayer is said or sung at other services as well. We pray extemporaneously, as Moses did, and we also say prayers for the healthy body. Some of us pray for the sick in other ways, by doing medical research, or caring for the sick and their families, or by doing other things. My next blog post will be about one of those prayers. (Stay tuned!)