Commentary on Parshat B’ha’alotkha, Numbers 8:1-12:16
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Parshat B’ha’alotkha is overflowing with complex ritual and detail: the lighting of the lamps; the purification and consecration of the Levites; the elaboration of the Passover sacrifice; the carefully choreographed journey through the wilderness; the mutiny of meat, manna, and quail precipitating a plague for those who were led by their appetites; the challenge of Moses’ siblings to his leadership; and finally, the sudden onset of his sister Miriam’s disease. Yet amidst these richly detailed stories, we find one contrasting, stark, parsimonious prayer: ”El na r’fa na lah” (“O God, pray heal her!”).
Five words — 11 Hebrew letters — are all that Moses speaks (Numbers 12:13). Except for God’s name, each word ends in a vowel, as if each word were an unending cry. It is as if each word is punctuated with an exclamation point, the brevity of the syllables giving voice to the tortured helplessness of the supplicant: “God! Please! Heal! Please! Her!”
In the midst of catastrophe, the verb of consequence — the bull’s-eye of the prayer — is the central plea: Heal! Indeed, in Hebrew the prayer is nearly a palindrome — reading the same forwards as it does backwards — homing in with laser precision on that most urgent desire: Heal!
A Plea from Someone Trying to Help
This prayer has few words but much resonance. It is a primal cry, capturing fear, powerlessness, and incomprehensibility in the face of sudden illness, accident, or injury. It is not the entreaty of the one beset by the catastrophe, but rather that of the witness, the powerless onlooker, the potential caregiver absorbing the shock, the one who is overwhelmed and stymied about how to help.
When illness, accident, or injury comes to those we love, it is up to us — those who are comparatively healthy and able — not only to beseech but also to provide hope and healing. For the caregiver, there is time only for truncated and hurried prayer, time only for stolen moments of naked cries and yearnings of hope. For the caregiver shouldering the burdens of action — making the loved one comfortable, researching treatment, running interference with physicians, reporting news, calming fears–prayer is a blessed moment of calm in an otherwise turbulent time.