Although he has now healed into death, I prayed for the recovery of my rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, for many weeks this summer, folding into my daily practice a prolonged chant of Moses’s plea on behalf of leprous Miriam: Ana, El, na, refa na la. Please, God, please heal her.
Just a few months ago I was with Reb Zalman as he chanted the morning liturgy accompanied by whirling Sufi Dervishes, this, in itself, an ecumenitical healing. Now, as I mourn and review what my teacher has taught me, I recall my own first experience collaborating in prayer across religious modalities and dogmas.
It was the second week of my residency in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and looking over my shoulder as I scanned my patient census, our department chair noticed a patient had identified as a member of the Church of Christ. She offhandedly pointed to this patient name and said: “You’ll want to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” I probably blanched visibly, most definitely not wanting to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, wondering what I was to do if this was the expectation?
I headed to the neuroskeletal surgery unit with trepidation.
There, I visited with Ruth, recovering from numerous spinal fusions. When I asked about her experience, she explained, smiling: “Jesus is filling in my cracks!” This reminded me of a story the Integrative Medicine doctor Rachel Naomi Remen tells about her final therapeutic session with an oncology patient wherein she returned to the patient a picture he’d drawn at their first meeting, of himself as a broken vessel. She asked if, now, these many months later, he’d like to emend the drawing in any way. The patient picked up a yellow crayon and drew rays of light pouring out of the cracks.
My patient was deeply moved by this story and we spoke of what it is to be filled with supernal light, and how that seems even more possible when one is broken open. Ruth said that when we’re sick we need a healing God and I saw that she was able to visualize God healing her as God filled her with Presence.
Then Ruth told me she’d never met a Jew, and asked if I spoke Hebrew. Could I pray in Hebrew? I said yes, and that we could pray Moses’ biblical words of supplication when his sister Miriam was so very sick. Oh yes, she would like that, and could I hold her hand?
So I chanted Ana El Na in the late Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield’s haunting melody… And in the intervals where I was accustomed to hear members of the community intone names of those in need of healing, Ruth began to murmur and then call out: I see you, Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you, Baby Jesus!
I smiled to myself. Here we were, collaboratively praying in the name of Jesus Christ and I had not sublimated my identity or compromised my theology. Rather, Ruth’s completion of my prayer to her own satisfaction had deepened my part in the mitzvah of healing the world.Ana El Na, Aryeh Hirschfield, as sung by Hannah Dresner
Infertility is so difficult to talk about since it is such a personal struggle and everybody experiences it in a different way. As a society, we even struggle to define it. Is it an illness or not?
A friend recently shared her struggles with infertility with me. She felt she was in the middle of a storm without an anchor. Having struggled myself to have a child, and ultimately adopting, I resonated deeply with her pain. Infertility is a strange state to be in. You are not “sick,” exactly, yet the medical establishment often treats infertility like a disease, prescribing medicines and procedures with the hope of a “cure,” a healthy full term pregnancy and live birth.
During the time of my “treatment,” I was at the doctor’s office every other day getting blood drawn, checking hormone levels, and receiving shots. The feeling of fighting a disease, striving for a cure was palpable. Each time a procedure failed the doctor has a new one to try. Of course, the infertility industry is big business for the medical establishment. They want you to believe that they can cure what ails you and a pregnancy is just down the road.
But are you really sick? Is infertility a curable disease? Even the insurance industry which supports the medical establishment is not sure. Are infertility treatments necessary medical interventions and thus should be covered by insurance, or are they not? Some are covered, and some are not.
This leaves the women and men suffering in a strange kind of limbo. On the outside, everyone appears “normal” and “healthy.” Yet, internally we are suffering great pain psychologically, spiritually, and even physically. Many of the treatments hurt. I had to wear long sleeves to cover the needle marks and bruises on my arms.
My body was working, yet it wasn’t. As both a spiritual and religious person, I wanted to find some prayers in the Jewish tradition that would confront me during this time. Flipping through the prayer book I landed on the Asher Yatzar prayer,
“Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who with wisdom fashion the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You Lord, healer or all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.” (Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom).
At first, it seemed to be what I was looking for, a prayer for health. A prayer to help things flow the way they needed to. But then it hit me, the prayer reminded me yet again that I was in a funny grey area. My body was functioning normally most things were opening and closing as they should, yet not functioning at the same time. I was alive, but could not produce life. I needed to look elsewhere for comfort. The traditional Jewish’s sources did not work for me, I had to pray the words composed in my own heart and through my own tears.
This area that infertile couples deal with between sickness and health is unnamed and undiscussed. I know several friends who hid most of their visits to their doctors since they were not public with their infertility. How can you explain so many doctors’ visits without someone thinking you are seriously ill?
Navigating the maze of doctors, insurance claims, and your own sense of failure for not being able to conceive can make anyone feel that they are diseased and in need of treatment to make them normal, healthy, and whole again.
For some people, going through this maze of treatment might be the right way for them. It was not right for me. I ultimately came to her conclusion that I was not sick. Thankfully my body was functioning in every other way. I was indeed a healthy young adult.
This helped me recalibrate my thoughts. My goal here was not to “cure” myself by getting pregnant, but rather to be a mother. For my own sanity and sense of self, I left the medical world behind and chose to adopt.
Clearly for me, this was the right decision. I felt a million times better physically and spiritually as soon as I focused on this path. I stepped in to a world that had more clarity. Even though there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding adoption, I knew that at the end of the process I would have a baby. I would be a mother.
I left the world of limbo. As I filled out the papers to adopt, and there were a lot of papers, no one told me that there was anything wrong with me. I did not feel judged. I was healthy, whole, working towards a worthy goal.
Everyone experiences infertility differently. We all have our own expectations, disappointments, hopes and dreams. But I firmly believe that we are not diseased. May all who are struggling find their personal path to health, wholeness, and happiness.
Yesterday, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu posted a thoughtful and heartfelt prayer by our colleague, Rabbi Aaron Weininger in response to the attack at the Boston Marathon. I appreciate the words, and those of other colleagues who have created and shared words of prayer these past 24 hours. I will, no doubt, share some of those words with my own congregation this coming Shabbat. But, I must be quite honest, today I don’t feel much like praying. Today I feel angry.
Yesterday was my first time being up close to the proceedings of a marathon in this country. A number of years ago, while I still lived in the UK, I spent several years volunteering with a first aid organization, the St. John’s Ambulance, and had the opportunity to assist at the London Marathon. But this year, with my step-daughter volunteering as a guide to a participant with cerebral palsy, racing in a chair, we took advantage of the fact that we live just 5 miles from the starting line to cheer them on for the earlier parts of the race.
We arrived in Hopkinton early enough to spend some time with the Achilles team as they warmed up and prepared. It was nothing short of inspiring to see racers in chairs make sure that the custom-made works of art that they race in were reading for action; others have the use of prosthetic legs. Many are war veterans. I, whose crowning physical achievement was to build up to a 5km run for charity a couple of years ago, was humbled by the determination and dedication of the men and women racing, and their volunteer guides who enable those who need additional support to participate as equals.
We watched the first few waves of starts take off from Hopkinton, cheering on our team and many of the other mobility-impaired early starters. Then we made our way to Natick and were lucky enough to get another moment of cheering in as my step-daughter’s athlete and his team came by at around the 9 mile mark. We didn’t progress any further down the track, knowing that it would be challenging to get into Boston. I was in my car listening to NPR when I got the first news of the attack close to the finishing line.
I cannot stop thinking about the family waiting to cheer on a father, whose 8 year old son is never coming home. Mother and daughter are still contending with serious injuries. I cannot stop thinking about the spectators who were cheering on these inspirational runners one moment – many of whom have dedicated hundreds of hours as volunteers to support teams that raise thousands and thousands of dollars for charity – who today are dealing with the trauma of a lost limb. In a split second the world has changed for these people. Yes, the world changes for many others too – the ones who were close by, the ones who waited with baited breath to hear from loved ones who might have been there. We are shaken too. But we are the lucky ones.
I am angry. I am incensed that someone or some group has caused such devastating harm. Is this different from any other act of terror, or violent attack that kills and injures innocent bystanders? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is on the heels of watching Senators play politics in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting that I find myself in a different mood this time around. I’m not interested in gentle words or prayers. I remain inspired by those who helped in the moment of need, just as I was inspired by the athletes I met at the start of the day. But I don’t simply wish to express my thanks for those who made a difference in the face of terror. I wish to express radical indignation that such random acts of callousness are committed by those who have the gall to believe they can justify turning the lives of others upside down.
I’m noticing these feelings arise, and I am not trying to keep them down today. From what place do we garner strength and energy to act? Sometimes from prayer. But perhaps sometimes we need to get in touch with the anger, and we need to be willing to turn toward the images of torn limbs and bloodied bodies because this, too, can re-energize us to act differently. To truly treasure each day, to treasure each human interaction, to foster more caring and do even more in all the ways we live and act, because we have to counter hate with as much lovingkindness as we can.
And I pray, deeply I pray, that the authorities catch those responsible and bring the full weight of justice upon their heads.
February is the shortest month of the year, yet to me it always feels like the longest. There is something about the short cold days, the lack of sun that makes my spirits take a dive. This time of year I have to gather around me anything that brings me comfort to keep myself going. Luckily, over the years, I have developed a wealth of resources. I want to offer a couple of them to you with the hope that someone will find them helpful in their own life.
The first resource I turn to is prayer. I find two different kinds of prayer helpful. The first kind is the prayer of my heart. For this prayer, I don’t need the liturgy in the prayer book. I just need a quite space where I can close my eyes and direct my thoughts towards God. In these moments I talk to God. I simply share my thoughts, worries and anxieties. Sometimes I even blame God and express anger over something in my life. “Why does it have to be this way?” I shout in my head. Having a place to direct these thoughts and feeling calms and comforts me.
Then, I turn to more traditional prayers, the Psalms. “Out of the depths I call to you God!” cries out Pslam 118:5 . “And you answered me out of the great expanse.” You answered me. YOU answered ME. How great would it be to have God answer me, to know that everything will be alright, to know that spring is just around the corner. A funny thing happens when I chant these verses over and over to myself. After a while, I do feel like I hear an answer. I feel like God hears me that God is there for me. I relax and feel less alone.
Then, I continue to read Psalm 118 and come to verse 14. I like the translation and tune used by Rabbi Shefa God, “My Strength (balanced) with the Song of God will be my salvation.” I need this reminder of my own strength. I am strong. It just gets lost in the cold days and the pressures of daily life. So, here is my reminder to find it again. To connect to that place within me that gives me energy, love for my family, and passion for my work. I chant these verses and find my strength again.
Now I feel strong and cared for by God. Sometimes this is enough. I can stop my practice here. But at other times I still need to bring more light into my life.
Then, I turn to a gratitude practice. Several studies have shown that increasing a sense of gratitude in your life will increase happiness. Jewish liturgy has numerous prayers of gratitude. One of my favorites is Modeh Ani – which says “I am grateful to You, the living and enduring God, for restoring my soul to me in compassion. You are faithful beyond measure.” Traditionally said upon awakening in the morning, this prayer thanks God for life itself. I like to start there, being thankful for life itself. Without life, I could not have the other good things in my life. After reciting the prayer I make a list of the things in life I am thankful for. Usually this list lifts my spirits and then I can turn to Psalm 30; “I extol You O God for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me. O God, I cried out to You and You healed me.”
Am I fully cured from the February Blues? I don’t know if there is a cure. But I do feel healed. Healing is different from curing. Even when someone is very sick, I have witnessed that they can experience healing. Emotional healing and/or spiritual healing is always possible. The prayers and practices I shared help me feel healed. They help give me the strength I need to carry on with life when life is not so fun to live. Maybe these practices are only helpful to me. But given that these Psalms and prayer shave been passed down for generations, I may not be the only one to experience their healing power. I hope you can too.
It was dry inside the Avalon Theatre in Washington, D.C.’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. The audience for the 22nd Washington Jewish Film Festival sat mesmerized as they watched the opening night Israeli film, “Mabul” (“The Flood”).
“Mabul” tells the difficult story of an Israeli family whose eldest son is severely autistic. After 12 years of living in an institution, Tomer is abruptly sent home and arrives just before his younger brother’s bar mitzvah. Tomer’s presence creates havoc within the family and challenges the tolerance of the residents of the village where Yoni, the younger brother, lives with his parents.
Throughout this heart-wrenching drama — overflowing with scenes of bullying, infidelity and a near-death drowning experience — you see Yoni practicing his trope. His Torah portion is Noach, from Genesis 6. We experience the metaphorical emotional flood that comes in waves during the course of the film.
“These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted. Noach walked with God.”
Several months ago, Adam, an autistic 21-year-old had his bar mitzvah in our synagogue. Adam also sings in our temple choir; during rehearsal, he sometimes mimics other members. However, he is always in tune and on pitch. During his bar mitzvah ceremony, the cantor stood next to Adam for support as he chanted his entire portion without hesitation. The young man simply sang back the trope exactly the way his teacher had chanted it. Exactly. With the same intonation, the same rhythmic cadences, the same beautiful phrases. As a community, we experienced a miracle!
In “Mabul,” the bar mitzvah creates expectations and tensions for this family in crisis. As I watched the film, I pondered whether it was necessary to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime ritual given the family’s challenging situation. Who needs this bar mitzvah anyway?
We, the audience, need this bar mitzvah in order to celebrate. Yoni and Tomer’s family needs this bar mitzvah in order to function as a family again. The community needs this bar mitzvah in order to validate its traditions.
And as in every good film, in “Mabul” everyone is transformed and redemption takes place inside the house of worship. In spite of all the evil that surrounds these characters, just like in the story of Noach the good dominates.
“And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations.”
Yoni begins to chant his Torah portion and the sounds of his older brother, Tomer, follow his lead. Together, as brothers, they share this long-awaited bar mitzvah. Two by two. Heart to heart. Trope by trope.
What is in the power of a name? Why is naming someone in prayer so sacred and moving? I will never forget my experience when I was working as a hospital chaplain at memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. One morning, early in my career as a chaplain, I asked a Jewish patient whom I was visiting if she would like me to say the Jewish prayer for healing for her called the Mishuberach, literally meaning, “May the one who blesses.” She said yes, and I chanted the ancient words, inserting her name at the appropriate place in the blessing asking for a complete recovery of body and soul. When, I concluded the prayer, I looked up to see tears streaming down her face. I sat with her as she composed herself. She then said, “Thank you. I have never heard anyone pray for me before. It was so powerful to hear you say my name in prayer.”
How many of us ever hear our names lifted up in prayer? How many of us ever feel the power of a prayer or blessing intended for us alone?
As soon as I stood up to leave the patient’s bedside, her roommate on the other side of the curtain called out, “Rabbi, could you come say that blessing for healing for me too? It was so beautiful.” I walked around the curtain and introduced myself to the woman in the bed. She told me that her name was Mary, and I then asked her if she was Jewish. She said, “No, and I did not understand the Hebrew part of the prayer you just recited. But it touched my heart and I would like you to recite it for me.” In that moment, I realized that a blessing has no borders. It did not matter that I was a rabbi and she was not Jewish, what mattered was that my tradition had a prayer for healing that could help her. I recited the prayer for her using her name in Hebrew and English. When I was done, we both had tears in our eyes. The emotions I experienced are hard to describe without sounding corny. There was a deep connection between us that transcended religion, age, the well and the sick.
Some people question reciting a prayer for healing saying that in many cases God does not bring healing to the one who is ill. But in my mind there is a difference between healing and curing. God may not be able to cure an individual’s illness, but I do believe that God can bring healing even to those who are very sick and facing death. Healing certainly happened in that hospital room in Sloan Kettering that day. Both of the women were released from their suffering if only for a minute. One felt a profound joy in hearing her name recited in a blessing. The other felt a strong connection to me as another human who cared about her and who brought Gods presence to her in her hospital room.
If you want to bring healing to someone who is suffering physical or mental anguish, I offer these words from the traditional liturgy:
May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless (insert name here). May God grant mercy upon him/her, strengthen him/her , and bring healing. May God send him/her a complete healing of body and soul together with all who suffer illness. And let us say Amen.
The great singer and songwriter, Debbie Freidman wrote a song based on this prayer which often sung in place of the traditional words above. You can hear her song here:
Yesterday morning, in a weekly class on Jewish mysticism that I teach in the local community, we were concluding our study of the ten psalms that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav selected for the practice of the Tikkun haKlali – the Complete Repair. Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was referring to a spiritual repair – healing at a cosmic level – in which all that was broken would be healed and the flow of Divine energy through the sephirotic system found in the teachings of Kabbalah would come down to us unhindered.
This system consisted of 10 Divine attributes which, together, form the kabbalistic Tree of Life. There are a multitude of explanations and allegorical images used in kabbalistic tradition to try and convey something of the nature of these 10 attributes. Among them, Rabbi Nachman spoke of 10 melodies – 10 kinds of sound resonance that, when unblocked, would vibrate in perfect harmony with each other, bringing perfection and wholeness to the world.
I sometimes liken the teachings of Kabbalah to that of theoretical or particle physics, not only because there are some truly amazing resonances between some of the teachings in each discipline, but because Kabbalah is very abstract and requires translation into something that we can respond to in the here and now. Rabbi Nachman, by proposing a ritual practice of the recitation of 10 psalms, sought to provide a spiritual methodology by which even an individual could make a small contribution to the greater Tikkun by speaking words that he believed carried the resonances of the ten kinds of melody. At the very least, these might help to release some of our own blockages as we seek to be more ‘in tune’ with ourselves and with others.
The last of the ten psalms is Psalm 150:
In the context of Rabbi Nachman’s Tikkun HaKlali, this psalm literally vibrates with the sounds of the instruments played in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Rabbi Nachman taught about the spiritual importance of fostering joy, and the power of music and of singing to lift oneself up, even from the most difficult of circumstances. Our study group considered the power of song and of music at multiple levels.
It was in this context that a member of our study group thought of the example of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the role that music and song has played quite literally in her physical healing. If sound has the power to shatter glass, might it not also have a literal potential to heal, in addition to the emotional and spiritual sustenance that it can provide?
Rep. Giffords has been working with a music therapist, among others also tending to her treatment and recovery. Music has had the power to tap into her memory, and assisted with regaining language mastery, as the music appears to help the brain to access new ways to communicate. Her therapist, Morrow, explains:
“It’s creating new pathways in the brain … Language isn’t going to work anymore, so we have to go to another area and start singing and create a new pathway for speech…”
The article went to say, “Music is also linked to brains areas that control memory, emotions, and even movement. “The thing about music is that it’s something that’s very automatic — part of our old brain system,” Morrow said. “If I play a rhythm, I can affect the rest of the body. The body naturally aligns with a rhythm in the environment.”
Throughout my childhood I often accompanied my mother who would go and sing at Assisted Living and Nursing Homes. And time and time again, I would witness residents who would not or could not easily speak or communicate any more literally return to full life when the music began. Intentionally singing a repertoire of music that would be familiar from their youth, my mother would have residents singing along, moving their bodies – even getting up to dance.
The enormous power of music and sound, working at the physical, emotional and spiritual level, has always been evident to me. It has been an integral part of my Jewish spirituality as I have found ways to access the meaning of our rituals and our prayers through the vehicle of the melodies we bring to them. Rabbi Nachman understood this two hundred years ago. We’re just beginning to tap into the potential that vibration, sound, and song have to bring healing to our lives.