Years ago, a Jewish woman, a 15-year survivor of cancer, came to me with a confession.
“Rabbi,” she said, “When I was getting chemo, the woman next to me said to bury a picture of Saint Jude (the saint of desperate situations) for good luck, so I did it. I was so scared. I bought a picture of St. Jude and buried it in my backyard.”
“Huh.” That’s official rabbi speak for “This topic does not appear in the Talmud.”
“So, there’s more, Rabbi.”
There is always more.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I told a different Catholic friend about burring St. Jude in the backyard, and she asked me, ‘did you bury him face-up or face-down?’ I told her ‘face- up.’ She told me that it has to be face-down. So what was I to do rabbi? My first friend insisted that St. Jude be face-up and the second one said face-down. So 15 years later, guess how many saints are buried in my backyard?”
You guessed it. There is at least one nice Jewish woman with two St. Jude’s buried in her back yard – And given the alternative she was worried about, thank God!
I shared this story this past Shabbat in a Torah Study group. I asked for help exploring the boundaries of sanctioned Israelite religion. Why on Yom Kippur would Aaron, the High Priest, offer one goat to God and another to Azazel (Lev 16)? Whether “Azazel” is a “desolate place,” or the name of a ”goat demon of the wilderness” – What does this non-normative practice tell me about the boundaries of my religion’s, Judaism’s, practice today?
I went on to share the odd story of the serpents God sent down to bite the Israelites that were wrongfully complaining. When they admitted guilt God told Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a pole, anyone who is bitten can look upon it and be healed.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When any bitten person looked upon it, he lived.” (Numbers 21:4-8).
The Ten Commandments are pretty clear, and they make the above two stories, and a handfull of others patently problematic:
- You shall not have any gods before Me.
- You Shall not make any graven images – not of the things of the heavens, not of things of the earth or the waters below.
My question is not a history question of the actual belief of ancient Israelites. I am not presently interested in the rich rabbinic commentary that explains these difficulties away. I am familiar with them – I love them, but my interest today is this:
Is there a thread that ties together these breaks in ‘normative’ practice?
There is: Illness.
My read on these texts, and my pastoral practice in desperate health issues is “Anything Goes.”
If you are in a dire situation – do you care to which god people who care about you pray to on your behalf? I say keep ALL the prayers coming. Bring in Mary if she’ll help. Send in Mohamed, Azazel, St. Jude, a picture of a snake etched in copper. Send in all the light. If “it” works, wouldn’t you do it to save a life or to remove a serious illness?
We are taught that one should accept death rather than these 3 things: Idolatry, sexual crimes, or murder. There is president to fudge on the first, and I’m fine with that.
To those of us open to a reality that is beyond rational explanation, don’t we also have admit some naiveté’ about how that mysterious reality is really accessed?
I’m aware of the slippery slope just before me. I’m not ready to put up a cross in the synagogue or replace the seats with prayer mats (still, yoga mats are finding their way into synagogues). but I’ll defend a Jewish woman keeping two St. Judes buried in the backyard.
One person at the table asked, “How about the healing waters of Lourdes?”
“Funny you should mention that.” It was one of my dear friends, who has recently lost his vision. “Some Catholic friends of ours sent me some water from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes,” he said. ”I put on a few drops on my eyelids each night. After a few nights, I could actually make out the numbers on our bedside alarm clock. It was the first time in I don’t know how long since I could do that.”
For sure there are boundaries in Judaism. I’m not advocating any changes – but when illness faces us with the existential realities of life and death those same boundaries often become permeable and we would be foolish not to notice.
Prayer is a very personal and private thing. In fact, to be honest to a fault, let me say that public prayer, with other people raising voices and turning the pages in unison, has become very difficult for me the past few years. I prefer the more quite, contemplative pace I can do in my own backyard alone. Appreciate the professional hazard this truth creates for a rabbi who believes both in the power of prayer and in the power of community. However you pray, or if you pray at all, and the above admission not withstanding, by the end of this blog, I’ll be asking you for a PRAYvor.
What’s a PRAYvor? It’s a word I made up for when someone asks me to pray for them. I want to ask you to pray, for me – sure, but more so for some very special people in my life. Scattered across the globe, from the West Coast, where I live, across the continent, and all the way to Israel are some very special people in my life, all facing surgery within the next seven weeks.
נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם.
Be comforted, indeed be comforted, says your God. -Isaiah 40
These are the opening words of this week’s haftorah (the week’s reading from the Prophets). This is first of seven weeks which count from the the fast day of the 9th of Av. (commemorating the destruction of the Temple (to read more about that, click here) to the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It is during this time period that we start to prepare ourselves for the spiritual work of the High Holidays ( for more on how we prepare, see Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s blogpost from yesterday). One way to prepare is prayer, including prayers for health.
I believe that prayer works in healing the mind and the body.
- On a rational level, I pray like Maimonides, for the wisdom of the doctors and nurses who heal (click here for a download of the English Translation of his Prayer for the Physician).
- On a meditative level, prayer works to calm the mind and the body, so that we can go on to do the healing we need to move toward.
- On the metaphysical level, I believe that prayer can do wonders for the person who prays for another (as empathy grows, spiritual awareness deepens), and, prayer can help in the healing process itself (click here for the now classic double-blind National Institute of Health Study of 1998, or here for a much more recent blogpost on the Huffington Post by Candy Gunther Brown, author of Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, Harvard University Press ).
Some people are natural prayers, or have learned how to move themselves to that deeper place through practice. If that’s you, you know what I’m asking you for, but I know many people who find prayer very difficult. It’s okay, I get it; I’ve been there myself.
I said “pray for me”, and I wouldn’t mind that at all. There is no getting around it, while I have every reason to believe that the special people in my life that are getting ready for surgery will emerge ultimately healthier than before, I’m still anxious. Here’s what I pray when I’m focused on anxiety:
הָ֭רֹפֵא לִשְׁב֣וּרֵי לֵ֑ב וּ֝מְחַבֵּ֗שׁ לְעַצְּבֹותָֽם׃
“God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” -Psalm 147:3.
Much more importantly than for myself, I’d like to ask you for a PRAYvor for the special people in my family and beyond, and for the people that you love and care for who could use our prayers of healing. Over the next several weeks, until Rosh Hashanah (this year it begins on the evening of Sunday, September 16), take a moment each day to pray for those in need of healing, whomever, and wherever they are.
Prayer doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
Need words to start off with? You could do worse than the meditative opening words of the verse quoted at the top of this post:
“Nachmu, Nachamu – be comforted, indeed be comforted.”
Need a melody? There are many. I love the melody from my buddy at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, CA, Cantor Mike Stein. He wrote an evocative modern/classic “Refaenu, Heal Us” (click here to listen), or the late, great, Debbie Friedman classic, Mi Shebeirach (click here to listen and watch her on youtube).
However you do it, please do it. If you’ve never been much of a pray-er before, I know it can seem awkward, but despite that, I’m still asking you for this one small PRAYvor.
I can’t seem to decide, do I want to move America “Forward” or do I “Believe in America”? I’m not sure if it matters that I back President Obama or Governor Romney because what I really worry about is what they can or can’t get done. Congress seems so divided that precious little can ever get done. According to Gallup, Congress’ Approval Rating was at 10% in February; now it is up to 17% (April). By comparison, BP’s approval rating during the horrible oil spill in the Gulf was 16%. I won’t be surprised when I see“Congress, we’re kinda like cheap gas” on the bumper of the Subaru that keeps my neighborhood politically informed.
The system of checks and balances that we have in this country looks to the Justice System, the Supreme Court, when the other two need sorting out. With life-time appointments, our highest justices are suppose to be the adults in the room. Are they? Before the Supreme Court, right now, is the best Health Care bill our great nation has been able to produce since the creation of Medicare. It’s not perfect, but I believe in incremental progress when the alternative is gridlock and argument while those in need suffer.
The need for progress in health care is startling, and marks a divide be in our county between those who have and can afford access and those who cannot. The journal Health Affairs, recently presented us with this stark reality:
“…Access to health care and use of health services for adults ages 19–64—the primary targets of the Affordable Care Act—deteriorated between 2000 and 2010, particularly among those who were uninsured. More than half of uninsured US adults did not see a doctor in 2010, and only slightly more than a quarter of these adults were seen by a dentist.”
The central role of government is to keep us safe, which includes much more then external military or terrorist threats, but also our physical and mental health. The Talmud teaches that a rabbi is prepared to interpret law, when he or she can prove that which is unkosher to be kosher in twenty-four different ways. I assume the same thing of Supreme Court Justices, civil jurists of the highest ability. Activists or strict Constitutionalists, I believe that they can find what they want in the law to say whatever they want. Which brings the issue to a moral question – Everyone deserves medical coverage. In one of the most affluent nations in world history, it is an embarrassment that 5000 people have to wait once a year outside a sports area to get free health care (a big “thank you” to the volonteers at CareNow LA, now called Care Harbor).
If the Supreme Court strikes-down the Health Care Act, and we have to start health care reform all over again, instead of fixing the imperfect beginnings that are already underway, I’m just going to freak out. If the Health Act tanks, Obama won’t save us, and Romney won’t either. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “in a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” So if they mess it up, its on us, people. We’ll have to act. If they do strike it down, this is what I want you to do: ”I want you to go to the window, open it, and shout, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!‘”
No matter how much we “believe in America”, it may take a collective crescendo of rage to move us “forward”.