A Caretaker's Prayer

El na r'fa na lah.

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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).

B'haalot'cha is overflowing with complex ritual and detail: the lighting of the lamps; the purification and consecration of the Levites; the elaboration of the pesach 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!").Torah: A Women's Commentary

Five words-eleven Hebrew letters-are all that Moses speaks (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, 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.

When one whom we love is in danger, not only our loved one but also we ourselves face darkness. According to Jewish tradition, the first person who prayed in darkness was young Jacob, on the eve of his exile from home. The Midrash describes the confluence of physical and metaphorical darkness this way: "In order to speak to Jacob in private, God caused the sun to go down-like a king who calls for the light to be extinguished, as he wishes to speak to his friend in private" (B'reishit Rabbah 68:10). So, too, the prayer of the caregiver is private, conspiratorial, hidden from the one who is the object of supplication, yet revealed to the One who can respond. We want to protect the one who is suffering from the compounded weight of the caregiver's distress.

But in the darkness, it is safe to give voice to our fear of dreadful scenarios and of the unknown. In the darkness, it is a relief to relinquish the weight of trying to hold up another's spirits, and to acknowledge that someone with far more power than we possess is the ultimate caregiver. In the darkness, it is possible to renew courage, to find new paths, to discover the equanimity essential to living with the terror of catastrophe.

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Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann is the Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. She teaches and lectures widely on Jewish feminism, rabbinical ethics, the relationship between religion and education, and social justice.