A Caretaker's Prayer

El na r'fa na lah.

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Danger and Opportunity

Medical sociologist Alexandra Dundas Todd begins Double Vision, a memoir of her son's treatment and recovery from brain cancer, with this reflection: "The Chinese word for crisis consists of two characters: danger and opportunity. When my son, Drew, a senior in college, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer bordering his brain, the danger was clear; the opportunity was less apparent. Danger flashed through our lives daily, while opportunities lay waiting in murky waters, to emerge only tentatively.

Family closeness, the ability to savor each moment, to find strength and courage where we didn't know they existed, to discover new methods of treatment that complemented all the surgeries and radiation and eased both body and mind, all contributed to making the unbearable bearable, turning an assault into a challenge" (Double Vision: An East- west Collaboration for Coping with Cancer, 1994, p. xiii).

It does, indeed, take "double vision" to see both blessing and curse, to picture opportunity amidst danger. Courage grows through hope, through the willingness to look for unknown possibilities and to grasp them, through refusing to see only danger in darkness when its counterpart, opportunity, may be waiting in the shadows. The prayer of the caregiver, the cry of the distraught parent, the reassuring whisper of the loving spouse, can help to wrest some measure of opportunity out of danger.

EI na rfa na la. In its simplicity and raw clarity, this prayer of healing recognizes that more than double vision, the vision of the Divine is immeasurable, and the capacity of the Healer is limitless. In response to Moses' prayer, God reveals the duration of Miriam's exile to the wilderness of disease. Her fortunate loved ones have only to wait out a time of disequilibrium and uncertainty; they have received sacred reassurance that all will be well. Yet in anticipating her return, the Torah conveys a truth well known to the loved ones of someone contending with affliction and crisis--v'haam lo nasa ad heasef miryam ("and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted," 12:15).

Life does not go on with any sense of normalcy or progression while one whom we love is endangered; the caregiver's attention and effort revolves around the one who is stricken. Time and space are altered. The yearning for healing expands to fill both.

Our present rituals may not be as formulaic as those described in B'haalot'cha; our contemporary prayers of healing may have become longer and more specific; our modern understanding of treatment may be more nuanced and comprehensive; but Moses' wisdom abides. The essence of what we seek is still found in his direct and eternal prayer. EI na rfa na La: God! Please! Heal! Please! Her!

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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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.