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Reflections on Prayers for Good Health

February 2011

Too many of us know, from personal experience, what it’s like when someone close to us is diagnosed with a serious illness. You feel like you have to do something… everything and anything possible in order to help. You go to the best doctors in that field; you ask for a second opinion, you consult with specialists, homeopaths, even dietitians. You research studies and forums on the internet for unconventional cures, and you empty savings accounts to fund treatments, flights, medicines and surgeries.

And then you pray. Prayer is the natural response to illness and the reciting of psalms has become the appropriate and automatic prayer for the sick. Just recently, during the same week, two families in our community were struck with illness, and they both lived on the same block. One little girl was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was going in for complicated surgery; the other suffered drastic complications from the flu and all his organs started failing. A call went out on our internal e-mail for everyone to gather that evening, outside, on their block. People came, clutching their Book of Psalms, and soon, the ancient words of King David filled the night air, as neighbors and friends called out to G-d.

Last year, my friend Chaya, torn up inside by the illness of her beloved sister-in-law, felt she needed to do something. Her brother and sister-in-law were doing everything humanly possible, leaving no treatment untried, but the cancer was spreading. Chaya arranged a weekly Psalm group, where women gathered, studied and read an assortment of psalms, and committed this night of study and prayer every week, to her recovery. As time went on, women brought lists of other people they knew, who needed a cure, and their names were mentioned too.

Our Sages have said that it is a special merit for someone ill to have the whole Book of Psalms said in his name. Jewish bookstores sell the Book of Psalms, already divided up into convenient booklets, containing just a few chapters of Psalms. It is not uncommon to go to synagogue or even a youth group activity and have someone hand you one of those small booklets to recite right then, and within minutes, with the help of others in the community, the whole book is read. There is something comforting about saying Psalms. In this technological age, I turn on my computer to find daily requests from strangers, on my e-mail, asking people to pray… for their niece who hemorrhaged during childbirth, or for a grandfather who was undergoing triple bypass.

The Jewish people believe that prayer can obliterate even the most drastic decree and praying for the sick is part of our lives, from the time we are small children. In schools and even kindergartens, children are taught to include the unwell, those less fortunate than they are, in their thoughts and in their prayers. The daily prayer service offers built-in opportunities for turning to G-d to heal a loved one. One place is in the middle of the “Silent Meditation”, a holy prayer with 19 mini prayers in it… on a variety of topics: asking for redemption, sustenance and repentance, praising Him for His strengths and thanking Him for His blessings. But in the middle of the “Silent Meditation”, at prayer number 8, there is a paragraph called “Heal Us”, which is, I think, something we all relate to.

“Heal us Oh G-d, and we will be healed.

Deliver us and we will be delivered, for You are our praise.

Grant complete healing to all our wounds.

Because You are the Almighty King Who is a faithful and merciful healer.

Blessed is G-d, the healer of the sick of his people, Israel.”

So simple. If G-d heals us, we will be healed. And only if G-d heals us, we will be healed. And right there during the blessing for health, an individual can put in a plea for a loved one who is unwell, who is suffering and in pain. We can actually take this touching opportunity and mention the person by name! There is always room for making our prayers personal…making them our own. I find it very comforting that G-d wants to “hear from us” and gives us a chance to turn His attention to the person we are aching for. It becomes such a personal, central part of the prayer that if the person I’m praying for unfortunately dies, there is a hole left, for me, in the space of that passage. I remember when I was in fourth grade, my teacher encouraged us to give her names of sick people we would like the whole class to pray for and insert in the blessing for health. She would keep the names written on the board and you would see each of us looking up, as we got to the appropriate blessing in the “Silent Meditation”, to include the names of ill friends and family members of our classmates. I can still picture the smudged, rubbed out spots on the board where the teacher would erase the names of the people who had recovered or who, unfortunately, had died and no longer needed our prayers…

Another traditional Jewish prayer for the sick is said only when the Torah is read in synagogue. During a fixed break, the reading is paused and the leader of the service offers up this prayer:

“May the One Who Blessed our ancestors —

Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,

Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah —

Bless and heal the one who is ill:

________________ son/daughter of ________________ .

May the Holy Blessed One

Overflow with compassion upon him, to restore him,

To heal him, to strengthen him, to enliven him.

The One will send him, speedily, a complete healing —

Healing of the soul and healing of the body — along with all the ill,

Among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay,

And let us all say: Amen!”

Some synagogues encourage anyone from the congregation to come up to the podium and mention aloud the name of the ill person who needs G-d’s mercy. In our synagogue, the custom is for the prayer leader to call out the prayer and pause at the point the name is meant to be said and everyone, standing at their seats, quietly murmurs the name of the loved one who needs a cure.

It’s a short but meaningful part of the prayer service. Everyone is passive at that point, following along with the cantor who is chanting the Torah portion of the week, and only his voice is heard in the synagogue. And then this prayer calls out to us, includes us, welcomes us to beseech Him, in this powerfully private yet, by definition, very public prayer. The silence during everyone’s private mentioning of his names or list of names is deafening in its poignancy… its pain. Sure, there are people sitting next to me, who I’m sure I know who they’re praying for. Tzippy’s son was critically injured in a car accident and is recuperating, slowly yet miraculously. Natan’s mother suffered yet another stroke, before she fully recovered from the last one. But there are others only G-d hears about. This prayer understands the holistic view, that we need cures from physical ailments, but we also need to be healed from emotional or mental illness; we also need spiritual healing, compassion, restoration and strength, and this prayer magically encompasses the individual’s needs along with those of our whole community, as well as all Jews and all mankind.

We pray for the sick, we say psalms for his recovery, give charity in his name, even take upon ourselves good deeds and try to act better towards our fellow man, in order to increase his merits and lead to his recovery.

What are we doing exactly? Are we making deals with G-d? Negotiating with Him? Are we saying, “G-d, if You make my father/ brother/ grandson/ friend better, I will be a better person? Does this show a lack of faith or is it a chance to strengthen our faith? It’s a very complicated issue. We believe that G-d can do anything… that everything is in His power; we believe we are in His hands; we believe that things are predestined by Him. Is it in our power to “convince” G-d to wipe out the infection, stop the fulminating germ, erase the tumor… in actuality, change a heavenly decree? We want the healing to come straight from G-d and we believe He can bring it. G-d brings us sickness and we, in turn, turn to G-d and pray for healing, arousing us in repentance and thereby bringing us closer to our Maker. Perhaps our soul is tainted, not pure. Maybe sickness is meant to force us to look inward to what needs to be changed, and to look upward to G-d in prayer. When the Israelites are in the desert, complaining about the manna from heaven, G-d sends fiery serpents to punish them. After they pray to G-d, He tells Moses “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”  (Numbers 21: 8)  Unusual. A serpent will allow a person to live or die? No! But when the Jewish people looked upwards and put their hearts in G-d’s hands, up in heaven, they prayed and their faith was strengthened and therefore they were cured.

The whole subject of medicine and doctors is thought-provoking. Is taking medicine going against the will of G-d? Is going to a doctor an intrusion in G-d’s plan? No. It was G-d who gave mankind the seeds of knowledge, the ability to learn and grow and experiment, the power to develop and diagnose… and heal. Yes, doctors are partners, in a way, with G-d, in as much as they can help create or recreate someone’s life. And we have to do our part. Accepting G-d’s will does not mean giving up. Just like if we want our fields to grow, we must plant the seeds, water them, thresh and plow the fields. We must go to the doctors, take our medicine, follow the regimen assigned by them, because only then are we showing our desire to live… our commitment to long life. Our Sages teach us that it is forbidden to sit back and count on a miracle. They also say that, in whatever direction we set off on, G-d will meet us halfway and help us along.

When the people of Israel are in the desert, Miriam is struck with leprosy, Moses says a simple short prayer to G-d, “Please, God, heal her!” In Kings I and II, with Elijah and Elisha, the stories of rejuvenating the boys tell of healings through prayer and not medicine. And Jeremiah sees in G-d and in G-d alone, the ability to cure him. We are not on the level of the people of the Bible who relied solely on prayer in order to be healed. We are living in a time of normalcy and G-d prefers to work his miracles quietly, within the legitimate powers of nature. Perhaps one day we will raise ourselves up to the level of our prophets and our forefathers and merit a different sort of providence.

Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, was a prominent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. There is a prayer that is attributed to him, as a prayer he said, every day before he started treating his patients. Since we have discussed the prayers we say to G-d when we are sick, I would like to share pieces of the prayer doctors themselves say to G-d to help them heal the sick:

“Almighty God, Thou has created the human body with infinite wisdom. Ten thousand times ten thousand organs hast Thou combined in it that act unceasingly and harmoniously to preserve the whole in all its beauty the body which is the envelope of the immortal soul. They are ever acting in perfect order, agreement and accord. Yet, when the frailty of matter or the unbridling of passions deranges this order or interrupts this accord, then forces clash and the body crumbles into the primal dust from which it came.

Thou has blest Thine earth, Thy rivers and Thy mountains with healing substances; they enable Thy creatures to alleviate their sufferings and to heal their illnesses. Thou hast endowed man with the wisdom to relieve the suffering of his brother, to recognize his disorders, to extract the healing substances, to discover their powers and to prepare and to apply them to suit every ill.

Grant that my patients have confidence in me and my art and follow my directions and my counsel. Should those who are wiser than I wish to improve and instruct me, let my soul gratefully follow their guidance.

Almighty God! Thou hast chosen me in Thy mercy to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures. I now apply myself to my profession. Support me in this great task so that it may benefit mankind, for without Thy help not even the least thing will succeed.”

May G-d find us worthy of keeping us well and of sending the right cures when we are ailing, and may we prove ourselves worthy by using our good health to serve Him and praise Him.


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities