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What the Jewish Tradition Teaches Us about Healing

These are my remarks from a recent interfaith service that explored what our individual traditions can teach us about healing.

The value that the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people have placed on medicine and healing goes back for thousands of years. The first prayer for healing is attributed to Moses, who, upon seeing that Miriam had been stricken with leprosy, called to “God, El na, r’fa na la! Oh God, please heal her!” For the authors of the Torah, illness reflected one’s internal health, and Miriam’s leprosy was a direct result of her gossipping with Aaron about their sister-in-law. (Why Aaron wasn’t similarly stricken is a subject that will need to wait for another interfaith service!) Even though the Torah’s authors weren’t exactly sure what illness was and how it was cured, the text has a lot to say about the physical and spiritual isolation that illness causes as well as the need for people like the priests to take concrete and public steps to reintegrate the ill person into the larger community.

If we skip ahead to the Talmud, we can see that the rabbis had a much clearer sense of what was required for healing. In fact, they went so far as to advise against living in a city without a physician. The generations of rabbis that wrote the Talmud believed that God and humans worked together to heal those whose bodies were ill. However, for those rabbis, while physicians were crucial and all Jews were commanded to prioritize the saving of a life over the observance of any other commandments, the ultimate outcome of illness was decided by God. What I think is so powerful is that rather than imagining that God decided someone’s fate dispassionately from a far off vantage point, the Talmudic rabbis believed that God remained by the side of the sick person, offering strength and support to the one in need. One conversation that was included in the Talmud shows just how close these rabbis believed God to be.

Rav. Anan said in the name of Rav: How do we know that [God’s] presence sustains a sick man? From the verse: The Lord will sustain him upon his sickbed.” (Psalm 41:4).

Rav. Avin said in the name of Rav: How do we know that [God’s] presence abides over a sick man’s bed? From the verse “The Lord over his sickbed will sustain him.”

[They continued, saying:] He who visits the sick should sit neither on the bed nor on a chair nor on a bench, but must wrap himself in his robe and sit on the ground, because [God’s] Presence abides over a sick man’s bed.

The belief that God is present with those who are ill is one of the strongest reasons that all Jews are commanded to visit the sick, as in doing so, they follow God’s example and lessen the suffering of the one who is ill simply by being present.

Ultimately, the Jewish Tradition’s emphasis on healing and on the roles that the priest, physician, and community is based on the deep belief that our bodies are sacred and should be protected and, when necessary, healed. Our bodies are so precious and holy that in the morning prayer service, we thank God for allowing everything in our bodies to work as it’s meant to be working. For most contemporary Jews, illness is not a reflection of God’s judgement; instead, it is the unfortunate and unavoidable result of living in a world made of imperfect materials. And so, when we pray for healing, we’re asking that God be with us and that God send strength through and to our doctors, our family members, and our community. We’re asking that mi sheberach avoteinu v’imoteinu, the One who blessed our fathers and our mothers, blesses us as well with the strength and the support we need to be healed and to be whole.

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