The Torah of Healing

This sermon, the Torah of healing, is the Santa Fe sermon. We live in a place where health and healing are part of the culture, and as Jews we’re right at home, because we have an ancient tradition that has its own perspective about this. And in the last fifteen years, Jewish healing services have become part of the our liturgy.

Healing is not only for the physically ill, it is for everyone, and being healthy is part of the Jewish path to holiness. Of course, taking good care of ourselves is hardly controversial. Health spas abound with regimens of food and exercise way more Orthodox than I could ever imagine. They preach with a messianic zeal to get people to live longer and healthier, but they don’t tell us why. Judaism wouldn’t disagree with anything they propose, it simply says more by giving us a better reason to take care of ourselves than simply looking and feeling good.

“Teach us to number our days so we may get ourselves a heart of wisdom.” The rabbis say this means that we should make each day count, however many or few. We ask for health and healing for only one reason, so that we can serve God. This is the sovereign principle that informs all that we do. Many of our greatest teachers and rabbis were also physicians, because sanctifying life is not only holy but holistic. Rambam, Maimonides, asserted that to study medicine diligently and to practice hygiene are among the greatest acts of worship. When we’re healthy, our souls are free to pursue the highest purpose, the contemplation of God. Health is sacred and healthy living is a mitzvah. So, while the Pritikin Longevity Spa and Rambam may agree about the how of health, there is a big difference in the why.

Judaism regards life as the best gift. We toast with l’chaim. We can break almost any commandment to save a life. Life is so precious that Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Ancestors, tells us, “One hour in this life is better than the entire world to come.” We are commanded, maybe begged, to choose life, and we live in our bodies. The body is a miracle in its meticulous perfection. Only such a vessel is worthy of sheltering the wind spirit, spirit breath, that the Holy One has breathed into us. Our very breath is both physical and metaphysical, because while we can feel breath, we cannot see it.

When we say the Mi Sheberach, we pray for both body and soul because both are essential for refuah shlemah, a complete healing. A healing of body means being cured of illness, and a healing of spirit means a path to wholeness, purpose, and mystery. We can be cured without healing, and we can be healed without cure. Paradoxically, serious illness often leads to a healing of the spirit, because when our bodies force us to slow down, we enter a meditative place that for some of us is a new land. Suddenly we understand life as a gift, and it’s only for a short time. We see the gift of life freshly and we see the context of our lives differently. Illness is a divine warning, a chance to ponder life and live as a penitent after recovery.

Our tradition sees dis-ease is a result of internal processes that reveal imbalance. When we distance ourselves from God, illness reveals the distance. This idea, however, is easy to misunderstand and can lead to dangerous assumptions. If we’re spiritual types, we may view illness as spiritual failure. Our bodies betray our soul’s imperfection. We cause our heart attacks and cancers. Does this mean that if we have it together, walk the right path, and bask in God’s light and love, we’ll live forever? Then what do we do when a two year-old is diagnosed with leukemia? Has she spiritually distanced herself from God? No matter how righteous or full of denial we are, we’re going to get sick and die. We are so terrified of death we do all we can to avoid the inevitable. Instead of seeing the end of life as a return, part of the cosmic circularity, it is seen as tragic.

While illness is one of the genuine mysteries of life, healing is even more mysterious. God’s hand is essential, yet it isn’t only God. It is a mitzvah to bring healing; each of us is commanded to do this for each other. Two thousand years ago Ben Sira wrote: “From God the physician gets wisdom… God brings forth medicines from the earth. With them the physician soothes pain and the pharmacist makes a remedy.”

When we become sick and encounter the limitations of conventional medicine, we may turn to other paths and meditate as Buddhists, do yoga as Hindus, and adopt a macrobiotic diet. Chicken soup is out, kale is in. Yet Judaism offers its own medicine and prescription to return to health. We are healed by the three things: Torah, Tefillah, and Gemilut Hasadim. Torah is study, our medicine to keep us in health, because it keeps us close to God. When we’re ill, we’re broken vessels. Torah study empowers us by reminding us that we are more than body; a new insight, a deeper meaning puts mind and spirit in the foreground, if only temporarily. When we are not well enough to study, David’s psalms, written in heartbreak, make us feel less alone. The hasidim took a favorite verse and repeated it as a mantra, sang a wordless melody to lighten the heart. We can do the same.

Illness is a great spiritual challenge. We feel not only broken but abandoned. How can prayer, tefilah, help? Modern Judaism does not practice laying on of hands, or faith healing, yet we know that the way people think and feel does influence their health. Freud was the first to base a system of healing upon this when he saw people cured of physical illnesses such as paralysis by talking. Prayer is talking, talking to God. We pray for ourselves and for others. Three times a day we say, refaeinu Adonai v’n’rafeh. Heal us, God, and we will be healed. Prayer is old medicine. The first healing prayer is in the Torah: El Na refah na la. God, please heal her, please, is what Moses sang to God when his sister, Miriam, became covered with leprosy after gossiping about Moses and his wife.

When we become ill physically, our spirit is also wounded. In our feeling abandoned, we don’t know where to turn. Sometimes there is only one place to turn, to Adonai, the compassionate face of God. When King Hezekiah lay mortally ill, the prophet, Isaiah, came to him and said, “Set your affairs in order, because you are going to meet your Maker.” Hezekiah turned from him, faced the wall, and prayed to Adonai, God of mercy, and he was healed. God has two names. Elohim is the God of natural events, the God of illness and death. If we only had this God, we would despair, give up. But it is Adonai, the God of hope and possibility, whom we need to heal us.

When we are in pain, full of anxiety, or suffering major illness, we lose our identity. Benjamin Franklin once said, “A philosopher is only a philosopher when he doesn’t have a toothache. We become our suffering and lose our centeredness; we enter the hell of wondering whether our lives have meaning. We need to reconstruct identity by finding meaning, not necessarily explanation, for our suffering. By praying, we act as one who believes that God hurts with us and listens to our cry. When we sit in meditation, we find God in the stillness that sickness often demands. We discover that illness is not punishment; disease may have no moral meaning. We allow ourselves to be cared for by God, and we feel God’s hand on us, like a parent’s, guiding body and spirit.

Does this idea of prayer as a healing instrument awaken skepticism? After all, we’re Jews, lovers of the rational, existential vision. When I worked as a chaplain at Sloan-Kettering in New York, the only people who turned down my offer of prayer were Jews. I invite you to suspend your disbelief for a moment as I describe a remarkable study. The University of California Medical Center conducted a double-blind study on 400 patients in cardiac care unit. Neither they nor their caregivers knew into which of two groups they were put. Both groups were equally ill, received the same care, but one group was prayed for. The pray-ers didn’t know any more than a patient’s first name and their general condition. At the end of the study, the prayed-for group did better in the following ways: They were less likely to develop congestive heart failure; they were five times less likely to require antibiotics; none required an artificial breathing tube; fewer developed pneumonia; few experienced cardiac arrest requiring resuscitation; and none died, compared to three deaths among those not prayed for. Even a noted skeptic of “psychic healing,” Dr. William Nolen, remarked after this study that perhaps physician should be writing in their orders, “Pray for my patient three times a day.”

The third component to Jewish healing, gemilut hasadim, doing good deeds, has to do with how we help heal each other. Besides praying, patients need our presence, because they need God’s presence. AJ Heschel said, I cannot see God’s face, but I see my mother. We are God’s face to each other. The Talmud describes synagogues that housed hospices for the sick and dying, so that they remained part of the community. Visiting the sick, bikkur cholim, is a mitzvah of great spiritual significance. It is called the ministry of presence. Even great healers need healing from another. R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai, famed for touching the sick and healing them, once became ill. His disciple, Eliezer, asked Yochanan why he needed his student to heal him. “Because the prisoner cannot free himself from prison,” was the reply.

Very sick people aren’t so much afraid of dying as of pain and loneliness. We have obligation not to give up and mourn too soon, no matter how helpless we feel. The sick fear that we’ll pull out because the relationship has no future, especially in the case of cancer, which may go on for years. The Talmud says, “Everyone who visits takes away one-sixtieth of the illness.” Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote of an experiment where a healthy person puts a foot in freezing water. The person who does this alone can stand it half as long as the one who has someone with her to talk to, to complain to.

Illness isolates us, and alone we become nothing more than the illness. Physical illness creates emotional illness by turning us too much within ourselves. We feel best when we’re not self-conscious about ourselves, when we turn outward. When we visit, we help the patient to transcend self, because our compassion for them brings God’s compassion to them. Our visits keep love present, and we offer the community’s concern. It’s not just family and friends and rabbis who have the obligation to visit the sick, we all do.

Our tradition teaches that bikkur holim is not just a social obligation to comfort but an active way to promote healing by reinforcing connections to life and to a caring community. We’re instructed to visit not in the early morning or late evening but in the middle of the long day. We come and sit with the patient, not with words of advice or stories of other illnesses. We are instructed to be cheerful, hopeful, and to keep the visit short. We are there simply to be present. Soloveitchik writes, “Reduction of each other’s loneliness is a value in Judaism. Healing from a Jewish perspective recognizes the integrity of individual suffering while reminding us the we are part of a community.” Our visit is a reach of the outstretched arm to the patient. We are an extension of God’s touch which makes healing possible.

There is not always a happy ending. We cannot necessarily save someone’s life by our visit, and we cannot then say that no miracle occurred. When a child dies and the parents, in their grief, have nothing to give each other but the marriage ultimately survives, a miracle has occurred, because resiliency itself is a miracle. Sometimes success is knowing that the last weeks of a person’s life were spent feeling loved and cherished. We fear not being loved even more than dying. So many of us yearn to be close to holy Presence. Here’s how. It is not only the sick one who benefits by a visit. Tradition tells us that the Shechinah, another name for God, stands at the bed of the sick. When we go to visit, we come into that Presence, too. Some One or something in us brought us to the sickbed, that the one lying there benefits simply by our willingness to be there in our fear, awkwardness, and helplessness. Knowing we are God’s servants heals us too.

We act as agents of transformation when we visit the sick. When a community behaves this way, every member discovers that compassion is a path to personal power as well as mitzvah. What begins as obligation becomes blessing for the whole community. As much as we help the sick, the tradition teaches, we are helped more. If you’re in need of healing, here’s a suggestion. It’ll take five minutes. Call someone who is in the hospital or too ill to go out. You’ll take away a sixtieth of their illness and yours.

I’ll end with a prayer written by Malkah Schulweis, the wife of Rabbi Schulweis, written after a life-threatening disease and long recuperation, that reminds us of our power to bless and heal each other.

“Ribbono shel olam, God of creation and transformation, I have been blessed;

Blessed by the family who held me tight to bind my fears, carefully masking their own.

Blessed with friends near and far who created an invisible safety net of prayers, of hope, of courage to catch me in full fall from what seemed inevitable.

Blessed by physicians to whom family and friends had to utterly relinquish me.

Blessed by their skills, their judgments, their concern before they knew the outcome.

Blessed by their joy when they did know the outcome.

Blessed by their unrelenting care as I struggled with the first few days.

Blessed by the compassionate nursing when night and day were a blur.

Blessed by the healing powers of the body that slowly knit cut edges within and without.

Blessed by waves upon waves of comfort which enveloped me when I came home.

Tell me, how did you all know that I would need that as badly as before, that my own joy would be slower to find than anyone else’s, that I needed the safety net a while longer?

Tell me, are we not speaking of the sacred which flowed from all of you into the vessel of my being?

Tell me, dying or living, suffering or healing, can anyone do whatever has to be done without it?

Ribbono shel olam, help me to transfuse back that which healed me, kept me whole, restored the breath of life.

Let me be the instrument to alleviate pain, restore hope, catch the fallen.

Ribbono shel olam, keep me worthy of all Thy blessings.”

On this Kol Nidre night, as we begin a fast that will remind us of our physical limitations, may we also remember that it is in our brokenness that we so often find our strength to heal ourselves and others. May we all in the coming year feel God’s presence by being a presence to those in need of healing.