The last few weeks have been difficult, as our entire world has changed in response to the coronavirus.
There have been times recently when I have been overwhelmed by fear and sadness and grief. At other times, I have savored the quiet of a slowed-down life and been awed by the generosity and compassion of people stepping up to take care of each other in so many different ways.
I am starting to understand that — like any grief — this one sometimes knocks me sideways when I least expect it, and that it is going to take a while to adjust to the “new normal” of a world turned upside-down.
At some point in the last few weeks, I started to think about Judaism’s tools for times of illness and loss. Although I have spent years studying those very teachings and rituals, as both a student of our tradition and an anthropologist, I have had a very hard time seeing how these traditions could be useful. What we are facing felt too new, too big, too difficult to understand.
Yet when I revisited the Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish prayer for healing, I found much to guide me as I find my way through these strange and challenging times.
There are many variations of this prayer for healing. The most well-known may be by Debbie Friedman, which is sung in many Reform synagogues. This week, I found comfort in this version, from the Conservative movement’s Siddur Lev Shalem:
May the one who blessed our ancestors,
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah,
Bring blessing and healing to all those who are ill.
May the Holy One full of compassion,
Restore them to health and vigor,
Granting them refuat ha’nefesh v’refuat ha’guf,
Spiritual and physical well-being,
Together with all others who are ill,
And may God grant strength to those who tend to them.
We hope and pray that healing is at hand.
And let us say, Amen.
By calling on our ancestors, we connect ourselves to all of those who came before us. We remember that — while they may never have faced anything exactly like what we face now — the generations before us did face tremendous challenges, and they prevailed and even thrived. As we invoke their names, we take strength from the examples of their lives and gain confidence that we too will be resilient and will prevail.
The Mi Shebeirach also reminds us that healing takes place in many ways — Refuat ha’guf v’refuat ha’nefesh — healing of body, healing of the soul. Illness, disease, and un-ease can affect us in many ways, sometimes in our bodies, sometimes in our minds and our spirits, sometimes in the places where all of these connect. Like many of us, I have experienced all of these in recent weeks. The Mi Shebeirach recognizes that healing, too, happens on many different levels, and it reminds us that, as we move through this strange time, we need to take care of our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves.
This prayer also teaches us that we are all in this together. The words of the Mi Shebeirach call for healing for all those who are ill everywhere. We have learned so clearly now that we are all interconnected, that our healing comes only when we work together as a community. Each of us has a role to play — for most of us, our role is to stay home. And, we can only succeed at the task at hand if every single one of us fulfills our role completely.
When we recite this Mi Shebeirach, we seek strength for all of those who are working for healing. In our world today, that includes medical personnel, and also grocery store workers, delivery drivers, sanitation crews, farmers and factory workers, those sewing masks ,and 3D printing protective gear, policymakers, scientists and researchers, and — as I’ve already noted — all of us isolating in our homes.
Finally, the Mi Shebeirach also reminds us that it is up to us to watch out for one another. Traditionally, you do not say the Mi Shebeirach for yourself; you say it for someone else. It is one of the many ways that we can connect to each other, prompting us to reach out in whatever ways we can to ensure that we help each other to stay healthy, and, when needed, that we help each other continue moving toward healing — physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
As we make our way through these uncertain and challenging times, may we all be blessed with strength and resilience, courage and connection. May we be well, in our bodies and in our spirits, and may we continue to work together, to heal each other, our community, and our world.
This essay was originally published in the Arizona Jewish Post. It also appears in When We Turned Within, a collection of Jewish reflections on Covid-19, edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor and Sarah Tuttle-Singer, and available from Amazon.