Keeping in Mind Those Who are Unwell
Jewish liturgy reminds us regularly of the fundamental Jewish value to direct our thoughts, wishes, concerns, as well as helpful actions, to those who are ill.
Sometimes we are called upon to have in mind individuals who are poetically “confined” in one way or another:
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who “frees the prisoners.”
(Daily morning blessings.)
At other moments we overtly appeal to God, and therefore also to ourselves as God’s partners in Creation, to strive to meet the needs of individuals who are ailing:
“Heal us, God – then we will be healed; save us – then we will be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete recovery for all our ailments (those afflicting all human beings), for You are God, King, the faithful and compassionate Healer. Blessed are You, God, Who heals the sick of His people Israel (I have often said that while our obligations may begin with those who are most like us, they certainly don’t end there.)
(Weekday Silent Devotion.)
A third vehicle for involving the entire prayer congregation in expressing compassion and concern for someone who is ill, is by offering a special prayer on his/her behalf, known as a “Mi SheBeirach,” usually during the Torah reading on Shabbat, Mondays, and Thursdays:
May He Who blessed our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, heal (so-and-so) because we have pledged charity… for his/her sake (attaching our supplication to the Mitzva of giving Tzedaka will hopefully make our appeal more efficacious.) In this merit may the Holy One, blessed be He, be filled with mercy for him/her, to restore him/her to health and to cure him/her, to strengthen him/her and to invigorate him/her. And may He hasten to send him/her from heaven a complete recovery… a healing of spirit and a healing of body; and let us say, Amen.
And finally, if the individual’s condition is particularly dire, or s/he is about to undergo serious surgery, there is a custom to recite a chapter of Psalms, e.g., 121 or 130, followed by the aforementioned “Mi SheBeirach” at the conclusion of prayer services.
I have always been taken by the utilization of the plural form in our public appeals in the Silent Devotion—“we”, “our”—in effect emphasizing that the entire community is charged with empathizing and even viscerally sharing the travails of the ill individual, his/her family, as well as the health professionals that are working hard to aid in his/her recovery. Certainly, when someone is concerned about a family member, a friend, or even himself, due to temporary or chronic illness, his thoughts will home in upon the individual(s) who is (are) struggling to regain or maintain their health. Human mortality and frailty are such that no one ever escapes completely from the challenges that disease and illness pose to our ongoing well-being, and it is patently unrealistic to live in denial of the conditions of unwellness and old age. However, the affected individuals often suffer in isolation, without the communal support that would go far in making the situation more bearable. As the Psalmist regrettably states: (38:12) “My friends and my companions stand aloof from my plague; and my kinsmen stand afar off.”
It seems to me that consciously and regularly thinking of and mentioning everyone who is struggling with illness over the course of the various modalities of prayer, makes their condition part of our human experience rather than an individual problem about which we best not concern ourselves. Such acts of prayer constitute at least a first step for alerting us to what some of our relatives, friends, and even those with whom we may have no prior relationship, are experiencing. These communal supplications will in addition to articulating our hopes and prayers, also encourage us to call, write, or visit, and generally show solidarity with these people.
The Talmud famously states that visiting with people who are ill will objectively diminish, at least to some extent, the individual’s travails—psychologically if not physically:
Rabbi Acha Bar Chanina said: One who visits the sick removes a sixtieth of his “pain.”
If that's so, get sixty people to go visit and let's heal him!
He answered: Each one takes a sixtieth from what is left.
Hopefully, hearing as well as mentioning the names of those who are ill within the context of our formal, communal prayers will inspire further actions on the pray-ers’ parts to help and support people who are regrettably not in the best of health.
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993 until his retirement in 2015. He blogs daily at https://firstname.lastname@example.org and his website can be accessed at https://rayanotyaakov.wordpress.com.
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Bieler wrote one of the Blog entries selected as the three best for the first and second Quarter of 5779. You can see that entry on the front page of the Jewish Values Online Website.
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