From the Rabbi’s Desk December 2018
Rabbi Carla Freedman
A life experiences that leaves us all feeling frustrated and helpless is the illness of someone dear to us. So we take some comfort, however small, from being able to pray for that person.
And research has shown that prayer really does make a difference in the well-being of a sick person. A patient who knows that others are praying for his/her health actually seems to have a more positive outlook, which directly impacts the healing process. And on a psychological and spiritual level, the value of prayer is well known and even documented.
The traditional Jewish prayer for the sick speaks unequivocally about “complete recovery”, r’fuah shlaimah. And in antiquity, with its limited “medical” capacity, whatever the illness, disorder, affliction, that was appropriate. But today, we know that some medical problems are chronic (that is, they will continue, though they may not be life-threatening), and not subject to recovery. We know that some diseases, conditions or syndromes will cause gradual deterioration and debilitation, and that, at this time, medical science can neither stop nor reverse these processes. And our tradition clearly disapproves of praying for miracles.
So what do we pray for, under those circumstances? The traditional Jewish prayer for healing (Mi shebeyrakh…May the One who blessed our ancestors with healing…) is not appropriate under those circumstances.
If you have been to Shabbat services lately, you know that our prayer list for the sick has grown very long. On the one hand, this is comforting, because it allows us to feel that we are doing something for the people we care about. But on the other, in many cases, it may be a misuse of the prayer itself.
And the fact that one can put a name on the list seems to absolve some congregants of the actual point, which is to pray personally for the ones you care about.
So, upon consultation with the Ritual Committee and the Board of Directors, we have decided to try a different approach to praying for the sick. Beginning with the first Shabbat in December (Dec 7), we will institute the following practices:
We will continue to read the names of congregants, whether someone is present to say their names or not. We will offer two different prayers for non-congregants.
The first will be for people with chronic conditions. We will not read a list of names, but will invite you (as we do now) to say aloud the names of the people you are praying for. You can say as many names as you need to. But if you are not present to say them, they will not be mentioned at our services.
The second prayer for non-congregants will be for healing. And again, you will be invited to say aloud the names of the people you are praying for, as many as you want. We will not read a list of names. If you are not there, these names will not be mentioned at our services.
Will this shorten the experience, timewise? We don’t know…or even necessarily care. What we do care about is that if you care enough to pray for someone, you will take responsibility for doing so, and be present to say that name aloud.
That will make the prayer much more meaningful than someone simply reading a list of names which mean nothing to the reader or most (if not all) of those present and praying.
So please give thought to the people whose name you have put on our list, divide them into the two separate categories, and come prepared (with your own lists!) to say those names aloud when invited to do so. If you want some help assigning to the appropriate prayer the names you will be saying, by all means discuss that (privately) with me.
Our concern in doing this is not merely a question of time consumed, but of sincerity of prayer. It is also meant to make clear that our prayers are equal before God. Your prayer on behalf of someone you care for will be much more meaningful than merely putting the name on a list and getting someone unconnected with that person to mention it in zipping through more than two pages of names.
This approach will be used for several months before we evaluate it. And when we do that, we will invite your input. Please help us to try this, and please think about it both as one who may say a name (or more), and as one who hears the names being prayed for.
Let’s make our prayers meaningful and relevant.