When I was a rabbinical student I spent a year as a chaplain at Memorial-Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York. One morning after the Jewish high holidays, I walked into the chaplaincy office and received a note about a very sick patient. His wife had called to complain that no one had visited them yet, despite their already long stay. Feeling more like a teenager than a “man of God” and afraid of their potential anger, I found their room, and knocked on the half-opened door. The man lay propped up in bed, a grayish-yellow pallor washed over the skin of his tightly drawn face and his gaunt arms. He had clearly been a big man in healthier days that –like his body- had been eaten by cancer. As he shook intensely, his wife sat by his bed, tears falling copiously from her eyes. Sensing my growing emotional discomfort, I nonetheless forced myself into the room, attempting a soothing smile and a gentle air. “Hi, I’m Dan Ornstein, the Jewish chaplain” I said. “Oh, rabbi,” she responded, “I’m so glad that you’re here. My husband is so sick that he can’t even read the paper or talk on the phone.” After we spoke, I asked, “Would you like me to say a healing prayer for you before I go?” “Yes, rabbi, please do! I know that God listens to the prayers of young people!” she whispered back through her sobs. Inside my head, I tried unsuccessfully to brush aside my slightly condescending skepticism. God just does not work that way, I reasoned with sadness and certainty, reminding myself of the patients in every room of the hospital as my proof. Surely, if the woman and her husband needed to believe this, I would play along for their sakes, but I would never fall prey to such pious self-deceptions. I held the man’s hand and recited a Mi She Bayrakh, the traditional Jewish prayer asking God to grant him healing of spirit and of body. We said goodbye and I left the room.
I went back a week later to visit them again. Entering the room, I noticed that the man was smiling, relaxed, and busy reading the newspaper. His wife looked up, saw me, and before I could even say hello, she blurted out joyously: “Rabbi, I told you that God listens to the prayers of young people! No sooner had you left last week than my husband’s tremors stopped, he picked up the paper to read it, and he felt well enough to talk with people on the phone!” I shuddered quietly, wondering what I had done. Things weren’t supposed to happen this way according to my skeptical theology, and yet in the moment of that woman’s exultation, I felt God shove me in the chest somewhat indignantly.
In the many years and through the many healing prayers for the sick I have recited since those encounters, I have struggled to understand what happened then. What, if anything, happens each time we recite the Mi She Bayrakh or a healing prayer from any religion? On the one hand, my skepticism has hardened into realism borne of experience. I will never believe that a just God literally chooses to heal some people and decides to let others die, and that somehow any person has the power to “change God’s mind.” I have prayed with, but then buried too many good people whose illnesses were not cured, my prayers and their goodness notwithstanding. On the other hand, I think I have matured enough to recognize how God’s presence transforms us through words, touch, and ultimately compassionate community. Illness is one of the hardest, loneliest journeys we experience, for it intimates to us our mortality. Being sick is a rude reminder that our bodies are born, they live and they die, mostly without regard to who we are, how we live, our time tables or what we want. Yet as whole people we do not take that journey alone. The author of Psalm 23 tells us that he fears no evil when walking through the valley of the shadow of death not because God cures him or obliterates evil, but simply because God is with him. We imitate God by visiting the sick and their families, always letting them know that we will never abandon them. The Mi She Bayrakh invokes God’s blessings upon our ancestors to remind those caught in the web of illness that community is also vertical: God’s steadfast presence has been with us since our beginning, and we have always felt it through how we Jews create a web of caring.
I believe that my prayer truly helped my patient and his wife; it did not merely play into their self deceiving, wishful thinking. For one blessed moment, it let them feel held and loved powerfully by God and people. These might not cure them but they could certainly heal them by reconnecting them to community, dignity, and hope: our incomparable sources of strength.