They line up silently as the Torah and the congregation listen carefully. One by one a name is whispered and then amplified for all to hear. These are the names of the dead whose memories are brought back to life, if only for a moment, by those who loved them and for all who knew them. As those who offered the name return to their seats their neighbors ask them, who was that for? A memory is shared. A word of support is offered.
Another scene. This time no one lines up. This is the time when the congregation isolates those who have come to pray for the physical and spiritual healing of a loved one only to be instructed to remain in their place and whisper a name that no one else will hear.
This is the contrast that exists in synagogues of all streams. There was a time when the service would pause and people would line up to share the names of those for whom they were praying, not only for names of the dead but also of those who needed healing. Those names, too, would be amplified for all to hear and for all to pray along with family members. That practice has fallen away in many congregations and has been replaced by something more efficient, and frankly somewhat heartless. The service leader will begin the prayer aloud for those who are sick, but rather than announce any names, congregants are instructed to stay in their place and say the names they brought with them silently at a pause in the public prayer.
I belong to a tradition that teaches that as much as medical practice is required and valued for healing, so too is a heartfelt appeal to God, the ultimate healer. A tradition that teaches that one way to summon Divine healing is congregational prayer which emits a power of communal petition that cannot be denied.
While filling in the blank checks off the box of communal prayer to God, there is another aspect to public prayer that is equally vital to the healing process and which has become nearly impossible to fulfill in this modern format. In the time when people would line up and individually submit names to be announced as part of the public healing service, the person who gave the name would be approached by friends as he or she returned to their seat. Who is the prayer for, we would ask. How can we help, we would ask. Those questions often go unanswered now because they are impossible to ask. When the blank is filled in by voiceless friends around us, we have no way of knowing who is hurting and who may benefit from our strength.
The Torah instructs the person with tzara’at to call out “Tamei! Tamei!” when he or she moves about in public.* Some rabbis teach that this is to warn others so as not to come near and become tamei themselves. But the Talmud concludes differently, “This teaches that the one with tzara’at must inform the public of his distress, so that people will pray for mercy on his behalf,” (Mo’ed Katan 5a). The Talmud wants us to notice the person in distress and to act in supporting him or her. Those who feel distress, those of whom the public should be made aware are not limited to the ones who bear the illness themselves but extends to their loved ones who bring their names for prayer.
Perhaps filling in the blank was implemented to save time. I, too, would sometimes feel that the former process was abused by people who came up with lists of names from public sources, names of people who share an Am Yisrael connection, but no personal one – the personal connection being a reasonable standard for presenting a name. But reacting to this by filling in the blank and denying us from making personal connections to support our friends and neighbors bends the arc back too far in the wrong direction.
Congregations recognize this and are experimenting with new formats. In some, those who bring names with them are the ones who stand during the prayer. In others the rabbi scans the room to meet the eyes of those who wish to say a name aloud and invites them to do so. Others have reverted back to the way it was but limit the number of names submitted. In all these examples there is space for those who wish to remain anonymous to preserve their privacy.
Surely, creative hearts can find an agreeable way to fulfill our mutual desire not only to pray for one another but to pray with one another. In the process of each congregation deciding that for itself, it would be a shame to be shackled by imperfections in the plan. Rather, it would be inspiring, imbued with the power that we possess as a holy community, to project that power not only to the one who is ill, not only to the One who is above us, but also to the one sitting right next to us.
* The Hebrew words here are often mistranslated and misunderstood. It might be enough to know that one does not wish to be afflicted with tzara’at or to become tamei.