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Drash, February 2000 by Madeline Nesse Z"L ז״ל
A riddle: When do we ask for something when experience teaches us that the request is probably impossible to fulfill? One answer, I suggest, is when we ask God to make a direct intervention in our lives - when we make a mi she’berach. A mi she’berach can be made for a number of different purposes; this morning, I will concentrate on refuah shlemah - the request for healing.
The prayer takes its name from the first two words: “mi sheberach” meaning, literally, “the One who blessed.” It asks that the One who blessed our ancestors bring about a complete healing for the person for whom the blessing is said. The custom of reciting a mi sheberach arose in the Middle Ages, probably in France or Germany, and that it was the custom to give a financial contribution in exchange - originally, the practice took place only on the Festivals, but later it was expanded to include Shabbat. Congregations encouraged it because the contributions grew into a significant source of income. In Sephardic countries it become customary for the one called to the Torah to have blessings said for himself, his family, and even the welfare of the souls of dead relatives. Elbogin, a premier authority on prayer, looked down on the custom:
“May He Who blessed” became for the unlettered the most important part of
the Torah reading. Gradually, the unfortunate situation arose that the blessings
multiplied to a horrifying degree, leading to the excessive prolongation of the
service, diverting attention from the reading itself, and opening the way to all
kinds of abuse. The interruption of the Torah reading for the recitation of
private blessings was long ago eliminated in all progressive countries.
By Elbogin’s standards I suppose that we are not a progressive country, since we have continued the custom. Unlike most of the prayers recited in a traditional service, this is one prayer whose wording is not fixed. Siddur Sim Shalom has a suggested version, in both the male and female form on page 404, which is incompletely translated on page 405. Here at TI, Rabbi Seidel uses a somewhat different version from that in Siddur Sim Shalom. In the Alternative Service, we use a very beautiful mi sheberach set to a lovely melody composed by Debbie Friedman and I believe that past President Paul Bardack reported back to us that the Debbie Friedman mi sheberach was also recited at services at a United Synagogue convention which he attended. The practice in the Alternative Service is not to associate the mi sheberach with one individual, but to go around the room and have people pronounce the name of the person for whom healing is sought, and then to sing the mi sheberach collectively. This morning, Loretta shared with me the mi sheberach in the siddur used by Beit Mishpachah, which prays for a gentle death if the individual is not to be healed.
I began to think about this prayer some months ago in the Alternative Service as I offered the name of an Aunt who is not well and I started thinking to myself: Why am I doing this? I daresay that if we took a vote right now or on any other random Shabbat, the overwhelming majority of people would say that they don’t believe that there is a bearded elderly, white male, maybe seated on a throne, listening to these prayers and making decisions to unclog arteries, zap tumors, or lift depression. But most of us say a mi sheberach, or ask a rabbi or prayer leader to say one, for us or for people that we care about. Why?
Although some people prefer to have a name recited in Hebrew in order to preserve anonymity, there are others who think of the mi sheberach as serving the purpose of a public announcement of tsuris. In a congregational setting, it places the individual’s concerns before the community, in effect appealing to people to act in a situation that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Although the prayer literally asks God to do something, the functional result is that members of the community are given an opportunity to do acts of support and deeds of lovingkindness.
On a somewhat more abstract level, this prayer seems to function less as a request for literal fulfillment of a petition but rather a means of setting one’s heart in the right direction. In Sh’ma journal, a few years ago, Rabbi Anson Laytner who was then working with AIDS patients, reported:
On those occasions when I have had to leap over my theological
reservations to invoke God’s presence for someone suffering from
AIDS, I have often noticed a genuine easing of tension on the part
of the recipient. The relaxation of the shoulders, a smile that creeps
across the mouth, a deep inhalation and a long sigh, all make it
clear that, for some, invoking God’s blessing is a boon, regardless
of what I think God does or does not do. The value of the prayer is to
the individual who is joined in his/her suffering by the divine presence.
These observations by Rabbi Laytner are very much in sync with a d’var Torah by Chancellor Schorsch of the Jewish Theological Seminary asking what prayer can accomplish - which I do not have time to discuss in any detail - where he says that while prayer may not be able to correct a medical problem, it can make a vast difference in our state of mind. The Chancellor concedes that “the laws imbedded in nature are not overturned for our benefit,” but he goes on to add that God can respond to human tears with meaning, if not with miracles. The same theme is reflected in the Debbie Friedman mi sheberach, which I mentioned earlier, in which we pray for renewal of both body and spirit, and the courage to make our lives a blessing.
In case you are convinced that is no such thing as direct divine intervention, I will close by referring briefly to a recent study of 990 patients admitted to the coronary care unit of a Kansas City hospital. They were divided into two groups and each patient in one group was prayed for by five volunteers, for 28 days. Neither the patients nor their doctors were aware of the study, nor knew that they were being prayed for. The prayers were told nothing about the individuals for whom they prayed other than their first names and that they were ill. The researchers looked at 35 different medical measures to determine how the patients did (e.g., numbers and types of medications needed, whether the patients remained on respirators or needed pacemakers, how long they stayed in the hospital, how fast they recovered - or whether they died) and they concluded that, as a group, the patients who were prayed for did better than the control group. The results were statistically significant.
Madeline Nesse 2-12-00