Rethinking… When Misheberach Isn’t Enough



by Rabbi Julie Pelc
(Originally published in
Reform Judaism magazine)

After suffering a ruptured brain aneurysm midway through rabbinic school, I spent more time in doctors’ offices than in seminary classrooms.

At first, the illness was acute and I found solace and strength from the traditional misheberach prayer whereby Jews request “a complete healing–healing of the soul and healing of the body–along with all the ill among the people of Israel–soon, speedily, without delay.” But after months of praying for a “complete” recovery, I realized this fervent wish did not reflect my permanent challenges: nausea and dizziness, loss of equilibrium/center of balance, and full use of my left hand and strength in my left leg.

Similarly, a coworker living with diabetes, an aunt with chronic clinical depression, a former classmate with lupus and ulcerative colitis, an acquaintance with HIV may live many years. Praying for our “complete healing” seems audacious, even offensive. We will negotiate medications, medical appointments, dietary needs, unexpected side effects, and fears throughout our lives. To pray for the “complete healing of body and spirit” is to misunderstand the realties of our lives. And to try to find one’s own voice in the misheberach by redefining “healing” as “making peace with one’s fate” both changes the meaning of the prayer and ignores our particular suffering.

We need a new congregational prayer that acknowledges those whose chronic illnesses cannot be completely healed. We need a prayer that asks God for the strength to persist in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. We need a prayer that opens us to the courage to continue in life even as we face the reality of death. We need a prayer that allows us to rage and to praise, to curse and to bless, and to reject and to accept what medical science has told us of our fate.

I ask you: what prayer(s) would you create to help those of us engaged in struggle without the hope of full recovery? Add a comment here for us all to share and email me at rabbipelc@gmail.com.

Jewish tradition is full of resources that offer comfort, supplication, hope, and light to the world of those who suffer. It is upon us to help renew our tradition.

Rabbi Julie Pelc is assistant director of the HUC-JIR Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health and director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism.

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25 Responses to “Rethinking… When Misheberach Isn’t Enough”

  1. avatar

    When we pray for divine intervention, are we asking the Lord for a miracle, that is, to suspend the natural laws that govern the universe, or to use His immense power and influence consistent with those laws in our aid? In either case, it seems possible to ask Him for things that we have no way of accomplishing ourselves and don’t even know if He could do or would do. So, it seems to me that it is possible to request more than we expect, knowing that the evidence for miracles seems considerably weaker in modern, enlightened, rational, scientific society than was reported in ancient times. That might lead to greater disappointment if prayer requests are not granted, but as Blaise Pascal might say, “What do we have to loose by asking?”
    Another thought which struck me as I read your posting was that set piece prayers cover only certain situations. Sometimes it is convenient to pull out a standard prayer, like grace before meals, or we can compose our own versions. As Reform Jews, we are fortunately not limited to the use of prescribed prayers. We can pray for anything we desire. A prayer can be custom made by each of us for whatever occasion we are in. And because we can pray in plain English, we can speak to God from the heart.
    Whatever you decide to plead for, may it be of some comfort to you to know that you are not alone in lifting your voice to heaven for improvement in your health.

  2. avatar

    What a great article. Your gift for words is very impressive.

  3. avatar

    Yes – I very much agree. We, as liberal Jews, have a fantastic opportunity to innovate and to create/adapt/transform our liturgy to fit our personal – and also our communal – needs. I’d love it if we could use the psalms, stories of strength and courage in the Tanakh, rabbinic teachings, and modern theologians’ writing in order to shape a prayer that could be used and adapted more globally. A prayer to be recited at bedside in the hospital for courage to continue to hope; a prayer to be recited by mourners praying for strength to go on after suffering a terrible loss; a prayer to be recited by people struggling to maintain a “normal” life after a frightening diagnosis…

  4. avatar

    Rabbi — What a wonderful idea it is to write a special prayer. I’ve thought about healing a lot, because both my parents have gone through terrible illnesses and disability. I think of times when I’ve been sick and frightened. I would pray for the Almighty to remind me of many things: that I am still an important part of the Jewish people; that no matter if I am sick or well I still have a role in tikkun olam; that I should always be grateful to my caretakers and tell them how grateful I am; that I channel my anger, confusion and fear into something positive; and that no matter how bad I think I have it, there are always those worse off than I am who can use my help. Take care! Amy

  5. avatar

    Your article could not have been more timely. My long-time friend who has metastic breast cancer and who now lives with me (due to the fact that her husband died and she was all alone)basically needs “strength” each and every day, but knows she will not get better. She has been on our temple’s Misheberach list for years, but it would be great to have a prayer for longevity through strength from God, patience, prayers to hold on to, hope, not to get better, but to get to the next chemo. treatment, etc. Thank you for introducing this to us.

  6. avatar

    On two occasions over the past two years, I asked our Rabbi to add the names of terminally ill individuals to the list. In one case, death was imminent (a few days away, it turned out). In the other, it was weeks or months (it turned out to be more than a year) ahead.
    I do not pray for miracles or a suspension of the natural order of things. The Rabbi knew this, and we talked about what I was really praying for. In the case of the imminent death, we were praying for her spirit to be prepared, and for comfort. In the other case, we were praying for her to have strength to live well for as long as possible and then, as she had always wanted, a comfortable and swift end which she accepted with equanimity.
    In that sense, my prayers were answered. The MiShebeirach provided me with a sense of comfort that my friends were not alone in spirit.
    I never felt that we needed a different prayer, despite the literal meaning of the one we were offering.

  7. avatar

    Great article and great idea. I recently had total hip replacement. Every morning and evening I pray. No I don’t ask for a miracle I just thank God for granting me the strength to get through another day. I know God is with me as each day gets easier and easier and my recovery has been very easy and quick. God gives me the will to do the right things. I receite the MiShebeirach twice daily “It works”
    BH

  8. avatar

    Rabbi – thank you for this statement and challenge which I, along with so many others who deal with chronic illness, have been seeking to articulate for many years.
    I think sometimes we just need to find or ask the permission to adapt our traditions so that we can respond to the new needs that are born as our humanity (and hopefully our divinity) evolve, whether these needs are created out of blessing or out of challenge. Thank you for granting it.

  9. avatar

    When I was hospitalized for treatment and surgery resulting from a serious illness, I read psalms. I had never done this before. In hospital, I felt profoundly physically miserable; I could barely read. But as soon as I began to read psalms, the pain and discomfort fell away and I felt elevated. The experience was remarkable and life-changing.

  10. avatar

    It took me a long time to realize that my life long condition that was almost fatal on two occasions would not be ameliorated by prayer alone. At least for me, a prayer for complete healing means to find the courage to overcome fear and find the strength to endure, to work towards a full, meaningful, and productive life. Every living moment can contain an eternity of significance. Life does not have to be long to be successful. We all die eventually. But do we all actually live to our full potential? For me, working towards that full potential means complete healing. It means fulfilling my obligation to God to be the best person that God expected me to be. Why else do we live?

  11. avatar

    Right on! Recently our part time cantorial soloist – only 47 years old – died after a nasty battle with esophegal cancer. She had written her own Mi shebeirach which includes these words:
    “Grant the ones fighting illness time without the pain. Help the ones in despair know some joy again.”
    and”Bless me too, that I may be a source of strength for those in need. When I fall, help me hear the prayer of healing someone is singing just for me.” Hardly a dry eye when she sang this for services when we all knew she was dying.
    Thee are others whom we know are never going to recover. I sent our soloist a pretty card every week for months, telling her at the beginning that this was my form of mi shebeirach, that I remembered her every day.

  12. avatar

    Thank you for the sharing and for the content of what you wrote which is so true.
    I rarely can get through the prayers without tears in my eyes and when times are tough, I end up needing to go outside the sanctuary. However, the prayer is amazing in all ways except one which is what you stated.
    I live with more than one chronic illness and I always say I’m not looking for a cure. I’m looking for peace. I don’t believe there will be a cure within my lifetime so yes, some type of prayer to get through each day (especially the harder ones) would be wonderful.

  13. avatar
    Marilyn Rivkin Crossley Reply March 14, 2009 at 10:38 am

    I wrote this prayer for a small booklet printed by the Pastoral Care Department at Kettering Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, where I work. The hospital happens to be Seventh Day Adventist, and they honor all faith traditions. (Along with another Reform Jewish co-worker, she and I light Shabbat candles in the chapel every Friday as we leave work:))
    here is my poem; maybe it will help others…
    Adonai, Adonai,
    Feel my anguish
    Ease my pain
    Hear my prayer.
    My heart longs for the comfort
    Your presence brings.
    My family needs to know Your guidance.
    This cancer takes not only
    The health of our loved one,
    But the laughter from our days.
    Adonai, Adonai,
    Restore to us a clearer sense
    Of purpose at this time.
    Help us to know that this hurt
    However great,
    Is part of the gift of life You give,
    As are the joys that have
    Preceded it.
    Help us to know Your ever-presence
    So that our sadness may be lightened.
    Guide our loved one to health,
    Or, to peace.
    Adonai, Adonai,
    Be with us,
    And hear our prayer.
    Marilyn Crossley

  14. avatar
    Rabbi Lynn Brody Reply March 14, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Rabbi Julie’s story, along with the comments and stories that followed, hit us where we live. In my four years as a volunteer hospital chaplain, I often felt the prayer sorely inadequate in many situations and hardly ever asked for “complete healing” but simply “healing”.
    As a liberal Jew, I always had a hard time with the traditional litury which deemed righteousness worthy of reward and evil with punishment. We all know that our world doesn’t work that way. In difficult times when people come to accept that the best reward of all may be good health, often times mysteriously denied the most righteous, we must adapt not only our prayers but also our thinking. Rationality teaches us not everything happens for a reason.
    While far from comprehensive enough to deal with every situation, the Mi-Sheberach prayer attempts to address that physical suffering will not always be resolved, and implies a need for acceptance through “healing of spirit”. I agree complete that we need a better prayer.
    (To make the challenge even more daunting, a congregant asked me for a prayer for her husband, in constant pain for many years and no longer recognizing anyone, die soon.)

  15. avatar

    This discussion thread touches the core of all the issues regarding prayer in Reform Judaism. I am no longer willing to say — and, especially, pray — words that I do not understand and explicitly believe. I understand that others do, however, find value in prayers that express beliefs that they would never espouse in any other format. I do believe in a personal God who welcomes our appreciation of Divine immanence, but I do not believe that God controls the events of the material world and that hideous events happen “for a reason.” Others would disagree with me on one or both counts. I assume that there is no perfect prayer for any circumstance for everyone, not even (or, perhaps, especially) for every Reform Jew. Writing new prayers and rediscovering meaningful spiritual expressions from the past is a most worthy endeavor.

  16. avatar

    I found your comments interesting and very relavent having personally stuggled with diabetes and heart disease for over 40 years now.
    The mishaberach asks G-d to heal our soul and body so that we may pray once again with a clear heart and mind. I fully believe that the reason we ask for refuah hanefesh and refuh haguf is that even in ancient times people suffered .
    I fully believe that G-d hears our prayers. In modern congregations we have added prayers for injured Israeli and U.S. soldiers.
    This prayer has withstood the test of time and does not need revision.

  17. avatar

    A wise, health-challenged friend put me on the right path to dealing with my own disabilities by expressing understanding for those who can’t find the words to say to us, who find it easier to distance themselves than to be here for us.
    When someone close falls gravely ill, we tend to think of only two possibilities: recovery or the end of life. Through faith and the good examples of others, friends and relatives learn how to encourage and console on both ends.
    We know the gift of life is complicated> So why should it surprise us when our state of health fails to be so neatly binary. Those of us learning to live between two expected outcomes are part of an all-too-invisible minority. But a minority whose individuals can provide unique ‘teachable moments’ of compassion for tikkun olam, healing the world.
    We can teach ourselves to support each other as best we can. Even if it’s “just a phone call to check-in” regularly. And we can teach others to feel at ease with us, moving them from passive speechlessness to active concern. It starts when we have enough faith in ourselves to ask for help so that neither shame nor obligation is part of the dialog.
    Between the ideas Rabbi Julie expressed and the comments posted here, there seems enough inspiration for two prayers:
    (a) one to be said by the healthy majority bringing strength from HaShem’s compassion working through our own, to those living with chronic illness
    (b) one said by the illness-challenged, acknowledging appreciation for the continuing prayers and deeds of others on our behalf, helping us to choose life through the pain.

  18. avatar
    Rabbi Julie Pelc Reply March 20, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Dearest Souls,
    I received a loving outpouring of heart after the publication of my article about the misheberach in _Reform Judaism_ magazine this month. Your post on this blog is part of a tapestry which comprises the total of these gorgeous offerings. I am so grateful to you for taking time to respond and to reach out.
    It seems my article on the misheberach articulated a need that is deeply felt and shared by many of us. I want to thank you, as personally as can be possible in a group email, for that which you sent to me. Your offerings of poetry, prayer, grief, suggestions of strength and support and the stories of your personal and professional journeys through illness and wellness touched me and made me feel profound gratitude that I was trusted with these gifts.
    I thank you, and consider you to be a partner in this sojourn through the wilderness. I pray that you move from strength to strength.
    I also want to point you to the website for the organization for which I work, the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health (www.kalsman.org). There you may find more resources, prayers, essays, articles, and sermons that touch on subjects close to all our hearts. I also wonder if you might enjoy attending our conference in Monterey, CA this May (www.midrashandmedicine.org) as the theme and focus will be the integration of topics at the intersection of Judaism and health.
    I send you only blessings,
    Julie

  19. avatar

    Your thoughts on the Mesheberach echoed mine completely. As someone who has lived with MS for 25 years, I would always feel like crying when I heard the words asking for healing, knowing that I would most assuredly follow a path of gradual deterioration.
    My life is not all gloom and doom. In spite my illness I married, had two children and managed to work full time up until now. I work with a therapist to try to make peace with my physical limitations, but it would be nice if there were a prayer in the service that would help me come to terms with my imperfect health rather than reminding me that “complete healing,” as wonderful as it would be, is an impossibility.
    Leah Klein
    West Bloomfield, MI

  20. avatar

    For many years I took care of family members with chronic illnesses and terminal passages.There was no choice as my brother died to lung cancer in 1981 and suddenly I was no longer the youngest,but the only one left taking care of my parents.My father joked with me once and remarked “isn’t it hard to raise parents?”.We were at Sinai hospital then ,sitting for hours in a tiny room anxiously
    waiting to hear if my mother’s brain tumor was successfuly removed. It was but physically and emotionally my mother was never the same.I kept telling her that I was still blessed to have her in my life regardless of the fact that she couldn’t do the same things she did before surgery but at no avail.For years I prayed for her to find some peace from within and for years I watched her wishing she never had the surgery.
    Both my parents are gone now and I am the one with chronic illnesses and so my mishaberach definetly asks God for strength to take one step in front of the other but mostly for God to keep me balanced and not consumed with my illness.
    Adoni,my illness does not define me.
    I am defined by my character,by my relationship with my husband,son,friends and community.
    Adoni,let my family and friends continue to evolve and find support and love from each other.

  21. avatar

    I have had this same question many times. My husband lives with arthritis and so is in constant pain. In the past two years, he has had 4 (soon to be 5) surgeries, with the attendant temporary increase in pain and setbacks in mobility before things get better – and the chronic pain remains. For him, there is hope for healing, although not complete.
    What to pray for?
    I pray privately for both of us to have the strength and wisdom to face whatever lies ahead. I pray for scientific discoveries and medical successes. I pray that he can find meaning and pleasure beyond the pain.

  22. avatar

    I agree that a special prayer is needed for those with chronic illness. I had a moderately successful result from treatment for aplastic anemia, a bone marrow failure disorder, which left me with lowered blood counts. Subsequently I got lymphoma, but am in remission. Since I’m in no immediate danger I consider my illness a chronic problem, and took myself off my synagogue’s misheberach list accordingly. I felt that others needed their names on the list more than me since they were truly ill. But those like me, who have to live down the fear that the next symptom may mean a recurrence, need something to recognize our struggle and help us cope. It would really help.
    Thank you.

  23. avatar

    Rabbi Pelc, thank you for this discussion.I just read your article in Reform Judaism magazine that was buried in a stack of publications. It is a very valuable topic that is central to my life and that of many friends and relatives with chronic conditions.
    I live with Crohn’s Disease, a daily presence in my life. At times it has been severe, even needing surgery (giving new meaning to the saying, “taking my kishkes out”) but fortunately it is pretty minor these days. My main goal is full functionality and I’m fairly close to that now though it does take a lot of conscious management.
    I don’t want to be on any mishaberach list most of the time. I don’t want people to view me as a sick person, don’t want to discuss my health all the time and certainly don’t want pity. I’m a contributing member of my community and that’s how I want people to think of me. My daughter inherited the Crohn’s and feels the same way. I do get a lot of support from the people who are close to me, with whom I am totally frank.
    The hardest part to face is the emotional – keeping despair, frustration and discouragement at bay. I moderate an online group for people with intestinal diseases, and can never get much response when I ask people to discuss the emotional/spiritual aspects.
    The closest I have come to spiritual solace has been a guided meditation in the Hicks book, Ask and It Is Given. (From the Abraham-Hicks Law of Attraction series.) The meditation is in a chapter named Reclaiming One’s Natural State of Health. I wish that somehow the insights in the Hicks books (channeling the “Abraham” entity) could be integrated into the Reform Judaism that is my spiritual base. The teachings seem so divergent, yet I rely on the Law of Attraction to feel empowered in my daily life.

  24. avatar
    Dr. B. Lieberman Reply June 1, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Please see my article related to this subject at: Getting answers to prayer
    and if it is helpful, please consider sending the link to others.

  25. avatar

    The only thing I may have to contribute is this: Pray not for strength, but for the ability to unearth your own strength. Instead of looking to g-d, look inside yourself. You are a survivor. Every day you win a battle. Sure-the wars not over yet; but, simply by being you are saving hundreds of lives. You inspire others through your own existence. To some, you provide a slap of cold water, a wake up call. Suddenly, they can appreciate their own lives all the more. To others, you are a kindred spirit. It helps to know that there are others of their ilk out there. I’ll leave you with this: People die when they give up. My dad had lymphoma, and a 1% chance of surviving. He survived- we didn’t let him give up. I’m not letting you give up either. You will get through this.

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