Medicine, Mothers and Other Healing Devices

For Ner Shalom Healing Shabbat, September 16, 2016

There is a feeling that you get when you begin recovering from illness. When you turn the corner, as they say. Before that, you lie in bed or in whatever uncomfortable position you are permitted. With whatever pain in the gut or the back or the head or other extremity. Or maybe with a broken heart. You lie there unable to rouse or unable to sleep or unable to breathe comfortably.

But then, just as you're thinking, "this will never end," or "let me die," or "I cannot remember feeling any other way, I know I did, I know I once ran through a field not noticing my body at all but only the breeze, I know it but can't remember it", then something changes. Like a comet at the end of a long elliptical orbit, there is a swift and elegant change of direction. A moment in which the cells of your body, and all the microbes that constitute your personal ecosystem, seem to know that they now outnumber the virus or can outmuscle the pain. A moment when your white blood cells turn the show back over to the rest of you, done being heroic, retreating into the blood stream with a humble, "All in a day's work, ma'am."

Your body knows you're reaching this turn before you do. Our wise bodies, undismayed by grief or dispiritedness. Our wise bodies might enjoy receiving our encouragement, our locker room pep talks. But more often than not, for most of our hopefully long lives, they will do the hard work of healing with our without our cheerleading.

But sometimes our brilliant bodies need help. We call in teams of doctors; healers of all sorts. Wise people who have studied hard to understand as much as anyone can about the intricacies of our systems, the nekavim nekavim, chalulim chalulim – the channels and orifices that ensure our survival. Our teams of healers may offer medicines or herbs or calming tinctures or sometimes just important advice.

We might call in our friends – ones who are good listeners, good shoulders, and helpful around the house. We enlist them to make soup, drive us to appointments, and to witness. To cheer us up or dress us down when we don't take our pills.

And we might call in prayer teams too, although we might not call them that. Because in this community and other Jewish communities, it is custom to pray for our friends and loved ones who are sick. We might name them during a Mi Sheberakh, or while chanting El Na R'fa Na Lah or another healing prayer.

Maybe we have a kvitl (as I do), a slip of paper on which we write the names of those whose healing we are seeking, and maybe we keep that slip of paper in our pocket or our purse or someplace close. Maybe we open it every day and read the names. Or maybe when it crosses our mind we tap our pocket to make sure the kvitl is still there, the tap doubling, as Rebbe Nachman says about the clapping of hands, as a non-verbal Amen.

Prayer seems important for many of us, not as an alternative to medicine but as a way to engage the spiritual dimension in our healing process. That includes receiving prayer and, if receiving prayer is difficult, then praying for others with similar conditions.

I remember growing up with Christian Scientists on the margins of my family and social circle. My next door neighbor, Evelyn Muenzenthaler, was a practitioner. When I first went to Israel when I was 16, I brought her back a pair of carved olive wood praying hands from Jerusalem's Old City, a gift she was very struck by and which she held as precious for the rest of her life, using it in her prayer practice. My great aunt Jeannette Marks, Grandpa Irwin's sister, was a Christian Scientist too. Perhaps because of her own aunts, Hattie and Rae Schild of Cleveland. They all came out of an era in which Christian Science was actively recruiting Jews, particularly Americanized German Jews. While we thought there was something beautiful in the beliefs of Evelyn, who was already Christian, we spoke about Aunt Jeannette in more measured and hushed tones. We loved her enormously, but it was hard to get past the Jesus part of her practice. And we didn't, on the whole, approve of rejection of the medical world.

After all, Jews were deeply invested in the medical profession. Being a doctor was the most admired calling a Jewish young man could have, as is reflected in a million mid-century Jewish jokes, many of which suggest that upward mobility and marriageability were more honored aspects of the profession than the call to healing. And yet Jewish doctors of all genders were and are leaders in their fields, making medical breakthroughs, helping patients, easing suffering, and often keeping Maimonides' physician's prayer framed on their office walls.

I was always fascinated with our Christian Science neighbors and relatives. I admired the faith that would hold prayer as a more sure-fire response to illness than medicine; that prayer might mobilize something in the corporeal world that pills could not. I didn't know then about the range of traditional Jewish responses to illness. I didn't know about amulets, charms, segulot. I didn't know about the custom of changing a gravely ill person's name so as to outwit bad fortune (a custom that suggests bad fortune to be really rather a stupid adversary).

I didn't know about the tradition of the melitz yosher, of intercessory prayer. That a rebbe or some other tzaddik or tzaddeket, a righteous or respected person would, in a prayerful trance, ascend to heaven, to the foot of the Throne of Glory, and advocate on behalf of the person who is ill. This is an old and Old World custom, but it still exists. And our praying for each other in a Mi Sheberakh is a kind of domesticated version of this very dramatic intercessory prayer.

We have other ways in which we invoke intermediaries when we pray for healing. It is our custom, when identifying a sick person in prayer to call them by a Hebrew name referencing not their father but their mother. So as the subject of a healing prayer, I would not be Yitzchak ben Hilel, but Yitzchak ben Miriam. In that critical moment I am not Jerry's son, but Marilyn's. Why?

Maybe we are remembering being cared for by determined and devoted mothers on our childhood sickbeds. We are invoking a time when someone else was entirely in charge of our healing, and all we had to do was give ourselves over to it. Maybe naming us by our mothers invokes that kind of care and that kind of surrender.

Or maybe we name our mothers to request their intercession. That their spirits should stand before the Throne of Glory, begging leniency on their children. That if we do not receive healing by our own merit, perhaps we will by theirs. As the psalmist says to God in Psalm 116, Anah Hashem ki-ani avdekha, ani avd'kha ben amatekha. "Please God, truly I am your servant, the child of your maidservant."

The fierce protection of the Mama Bear is not to be taken lightly. My own mother was a fierce advocate. She founded a PFLAG chapter in 1991 and often took a bus to Springfield to knock on legislators' doors to convince them to vote for LGBTQ equality. She would camp out in their waiting rooms until they'd talk to her. And then she'd waste no time. Her argument was never theoretical. She wouldn't talk about progressive values or justice. She would say, "I have two gay kids, and I want them to be safe." If I were sick, and my mother were invoked as an intercessor, no doubt she would camp out in the antechamber of the Throne of Glory. "No, I don't have an appointment. But I'll wait."

Over the last couple hundred years, Jews have increasingly invoked our matriarch Rachel as an intercessor. She died young, in childbirth with Benjamin. But Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once pointed out that that makes her a better intercessor, not a worse one. He said, "Sometimes the tzuris we go through gives us the gift of helping others with similar problems."*1*

Midrash tells us that when the Jews were marched off to Babylonia 2500 years ago, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses all stood before God and took turns arguing against this exile. God refused them all. But then Rachel jumped up and made an impassioned plea. How when her father was going to substitute Leah for her at her wedding, she worked out a signal with Jacob so he wouldn't be fooled. But then she repented of this plan, not wanting her sister to be humiliated. She taught her sister the signal, and even spent the wedding night under the bed, speaking for her sister so that Jacob would hear her voice in the dark and be reassured that he had married the right sister. She had done all this so as not to humiliate Leah, she, a mere mortal, and one who was deeply pained by the situation. How could God, who should be above human-level grudges and jealousies, humiliate God's own people this way? God immediately relented and agreed to let the exiles return home within a generation.

This midrash is behind Rachel's growing reputation as an intercessor. Her tomb, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, has, in the past century, become a popular pilgrimage site. Visitors wrap red thread around the tomb and then cut it into lengths to wear or to tie to the beds of sick people or vulnerable infants. This is a practice that is not part of "official" Judaism, meaning the Judaism that is under the authority of men. It is a practice of our grandmothers. But as the 13th Century Spanish rabbi known as the Rashba wrote to his [male] colleagues, "we should not mock the practices of elderly women, for they are certainly founded in sacred origins, even if we have forgotten the reasons."

Maybe, ultimately, what we are reaching for when we invoke our mothers or our great mother Rachel, or when Catholics appeal to Mary, is a Divine Feminine. When we are sick, we do not have patience for the moody male God of Torah, doling out illness and occasionally granting reprieves. We want the Shekhinah, God's mother-like face, the dimension of the Divine that worries over us and cries for our suffering. It is the Shekhinah that is with us in our sickness. As Talmud tells us, it is the Shekhinah that hovers over the heads of our sickbeds.*2*

And maybe it is the Shekhinah that is the conductor, cuing in all the elements of healing, rousing the miraculous ingenuity of our brilliant bodies; directing white blood cells to the needed locales; shepherding medicines to the desired systems; inspiring doctors and nurses and caregivers to their most insightful selves; opening the gates of heaven for the community's prayers, and giving front row seats to the spirits of our mothers. Maybe it is the Shekhinah that pours a rain of calm and comfort on us while we face illness and injury and broken hearts. So that, when all seems most dire and we are ready to give up hope, we may, once again, when we didn't even see it coming, at last turn a corner, and breathe.

*1*Wiener, "Becoming an Intercessor: Reb Zalman and the Red Thread," in Milgram, et al. (eds.), Wisdom of Reb Zalman (forthcoming 2017).
*2*BT Nedarim 40a; also Rashi on Genesis 47:31.



I am grateful to Rabbis Shohama Wiener and David Evan Markus for their wonderful and extensive teaching of Jewish approaches to illness and healing over the summer of 2016. And to Reb Shohama for repeated personal insights – and for a length of red thread that she and Reb Zalman wrapped around Rachel's Tomb.