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I Can’t Pray For Healing

I Can’t Pray For Healing

This morning I received a text message from my Aunt Linda saying, “I am doing well… love being home after three weeks in the hospital and rehab.” I almost replied, as if on rabbi auto-pilot, “I’ve been praying for your recovery” but instead wrote, “I’ve been thinking of you a lot! You’re so strong!”

Some might argue that my aunt was able to recover from the infection in her hip replacement, surgeries to remove the new hip and clean the prosthesis, and to begin rehabilitation all over again because God heard the prayers of the many individuals and communities praying for her health and healing.  But then what about those who didn’t have the strength or courage to persist?  Those whose infections or diseases or disabilities pressed them past the point of healing? Did God deem them less worthy of renewed health?  Did their families and friends pray less zealously?

Aunt Linda replied, “well, you have been my inspiration.” Almost nine years ago (when I was 26), I was forced to completely re-learn how to function after a brain aneurysm ruptured in my cerebellum. In addition to the open-cranial brain surgery and five weeks in the hospital and rehab, there were countless outpatient therapies and doctors working tirelessly to nudge me in the direction of healing. There were also rabbis, ministers, chaplains, friends, and family praying for my recovery: my rabbinic school classmates held healing services around my hospital bed, friends placed notes in the Wailing Wall for me, and the silent prayers of my worried family circled me like a protective salve.

I am an ordained rabbi. I recovered and survived. People tell me quite frequently that I am “a miracle,” which makes me shudder. Though I appreciate the sentiment, the theological implications are abhorrent to me. Were I to accept that I am a “miracle,” I would also have to accept that the vast majority of 25-35 year-olds who die instantly from aneurysms are not. I do not want to be a miracle; I do not believe in a God who would select individuals based on unknown criteria and “allow” them to survive calamities. And I do not believe that I survived because God listened to the prayers of my friends and family.

I don’t know that prayer “works.” I know that prayer can elevate and inspire a community to action; I know that illness can heighten our awareness about the very tenuous and fragile nature of our human bodies.  In essence, prayers for healing can be transformative. But they’re not magic; I do not believe that prayers alone can heal. I don’t believe that healing is necessarily a complete return to life as it was before the accident/illness/disability. Healing requires coming to terms with life as it is now: life with struggle (and sometimes chronic pain or discomfort), and life with the memory (of what was). Healing requires work, strength, and courage. Healing is a partnership among body, spirit, and soul: between humanity and the divine, the individual and the community.

To tell Aunt Linda, “I’ve been praying for you” would be inauthentic, not because I wouldn’t pray for her but because I couldn’t.

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler is a former assistant director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.

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