This year, I have the pleasure of studying the Book of Exodus together with the lay-led Hebrew Bible study group at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I serve as senior rabbi. This d'var Torah draws on comments and realizations from members of the study group, including Theresa, Maxine C., and Rose.
Years ago, during my first week at Temple Beth Or, I received a request to add a prayer for healing to the congregation's Shabbat worship. A member of the congregation had been in a car accident. I knew it would be considered a radical move for a new rabbi in a congregation still in transition from classical Reform Judaism. I also sensed that the request from his family and the outpouring of concern for this particular member made it a unique opportunity to introduce the prayer for healing to the congregation.
Theologically, I was ambivalent to the efficacy of such prayers. Nonetheless, I was confident that reciting the congregant's name along with the prayer would initiate meaningful expressions of support. During worship that Shabbat I read his name off of a note I had placed in the ark. Subsequent weeks brought increasing requests for prayers for members facing illness. Updating and replacing the list for the Mi Shebeirach prayer (prayer for healing) in the ark soon became a regular task in our temple's Friday worship setup. One week, a volunteer offered to take the old list out of the ark on Monday mornings. Without giving it a thought, I insisted that the volunteer leave the list in the ark until the next Shabbat; the names belonged in that holy place. At that moment, I realized that the prayers for healing had come to mean more to me than an opportunity to coalesce congregants behind community members in need.
What does it mean to trust God as healer? Jews have been seeking answers to this question for millennia. In Parashat B'shalach, God says: "If you will heed the Eternal your God diligently, doing what is upright in God's sight, giving ear to God's commandments and keeping all God's laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Eternal am your healer" (Exodus 15:26).
This verse, where God declares: "I the Eternal am your healer," is sandwiched between the Israelites' moaning about the bitter waters (Exodus 15:23?4) and their complaining that they would have been better off back in Egypt (Exodus 16:2?3). Does God's declaration as healer offer a source of consolation to the fearful Israelites? My temple's Torah study group turned to the Sages seeking insight into God as healer.
Thirteenth-century scholar Nachmanides characterizes the declaration-"If you will heed the Eternal your God diligently . . . then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians,"-as more of a threat than a source of comfort and healing. He explains: "This verse is not a promise, but a warning that they should not be among (God's) enemies, like the Egyptians. If they heed (God), they will escape from all these diseases that are liable to come upon those who cross (God's) will . . . "1 Here, Nachmanides understands the verse in the context of the Israelites' irreverence. They have just witnessed God's might in their redemption at the parting of the sea, and already they have lost faith that God will protect them on their journey. This verse is not so much about God's healing power, but of God's omnipotence, capable of punishing or healing, creating or destroying. Maxine C. and Theresa, members of the Torah class, agree that the verse is clearly a threat in its biblical context. It is indicative of the interactive and demonstrative Presence of God in Torah, which has been more elusive in post-biblical history.
But Nachmanides agrees with the twelfth-century sage, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, regarding the second part of the verse, "for I the Eternal am your healer," stating that "this is a promise." Ibn Ezra understands the verse as saying: "for I the Lord am your healer, just as I healed the bitter water. You need no other healer, for no doctor could have 'cured' this water. So you must be careful not to rebel against (God), and to love (God), for (God) will treat you well."2 Ibn Ezra sees God's transformation of the bitter waters as an example of God's miraculous wonders and of the divine reward that comes to those who devote themselves to God. Doctors heal through medicine and procedures; God's healing comes from being in covenantal relationship.
Rashi, also of the twelfth-century, offers a more practical understanding of the verse, suggesting that it is a prescription for how to live a good life. Rashi says: "As a healer, I teach you Torah and commandments, that you may be saved by them, like a doctor who tells someone, 'Don't eat this particular food, for it will put you at risk for this particular illness.'"3 Rashi portrays healing not as a sign of God's miraculous power, but as a result of a life well lived. In the class discussion, Rose interprets Rashi's perspective as: "God helps those who help themselves." God offers us a guide that can lead us to a healing life, if we choose to follow God's ways.
Much of my rabbinate is predicated on the premise that Judaism offers the halachah ("law," from the Hebrew root meaning "to walk") as a path to fulfillment, a road map to connect to God. Reform Judaism teaches that each Jew has an obligation to study the halachah and choose from it those rituals that strengthen bonds to God and community. For the longest time, I thought my approach to God as healer mirrored the interpretation that Rashi offers. Then that volunteer offered to take the previous list of names of those in need of healing from the ark on Mondays instead of Fridays. In that moment, part of me resonated with Nachmanides, thinking God will punish them if we don't keep their names close to God. Part of me yearned for the miraculous, healing God Ibn Ezra shares, a healing that can only spring from God who works wonders. And, part of me realized that placing those names so close to the sacred Torah brought healing to my own heart, knowing though God does not heal every wound, God's Presence can lift a weary soul.
1. Michael Carasik, editor, The Commentators' Bible: Exodus, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), pp. 120?121
2. Ibid, p. 120
Rabbi Lucy H. F. Dinner is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbi Dinner is studying the Book of Exodus with her congregation's lay-led, Hebrew Bible Study Group, which has been studying together for over twenty years.