On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: The Jewishness of Healing

In the closing portion of the book of Genesis, Joseph finds out his father is ill. Rabbi Jacobs, reflecting on his own experience with family illness, invites us to better understand what it means to "heal" others through our actions and our words, bringing us closer both to the Divine and to one another.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches about Parashat Vayechi, wondering what healing really means, and how we can help others when they are in need of healing most.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayechi, the last Torah portion of the book of Genesis. And it really brings many of the themes and the generations of the first generations of the Jewish people to a close. And in the 48th chapter of the book of Genesis is this extraordinary phrase-- "some time afterward Joseph was told, your father is ill." In Hebrew, [SPEAKING HEBREW].

Now, what exactly is the significance of that? Obviously, many of us have heard that phrase that our parents are ill. But this is the first time in the Torah that we learn that someone is ill. That someone is a very significant person. And Joseph is the child of Jacob. Remember the story that we've been reading over the last weeks-- Joseph had risen to be second only to pharaoh, and he's told that his father is ill.

Now, there are a lot of different interpretations about that. In one case, it means that he needs to be told because Joseph is not in regular contact with his father. They were separated not only by distance, but by years because Jacob had thought that Joseph was killed. And so part of that phrase, "behold, your father is ill" is an awakening to Joseph that he better seize the opportunity to not only see his father, but if there's any unfinished business that he'd like to settle, to do so.

Others in our tradition have argued that basically, Joseph's distance from his father underscores Joseph's righteousness, and they claim that he was afraid to be with his father lest Jacob ask him about the details of the sale when his brothers sold him into slavery. And that might, in fact, cause their father more grief.

But the plain truth is-- we're not really sure why, but we're sure this the first instance. Now, you may remember earlier in Genesis, God sends three visitors to visit Abraham when he is recovering from his circumcision. And that is a surgical procedure, not an illness. And remarkably, what this announcement in chapter 48 really signifies is that Joseph has time to bring his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to visit and to, in a sense, receive a blessing from Joseph's father.

And it really is a chance to really take time and have the family express the love and the feelings that may not have been expressed. So it's not only the first illness, but later in this parashat, we learned that Jacob dies. And yet he dies with a sense of having been really cared for and had the opportunity to bless his children.

I want you to just think more personally-- I know for me and probably for many listening to the podcast, having a member of the family be very seriously ill is not something theoretical. And I remember decades ago when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and the pathology report came back, and I remember the doctor sat us down and said that the pathology was malignant. And then he said-- I'll just never forget-- he said with aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, she had a 10% chance of living three years.

And to be honest, those words nearly killed us. It was minutes before any of us could say anything. And we just made a solemn pledge to each other in the pain and the stunning impact of that moment that we were going to do everything humanly possible to turn that 10% into decades and a life that would be fulfilled.

I'm happy to report-- my mom is still very much with us, decades later, having defied all the odds. But I know that some of you listening to the podcast have faced also challenging prognoses and tried to figure out how to really marshal all the resources to get the person we love to wholeness.

Now, we're a tradition that doesn't think spiritual healing only has to do with prayer. It actually is a tradition that reveres the skill of physicians and really sees that as a divine skill. Many of our greatest rabbis, such as Moses Maimonides, were also physicians, and we're not told when there's a serious illness to do everything except go to a doctor. It says in the Talmud Bava Kamma 46b-- when a person has pain, that person should visit a physician.

So our tradition reveres medicine, sees science as somehow also coming from God, just as much as prayer and spiritual practice. And in our tradition, when someone gets sick, we see very often say, r’fuah shleimah, which means a complete healing-- healing of the body, healing of the soul. shleimah, meaning peace or wholeness. And in the prayer that we often say for people who are ill, we pray for all of that healing.

And I just want to say that even when-- obviously, we pray always that someone will be cured, and cure the body means to wipe out the tumor, to clear up the infection, or regain mobility. To heal the spirit involves creating a pathway to sensing wholeness, depth, mystery, purpose, and peace. And lives and relationships can be healed, even when there is no possibility of a physical cure. That is, in fact, I believe, what the parashat is talking about.

And that's what, in chapter 48 of Genesis, when we're told that Jacob is ill. He is wholeich, and the family gathers. There's a healing. There's a healing of relationships and the pain and the deeds that really tore at the brothers' hearts. And it's important to know that healing isn't the same as cure.

Now, we're all called to be healers in the Jewish tradition. It's not just something for rabbis or cantors or a very rarefied group. We're all called to do that. And there's a really remarkable passage in the Talmud. We're told that Rabbi Hellboe fell ill. Thereupon, Rabbi Hellboewent and proclaimed Rabbi Hellboe sick. But nobody went to visit him. So Rabbi Hellboe said, did it not what's happened about one of Rabbi Akiva's disciples who fell ill, and nobody visited him-- what happened?

Well, Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages of all time, was in the middle of a lecture in his great Academy, and he heard about his disciple's illness. And he left the lecture hall in the middle of the lecture. And when the villagers heard that the great Rabbi Akiva was coming, they cleaned up the man's house. They brought delicious foods so that it wouldn't be an embarrassment to the great rabbi, and because they finally attended to this disciple's every need, the disciple recovered.

Rabbi Akiva immediately went forth and taught the following-- he said, whoever does not visit the sick is like a shedder of blood. That's Talmud tractate Nedarim 39b. That's a pretty sharp, maybe even harsh statement, but it tells us that each of us can actually not only visit, but that visit could have a material impact on that person's well-being. And it's not because you have a great status that makes that visit efficacious.

Now, there was a wonderful series on PBS a number of years back called Healing and the Mind. That was a Bill Moyers special, a number of weeks in a row. And David Felton, who's a neurobiologist at the University of Rochester, described ways our emotions, thoughts, and feelings produce chemical reactions in the body, which affect our immune system. Dr. Felton gives a vivid example of the mind-body connection. He says the loneliness shows up as a factor in lowered immune responses when people in nursing homes have been studied.

So what does that mean? Actually, our visit to cheer up a friend could actually increase the immune system. That uplift in spirit could actually affect the health. Now, 1,600 years ago, Ben Sirah said, do not give yourself over to sorrow, distress. He said, a glad heart keeps a person alive, and joy lengthens the span of that person's days.

It's a pretty powerful thing. Some of you know Norman Cousins, a great producer, in his book Anatomy of an Illness. When he was very sick, he asked that his friends bring him-- remember the old movie projectors? And they brought them to his room, and they watched Marx brothers movies. And he laughed so hard, they actually had to come in ask him to be quiet. But that laughing and that joy had a dramatic effect on his health and well-being.

So there really is that which we can do. Now, I can't have a podcast about healing without talking about prayer. And remarkably, the Jewish people, when they do surveys of different faith communities and how much they turn to prayer, liberal Jews in particular aren't really sure about the efficacious impact of prayer. Not that we don't say Mi Shebeirach for people who are ill, but we're just not sure.

But praying for someone, particularly when we'd let them know that we're praying for them, can actually give them hope, can lift their spirits. And I think of one of most powerful prayers written by a Reform Rabbi, Ferdinand Isserman, who was ordained at HUC, Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, in 1922. And he said the following-- he said, prayer invites God's presence to fuse our spirits, God's will to prevail in our lives. Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.

I'm pretty certain that's a prayer every one of us can say, no matter how many doubts we have. Prayer can give sustenance to not only the patient, but also the caregivers. And I know when I'm in a room, and there's a doctor or a nurse present, very often we'll include in the prayer all the people who are bringing God's love and God's healing to that person.

I want to close the podcast by sharing a study by Dr. David Spiegel from Stanford University, and he conducted, I think, one of the most remarkable studies about the power of community to bring healing. And he studied women who had advanced metastatic breast cancer, and half of the patients went once a week to a psychosocial support group, where they talked with other patients about their illness. They didn't necessarily pray together. They didn't visualize their bodies fighting the cancer. They simply came together and offered each other support through discussion.

Now, here's the stunning fact-- maybe it's not stunning to all of you, but it was stunning to me when I first read it. The women who attended the support group did dramatically better in their clinical outcomes. Simply being in community, having people to help sustain not only their spirits, but to care for us, to love us, the people we can be incredibly honest with about our feelings and about our fears-- that actually makes a dramatic, dramatic difference.

So I'm going back to Jacob, who we're told in the very beginning of the parashat I mentioned-- he's wholeich. He's sick. And it gives everybody in his family a chance to respond, to care for him, to love him, and to support and sustain him. I know many of us right now are doing that very same thing for family members or friends, or maybe we ourselves are going through a very difficult illness.

And where is that healing to be found? Well, it's to be found in all of the dimensions of healing, through scientific skill, compassionate hearts, loving visits, soulful prayers, and continual kindness. That's where healing not only begins, but that's where we find healing. We found it in the parashat. Many of us have found in our lives. Let's offer it to others.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review, or share of the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitroat