Parashah Ponderings

Finding strength and comfort in the unseen, unheard

Parashat Emor 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת אֱמוֹר
Torah Portion: Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Every Shabbat during our services we recite a prayer asking God to bestow healing and comfort upon individuals who are sick, chronically ill, or recovering from a medical procedure. When we recite this prayer, known as MiSheberach (The One Who Blesses), we also call out names of friends, family members, co-workers, and even complete strangers who are in need of healing. 

The communal list I read during MiSheberach each Shabbat is nearly two pages long; it takes a couple of minutes to read the whole list. Once I am done reading the list, people in the sanctuary or on Zoom will then call out or write in the chat box additional names of people in need of healing. The whole ritual – between offering the prayer and saying the names – takes about five minutes. 

Though those five minutes can sometimes feel like an eternity, they are often the most intentional five minutes of our service. When we pray for the well-being of those we care about, after all, our prayers become more than words on a page, more than rote recitation; our prayers for healing represent our most intensely felt, intensely offered efforts to reach out to the Divine Healer.

What is most curious about the MiSheberach blessing, though, is not its length or its intensity or even the wide range of theological beliefs present in the room that make it meaningful to each of us. What is most curious is that a) most of the people for whom we are praying are not physically present with us, and b) we often hear the names of people we don’t know, many of whom are not members of congregational family. So why bother?

I’d like to offer you one response to this question, though there are many. The prayers we offer for healing are akin to the ner tamid, the “eternal light” that hovers over the bimah, the raised platform in the front of the sanctuary, shedding a dim light over the aron kodesh, the holy ark containing our Torah scrolls – even when nobody is around to see it. The ner tamid represents God’s never ending presence in the world. Our prayers for healing represent our never ending hope that all who are ill will find perfect healing, refuah shelayma. Our concern, our hope, is as real as the light of the ner tamid. Just as we find comfort in knowing that God is always present to us even when we aren’t in the sanctuary to see the light of the ner tamid, so too, do those in need of healing find comfort in our prayers even when they are not present to hear them.

Unlike in our ner tamid, the lights of the original ner tamid, i.e. the menorah that stood outside the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temples, the light would die out each day as the olive oil used to fuel the flames would be consumed. Our biblical forebears did not have the benefit of electricity to keep the flame lit at all hours. In essence, it took regular effort to make God’s presence known by lighting the ner tamid in the same way that it takes regular effort to keep the light of hope alive for those in need of healing.

The comparison between the ner tamid and our prayers for healing goes even deeper, though. Notice what we read in this weeks parashah, Parashat Emor

Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact to burn from evening to morning 

Lev. 24:3

Think about it. The light of the ancient ner tamid would glow before the Holy of Holies precisely when there would be the fewest people to see it, from evening to morning! The light would be at its brightest when the kohanim and levi’im were going home from work at night; by the time they returned to work in the morning, the flames would be alive but not as bright, perhaps nearly extinguished. Yet the glow of the ner tamid was still real even when no one was around to see it.

The Torah recognizes that we need to know that God is present when we feel most alone, when we feel most disconnected from what my teacher Rabbi David Teutsch refers to as “the radiant center” of community. After all, it’s easy to feel connected to God and community when one is surrounded by people who are doing holy work, whether that is offering sacrifices in the Temple, serving food in the Community Kitchen, or praying together on Shabbat. Away from those sources of light and love, though, life can feel lonely. It’s at those times when our prayers matter most.

As long as people are suffering, we will say their names and pray for them, no matter how long it takes. You might not hear our prayers. Inevitably, many of those assembled in the sanctuary reciting the prayers won’t know who you are. But think of the words of our prayers like the ner tamid that glows brightest when no one is around. The presence of the Divine is still very real even when it is not seen. Our prayers, too, are still very real even when not heard. 

May you find as much comfort and strength in the words of our mouths as in the light of the eternal flame.

Parashah Ponderings

People Need People

Parashat Vayera 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת וַיֵּרָא
Torah Portion:
Genesis 18:1-22:24

People need people. I was reminded of this in recent days through encounters with friends old and new.

Earlier this week I received word that the mother of a childhood friend had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable form of brain cancer. Though I had not spoken with or written to my friend for many years, I wrote to her, offering my love, support and prayers during this difficult time. She wrote back saying she couldn’t express how much she appreciated my message. We will speak next week, after she visits with her mom. Though she has a healthy network of family and friends to bolster her spirits, the unexpected grace of friends from long ago signals that even in her loneliest of moments, she is never and has never been alone.

Also this week, I’ve continued to hold a beloved elder in my prayers as she’s faced a series of medical challenges. A long-time member of the congregation who inspires us with her joy, wisdom and spunk, Rosie is now on the mend and full of smiles. I am grateful for her daughter Shelly for sending me a photo of Rosie sitting up, dressed, and beaming as she prepared to leave the hospital and go to rehab. Rosie wouldn’t be where she is today without the countless medical professionals, friends, and loving family who have been doing their part to restore Rosie to good health. It’s amazing what can happen when people care for other people!

That people need other people is one of the primary messages of Parashat Vayera, a patchwork of stories alternately uplifting, horrifying, inspiring and mystifying. In the Torah portion for this week, Abraham appears in all but one of the stories, taking on different roles in relation to God, his wife Sarah, and the world around him. Each story highlights the importance of taking care of the people around us.

In the one scene where Abraham is absent, we encounter Lot’s two daughters, fearful following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that the human race will end with them and their father. Their plan to lie with their father and become impregnated by him defies the Torah’s own prohibition against incest but gives rise to two of Israel’s neighboring nations, the Ammonites and Moabites, the latter of which is the tribe of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David. Once we get past the sordid details of the story, we discover two women who love humanity so much, even after what they witnessed in Sodom and Gomorrah, that they will sublimate their own sense of decency in order to ensure humanity’s survival.

Earlier in the parashah, Abraham, who is still recovering from being circumcised, spies three guests coming toward his tent and jumps up and runs out to greet them. He then beckons Sarah and one of his servants to get busy preparing a feast for their visitors. The three visitors turn out to be agents of God; they appear to deliver the news that the elderly Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s heir within the year. In this incident, Abraham and Sarah set the standard for the mitzvah of hospitality for all time. We also find the basis for allowing the telling of untruths if they are intended to spare feelings and to maintain family peace.

Later, God announces to Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah had doomed themselves to destruction because of their violent and lascivious behavior. It is in this context that Abraham comes to the aid of his fellow human beings as he pleads with God to save the towns if God might find only ten righteous people among the dwellers. Ten such people could not be found, and the cities were destroyed. Nonetheless, Abraham forever earns a place in the panoply of biblical heroes for the chutzpah he musters to argue with God on behalf of people he did not know.

The penultimate scene of the parashah depicts the birth of Isaac and the subsequent dispersion of the blended family that had once included Sarah’s handmaid and her son, Ishmael, whom Abraham had fathered. The story is all the more poignant because it shows our ancestors at their most vulnerable, feeling alone and scared, trying to take care of each other while also causing harm to others. It is a heart wrenching story that bears a profound lesson about how difficult it can be sometimes for human beings to know what is right for themselves, for their families and for their descendents.

It is ironic that this parashah, which has presented image after image of human beings doing what they think is best for other people, ends with Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac at God’s behest. After all these lessons about the interdependence of human beings, we learn that Abraham was ready to give up his beloved Isaac, the one whose birth was foretold in the opening verses of the parashah, the one on whom the prophecy of Abraham’s greatness and blessing depended. The contrast between the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, and all that came before further highlights the reality that people need people.

What a contrast, too, between my encounters this week with my friend and Rosie. As my friend comes to terms with her mother’s terminal diagnosis, so many people, including myself, will reach out and hold her, giving her the strength and courage to cope with the inevitabile. As I look at the photo of Rosie on my phone, on the other hand, I am overjoyed that she is doing well. How awesome that so many people have come to her aid and have helped her regain her health and spirit! Here are two cases that prove that people need people. Let us all be there for one another whenever we are needed.