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

Prayer as an act of transformation

Parashat Korach 5781 / פרשת קוֹרַח
Torah Portion: Numbers 16:1-18:32

Jewish worship is supposed to be transformational. People come to services on Shabbat, holy days and on weekdays for many reasons, but they are not always aware that Jewish prayer is an active experience that changes them, whether they want to change or not. If you leave a Friday night service the same as when you entered the synagogue that evening, you didn’t really pray.

At the heart of the Hebrew word for “prayer,” tefilah, is the root pallel, meaning something like “to execute judgment, clarify, and decide.” What is the object of our judgement, clarification or decision-making? We are. Our selves. In fact, the word for “to pray,” l’hitpallel, is reflexive, suggesting that prayer is an act of self-judgment, self-clarification, an act of deciding who we are and where we stand in relation to God, Israel, Torah and the rest of the world. One is inherently changed by virtue of achieving this heightened awareness.

No human being is entirely perfect, but prayer helps us change and improve. Prayer provides us with time and space to look both deep within ourselves and to look far beyond ourselves toward the realm of mystery, Divinity and infinitude to discern how we can become less imperfect. We enter the prayer space with whatever thoughts and feelings we bring — a hodgepodge of concern, gratitude, worry, contentment, despair, joy and sadness — and, if we’ve been intentional and present in our prayer, we leave having taken a step, even if imperceptible, toward putting everything in order.

As a reminder of why we come to pray, our synagogue’s aron kodesh (Holy Ark) is adorned with the symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel hammered into sheets of copper. To understand how this beautiful object of ritual art comes to inform our worship, one need only look at Parashat Korach, our Torah reading this week. 

Parashat Korach tells the tragic tale of rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron by the Levite Korach and the Reubenites Dathan, Abiram and On. As Rabbi Charlie Scwhwartz of Hillel International writes in his commentary to Parashat Korach on, “Parashat Korach is a chaotic mess. Within the 95 verses of this Torah portion are multiple active rebellions accompanied by multiple acts of divine punishment, all intertwined in a confusing and complicated narrative…” In the midst of all the chaos, Moses directs Korach and his followers to appear before God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, each with an offering of incense in his fire pan. (As custodians of the Tabernacle, the men would each have possessed a fire pan used to gather up the charred remains of sacrifices burnt on the Tabernacle’s altar.) At the moment the rebels gather, God punishes them by consuming them in fire. 

What became of the fire pans, which had been consecrated for service in the Tabernacle? God speaks to Moses, telling him to instruct Eleazar the priest to “remove the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar — for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred — and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel” (Num. 17:3). Then we read that Eleazar “took the copper fire pans” and did as God had bidden.

The Torah specifies that the pans should be “a warning to the people of Israel,” but they serve another purpose as well. Later in the Book of Numbers we find out that “the sons of Korach did not die” (Num. 26:11). In fact, Korach’s descendents go on to compose half a dozen Psalms, one (Psalm 47), which we read before the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and another (Psalm 49) that is traditionally read in a house of mourning. Though Korach may have instigated a deadly rebellion against Moses, Aaron and, by extension, God, his descendants chose a different path. Perhaps they were not rebellious to begin with. No matter, the legacy of Korach’s lineage does not end with his fateful quarrel. Rather, it ends with acts of faith, piety, trust, and celebration of God’s greatness. And so, the copper fire pans that become part of the altar also remind us of the power of teshuvah (return, repentance), the ultimate proof of humanity’s power to transform itself into something better than it has been and is.

Many synagogues incorporate copper into their arks, Torah reading tables, and other ritual objects. By doing so, the copper does more than complement the synagogue’s decor. It stands as a reminder that we are all capable of becoming better than we are, of becoming less imperfect, if you will. We are all capable of adding holiness into the world, just like the descendents of the rebellious Korach. Even more, because we see the copper before us as we pray, it reminds us to use this time of prayer to look within and to look beyond and to begin our transformation in that moment. May we all realize whatever change we seek.