October 2, 2023 -
This post on Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple’s interactive blog was shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso during the Aug. 12 Shabbat Evening Service:
The very first words of this week’s Torah portion emanate from Moses, who says, “V’etchanan El Adonai…” meaning, “I pleaded with God.” Moses’ appeal to the Holy One is understandable, given his belief that he will not be able to enter into the Promised Land. These words are his last gasp chance to make his case.
It is also a window into how very personal prayer is to each one of us.
The Midrash teaches that prayer can occur in many ways, and shares examples of how various biblical figures prayed. In the Book of Samuel, Hannah prayed privately within, Daniel would kneel on his knees and bow three times a day, and David would “speak and moan.”
Prayer takes many forms. It can be communicated through words, actions, or inside of our hearts. And, to whom one prays is not always a given; for non-God believers, prayer may still be a mechanism towards a greater sense of consciousness.
Prayer is an opportunity to acknowledge that there is something greater than us, and prayer gives us the ability to step outside ourselves in order to feel a measure of control or agency when so much feels beyond our capacity to fathom.
Here at temple, each Shabbat we offer prayers of healing not as aspiring physicians, but as followers of ancient traditions.
After all, it is Moses who utters unscripted words from the heart: “El Na R’fah Na La,” meaning “God, please heal her,” when his sister is stricken with illness.
It’s a good bet that each of us has known illness ourselves, or has known it through loved ones. Mi Sheberach for the ill invites us to harness our collective energies in prayer to bring comfort to our souls, and to offer pleadings on behalf of those who need it.
As a student in seminary, I was given the daunting task of spending a summer at a hospital in New York City, and tasked to randomly walk into the rooms of the sick to offer a prayer to them.
Clutching my rabbi’s manual tightly, I diligently turned to the first page of the section titled, “At the bedside of a patient,” and I read the lead prayer word for word.
Halfway through the summer, you could almost feel the fingerprint indentations impressed into the cover of that rabbi’s manual. You see, I was frightened each time I walked into one of those rooms, and I squeezed that small book tightly. Imposter syndrome. Who was I to offer a prayer, and what could those words I uttered truly do for the individuals I visited?
One day, I was walking the floor holding on to the rabbi’s manual when I found a patient – his name was Walter – who had a kind smile. As I had done countless times before, I moved to open my rabbi’s manual, but the man wanted to talk first.
He told me about his life, his family, his joys and his grief. I was 26 at the time, and he must have been in his 60’s. I listened intently, but wondered what I could ever offer him. Nevertheless, Walt and I connected that day, and I was so lost in his story that before I left his bedside, I forgot to read the prayer on the page I had neatly set aside with the book mark.
Walt, I discovered, was relatively ill, and therefore remained in the hospital for weeks. Still, I would visit often, and it soon felt like we were old friends.
As he began to improve, I learned that he would be discharged in a number of days. I stopped at his room to say goodbye, knowing that I might not see him again, and when I did he had a gift waiting for me – it was bible, and this time HE was the one who inscribed a prayer for me, the student rabbi, inside its opening pages:
Though we walk separate paths we are “Brothers” in the eyes of the Almighty. May He bless you and yours and may He be with you and guide you in your chosen vocation.
That bible has remained on my bookshelf for the past 25 years.
I remember how meeting Walt more than 25 years ago changed me, changed the way I walk into hospital rooms, and the way I try to serve others as a rabbi. I still carry a rabbi’s manual with me in my car, but frankly, sometimes I forget to bring it with me…or, I bring it along, but never crack it open.
I learned that reciting prayers is important, but sometimes prayers are conveyed in different ways. Sometimes prayer is animated in our ability to be curious, in sharing a knowing glance, in expressing joy, in offering a loving touch, or in lending a listening ear.
Sometimes prayer is breathing; after all, wasn’t it God who breathed life inside each of us? That was the first prayer ever gifted to us.
The rabbis of the Talmud debated how prayers should be shared, what should be said, when we should say them, and the formulas we should use, but their debates were never fully resolved.
Perhaps they knew that a rabbinical student might be wandering the hallways of New York Hospital with a rabbi’s manual in hand – its contents teeming with prayers – but, regardless, that young man would still look for inspiration, and he was to find it in the sacred moment of meeting between two people, breathing in the breaths that God so perfectly implanted inside each one of them.