What is the source of health? And what is the source of healing? Our tradition teaches us to turn to human healers when their expertise can help us. At the same time, we are urged to remember the divine Source of healing from which these experts draw. As Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, "The doctor is God’s partner in the struggle between life and death. Religion is medicine in the form of a prayer; medicine is prayer in the form of a deed."
The Power to Heal
Is there any more common question than “How are you?” And is there any question that could possibly be harder to answer?
“I’m great, thanks,” whether you mean it or not.
“Oy, don’t ask,” and you really do mean it.
“Thank you for asking.” And that’s all you need to say.
Some of us struggle with chronic illness, pain, or fatigue; others are relatively healthy. Generally speaking, most of the time we want to sound positive and upbeat if for no other reason than sharing our challenges with others only makes us feel more fragile and unsure. We hesitate to test the interest and compassion of those we casually meet.
Our tradition insists, of course, that there is one whose interest and compassion can never be exhausted. And it is in invoking this loving companion that Judaism provides a traditional response to this most everyday inquiry.
“How are you?”
“Baruch Hashem. Thank God.”
Meaning: As well or as ill as I am, I am grateful to be able to respond to you.
In these two words are bundled three thousand years of Jewish wisdom, which continues to challenge and inspire us today.
Personally, I don’t say Baruch Hashem or “thank God” when someone asks me how I’m doing. But there some contexts in which I will say it. For instance, I might say, “I’ve only been hospitalized once, thank God, and it was for a fairly minor operation.” Overall, I’ve lived a fairly healthy life, thank God.
Now, I’m not saying this because I think that a divine personage has selected me for good health while others have been condemned to illness. Not in any way. And that’s not what our tradition implies either.
Instead, “thanking God” for health is a statement of gratitude for a gift that hasn’t been earned, a blessing that has eluded family members and dear friends through no fault of their own. The reasons for good health are a mystery, and though we do what we can to maintain it, “one day, [we] know, it will be otherwise.”
This week’s Torah portion invites us to reflect on the relationship between personal health and its divine and unknowable source, which is called—for lack of a better word—God.
Towards the end of the parashah, Miriam, along with her brother, Aaron, challenges the selection of Moses as God’s chosen emissary. “Has the Eternal spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Num. 12:2). We are told that Moses is the most humble man on earth, and God defends him as the best representative for God’s word. We are told that God is angry at Miriam, and then she is struck with tzaraat, the biblical skin affliction often understood as leprosy.
The message seems clear—and God makes it explicit—that Miriam is being punished for denouncing her brother. And Moses, far from feelings of triumph or vindication, is aghast. He literally shouts at God, displaying his own distress while begging for her healing. He utters the shortest and most poignant prayer for healing in the Jewish tradition: אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ, “God, please, I beg you, heal her” (Num. 12:13).
The Midrash, here, pauses. Tzaraat is not foreign to Moses. He himself was afflicted by the disease when he first met God, and moreover, he and Aaron received extensive instructions on how to treat patients who suffered from it. If anyone should be able to handle this situation, it’s Moses, the world’s most experienced expert on this particular disease.
And yet, he prays for healing.
And when he does, he might just as well be any of us saying the Mi Shebeirach at Shabbat services.
We, too, are surrounded by medical experts. And truth be told, healers today are dramatically more effective than anyone in Moses’ time. And yet we know, as Moses did before us, that even the best doctor can’t always predict outcomes. Our ancestors saw the same reality we see: sometimes, a healer’s efforts are effective, and sometimes the same treatment for the same ailment—even in the same person—doesn’t work.
We can’t explain why. Sometimes, we can explain how a treatment might or might not work, but questions of why elude the furthest reach of the grasp of science. In medicine as in every aspect of our life, we need not look far to find the areas of mystery. Physicians base their treatments on the best practices of the scientific method, but results are never guaranteed. Because there’s more to health than balancing chemicals and calibrating organs. The doctor partners with the Source of Healing, acting as its agent and representative, drawing from its reservoir and never fully alone.
Judaism teaches us to trust in doctors while reminding ourselves of the greater power of healing that they so expertly harness. This teaching is borne out in a classic Talmudic dispute:
Rav Acha taught: When you go in for [an operation] say: “May it be Your will, O Eternal my God, that this operation may be a cure for me, and may You heal me, for You are a faithful healing God, and Your healing is sure since human beings have no power to heal even though they practice it.”
But Abaye countered: That is not appropriate to say, for the Torah itself says that one person can “Cause [another] to be thoroughly healed” (Exodus 21:19). And from this we learn that the healer has authority to heal.
Read together, Rav Acha and Abaye teach us that both the physician herself and the mysterious force here called God are involved in healing. That’s why Jacob Zahalon (1630-1693), a 17th-century rabbi and doctor, said in his physician’s prayer, “I am but clay in the Potter’s hand, in the hand of the Creator of all things, and as the instrument through which You [God] cure Your creatures.” Or as 20th-century philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) phrased it in his characteristically mellifluous idiom:
The doctor is God’s partner in the struggle between life and death. Religion is medicine in the form of a prayer; medicine is prayer in the form of a deed. … The act of healing is the highest form of [imitating God]. To minister to the sick is to minister to God. Religion is not the assistant of medicine but the secret of one’s passion for medicine.
In other words, humans and the divine are partners in the sacred act of healing. Century after century, our tradition has imparted this essential wisdom: the expert care of professional healers is empowered and enriched by the mysterious source of healing, a force beyond our understanding and control, to which we turn for blessing as we pray for ourselves and those we love.
When we sing Mi Shebeirach, our congregation joins Jews around the world and across the centuries in affirming and revering the mystery that animates our being. Our own beliefs about the source of healing will certainly vary, but we join together in asserting that our communal expression of encouragement and hope brings some respite and relief. And when we pray for ourselves and those we love, we may keep in mind these words reflection attributed to Margaret Torrie (1912-1999), the founder of Britain’s first support organization for widows and their children.
Healing is both an exercise and an understanding.
It is not of the will;
It is a wisdom and a deeper knowledge
of the daily swing of life and death.
In all creation, there is defeat to overcome
and acceptance of living to be established.
there must be hope...
It is not hope of healing
that informs the coming moment and gives it reason.
Rather: the hope which is each person’s breath:
the certainty of love – and of loving
Death may live in the living,
and healing rise in the dying,
for whom the natural end
is part of the gathering
and of the harvest to be expected
To know healing
is to know
that all life is one.
 From Jane Kenyon’s poem “Otherwise” (1996).
 See Ibn Ezra’s commentary to Num. 12:13: זה יורה שהיה בצער על אחותו, “This teaches that [Moses] was in distress over his sister.”
 The following interpretations are taken from Sifrei Devarim 6:13.
 Indeed the “best doctor” receives considerable skepticism in the Talmud: טוב שברופאים לגיהנם, “The best of doctors is bound for Gehenna” (BT Kiddushin 82a.)
 Berachot 60a:
דאמר רב אחא: הנכנס להקיז דם אומר: יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלהי שיהא עסק זה לי לרפואה ותרפאני כי אל רופא נאמן אתה ורפואתך אמת לפי שאין דרכן של בני אדם לרפאות אלא שנהגו. אמר אביי: לא לימא אינש הכי דתני דבי רבי ישמעאל: וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא (שמות כא יט). מכאן שניתנה רשות לרופא לרפאות. כי קאי מאי אומר? אמר רב אחא: ברוך רופא חנם.
In the words of Rav Aha: On going in for a blood-letting operation say: “May it be Your will, O Eternal my God, that this operation may be a cure for me, and may You heal me, for You are a faithful healing God, and Your healing is sure since human beings have no power to heal even though they practice it.” Abaye said: A person should not speak thus since it was taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael: “He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (Exodus 21:19). From this we learn that permission has been given to the physician to heal. When he gets up [after the procedure] what does he say? Rav Acha said: “Blessed the one who heals without payment.”
 Quoted in Byron Sherwin’s Jewish Ethics for the Twenty-First Century: Living in the Image of God (Syracuse University Press, 2000), p. 22.
 “The Patient is a Person” in his The Insecurity of Freedom (Toronto: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1959), p. 33.
 This adaption is modified slightly from a version found in several Reform healing services, such as the Weekday Service of Healing, compiled by Rabbi Daniel Komito Gottlieb and Cantor Lisa L. Levine for the UAHC Biennial in 1999. The original poem can be found here: http://web.cs.ucla.edu/~klinger/intention.html.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”