Thursday, May 27, 2010

B'halotecha 5770:Jewish Healing Prayers for the Body and Soul

13. And Moses cried to the Lord, saying,'Oh please god, please heal her now'[Numbers 12]

In Hebrew Moses' words are the easily said

אל נא רפא נא לה

Pronounced Ayl na rafa na la, this is probably the first short prayer in the Hebrew biblical text. Most are long protracted poems. This is short and sweet and very repeatable in a mantra, chanting sort of way.

I first learned about his prayer when I returned to Judaism after a long hiatus. The one thing I remember most about that first prayer service at a Jewish Renewal synagogue, it was this healing prayer of Moses about Miriam's case of tzarat. Moses of course knew what Miriam was going through since God gave him a taste of it back at the burning bush.

6) And the LORD said furthermore unto him: 'Put now thy hand into thy bosom.' And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, as white as snow.And He said: 'Put thy hand back into thy bosom.--And he put his hand back into his bosom; and when he took it out of his bosom, behold, it was turned again as his other flesh. 8) And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe thee, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign.[Exodus 4]

While he did use that first sign, the staff turning into a snake, Moses never used the second, tzarat, in Egypt. As I wrote back in Exodus in my piece Va-eira 5770: The missing plague it was here with Miriam that the plague and the doubt finally showed. But what is interesting is while Moses and Aaron were able to turn the snake back into a staff, in this case there is nothing that Moses is able to do, no methodology to revert Miriam's tzarat back into healthy skin. He is forced to ask God for help, to heal her. God is totally in control here, not human beings with a set of instructions, the Torah seems to say. The rabbis say similarly

On going in to be cupped[i.e. bloodletting] one should say: ‘May it be Thy will, O Lord, my God, that this operation may be a cure for me, and mayest Thou heal me, for Thou art a faithful healing God, and Thy healing is sure, since men have no power to heal, but this is a habit with them’...From this we learn that permission has been given to the physician to heal. When he gets up [after cupping] what does he say? — R. Aha said: Blessed be He who heals without payment.[Brachot 60a]

God does the healing clearly, and God heals through the spirit and through prayer and blessing. While "la" means "her" in Moses' prayer, referring to Miriam, it can also mean "it" in the feminine. Most who follow this idea think the "it" here is for neshama, one's soul. Ahava, which could mean love or friendship, could be another feminine word that would work here. Not only was there a physical healing need but one of the soul, and one of the relationship between people. Ayl na rafa na la is very versatile in that way.

The traditional prayer of healing, said as part of a Torah reading where one person who needs to ask for healing of another is much longer and has a few interesting issues in its text:

He who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon -- may He bless and heal the sick person ( insert name here) son of (mothers name) because (name of person saying prayer) will contribute to charity on his behalf. In reward for this, may the Holy One, Blessed be He, be filled with compassion for him to restore his health, to heal him, to strengthen him, and to revivify him. And may he send him speedily a complete recovery from heaven for his two hundred forty eight organs and three hundred sixty five blood vessels, among the other sick people of Israel, a recovery of the body and a recovery of the spirit swiftly and soon. Now let us say Amen.[Artscroll]
There are three points of interest. While I have placed this only in the masculine, the he referring to the patient has a section with feminine pronouns as well in the prayerbook, which is rather odd for a more traditional siddur which tends to put everything in the masculine. Secondly, it mentions two hundred forty eight organs and three hundred sixty five blood vessels, which if one were to add those two numbers up is six hundred and thirteen, a reference to the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot. Finally there is a quid pro quo here: one is to give charity in order to get this result. Given most tzedaka is give as a mandatory obligation, this seems strange. To trade one for the other seems counter to the idea of giving charity not because you want to or are after an end, but because it is commanded by God.

In liberal Judaism, much of these interesting points is addressed by deleting them. In the Reform Siddur Mishkan Tefila The more formal version reads

May the one who blessed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah Rebbecca, Rachel, and Leah bless and heal [A list of names].May the blessed Holy One be filled with compassion for their health, to be restored and their strength to be revived.May God swiftly send them a complete renewal of the body and spirit and let us say Amen.

With the replacement of Moses, Aaron David and Solomon with the matriarchs, the Reform version also adds another piece. while the Orthodox version is said by a individual, the Reform version is communal and neutral in gender. While this is found in Reform liturgy, it is uncommon in my experience for anyone to use it. Many congregations will sing instead Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman's version, which is so common it is included as an alternate healing prayer in Mishkan T'fila.

Mi shebeirach avoteinu m'kor habracha l'imoteinu
May the Source of strength who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing and let us say: amen

Mi shebeirach imoteinu m'kor habracha l'avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with refua shleima
the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, and let us say Amen.

Yet my favorite is still Moses' words for Miriam. Ayl na rafa na la. We do not know if Moses said it only the once, or said it over and over again. Its simple chanting sounds and meter makes me believe it was repeated over and over again. Even the Hebrew letters involved are easily repeatable. Like the reform version, it is based on the power of prayer more than anything else, and as a repeatable prayer it paradoxically means it can be one of the longest prayers possible. repeated over and over fro a very long time. Even on paper when written it becomes a powerful prayer.

I know many people who need healing of body. I know many who need healing of spirit, including me. The last few months have been a radical change in my life. Who I identified myself to be and how I did my daily work is radically different than it was a year ago. I realized how much I need to heal this week, sitting in bed around 2:30 in the morning, worrying about an international package getting to its destination. Part of my new life is running a shipping department, so different than the training and consulting I used to do. I laid there that night wondering why five boxes could keep me worried so much that I could not sleep.

I didn't figure it out that night but I have a good idea of my problem now. I need healing of my spirit. It's damaged and weak somehow, leading me down a path that every thing I do must be right and perfect, or my identify will be shattered. Who and what I am right now is pretty fragile anyway, as I still haven't clarified who I am based on the many new things in my life over the past year and a half. I'm sure I am not the only one like this, given the changes in the economy worldwide. Too many have had changed lives, and many more will in the near future. It is too easy when our souls are weak to cling on to our daily deeds and career as the sole source of our identity. I make a single shipment the most important thing in my life because I'm scared I will be nothing if I can't get those boxes to their destination.

My intellect knows better of course, but my soul does not. It's cowering in a dark corner of me, in pain. Thus I need to heal. Saying a few words may not heal me, but praying those words, and connecting with God may. Heschel said the prayer does not save but makes man worthy of saving. It does not matter the prayer, but that it is said. When we do the actions that connect us with God, that is when refua shleima, the complete healing happens.

I'm trying to heal, to bring my soul into a whole place again. Like Miriam it is locked away and isolated. It is another way of looking at why I have had such trouble writing the last few weeks. My soul has not been in it. It once was honored for its knowledge in the world it was in, now in its new world, it is denigrated at every turn. It has been told too many time lately that it is wrong for expressing its opinion so it does not want to express its opinion any more. It is also part of my soul to express itself so it keeps vainly trying and fails miserably. So it is hurt over and over again, and terrified of being wrong and hurt again. I know now it needs to heal from this, to handle those situations differently. Healing a soul is not easy, but it can be done.

For me, that healing will come through Ayl na rafa na la, repeating it over and over again, and with it opening my heart and soul to God once again, like Moses and Miriam did.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Naso 5770: The Vows of the Nazirite

This week, among suspected adulterous women and counting the Levites we have the following:

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazirite, to separate themselves for the Lord; 3. He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, nor shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. 4. All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is produced from the grape vine, from the seeds to the grape skin. 5. All the days of the vow of his separation no razor shall come upon his head; until the days are fulfilled, during which he separates himself for the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow. 6. All the days that he separates himself for the Lord he shall not come near a dead body. 7. He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because the consecration of his God is upon his head. 8. All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord.[Numbers 6]
The Nazirite makes a public oath apparently, and then for a period of time he or she is then prohibited from doing and touching certain things. The Talmud clarifies a bit more. There are three types of Nazirite. The first is a limited time Nazirite. This is a person who disciplines themselves for a given period of time. According to the Rabbis, if that time is not specified, then it is a default period of thirty days. The second type is someone who decides to be a Nazirite for the rest of their life and the third is the rare case of one who is born a Nazirite and lives a life of a Nazirite for the entirety of their life. The Haftarah of the week concerns the first and the third one:

2. And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren, and bore not. 3. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman, and said to her, Behold now, you are barren, and bear not; but you shall conceive, and bear a son. 4. Now therefore beware, I beseech you, and drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing; 5. For, behold, you shall conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head; for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.[Judges 13]

The child the woman give birth to she names Samson, who did not have magical hair as many believe but was consecrated as a Nazirite, a holy person to God when his hair was not cut. Interestingly, Samson's mom also was a Nazirite during her pregnancy. This might hint at why women are specifically mentioned as Nazirites when it is so rare for them to be specifically mentioned in other mitzvot. It was a vow of thanksgiving to consecrate yourself to the lord as a Nazirite. In ancient culture, where proclivity in children was a lot of one's status in society and family , women in particular may have had reason to thank god for a child, and this must have been it.

I do not completely understand why of all things the prohibitions were not to cut one's hair, or stay away from anything that is grape or intoxicant. The staying away from a corpse is a little more understandable, as it is the same idea as it is for a priest and the High priest:

11. Neither shall he go to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother[Leviticus 21]
Thinking about it, Intoxicants also are mentioned in terms of priests:

8. And the Lord spoke to Aaron, Saying: 9. Drink no wine nor strong drink You, and your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, that you will not die; it shall be a statute forever. [Leviticus 10]
In a sense, The Nazirite takes on a holiness comparable to a priest, and must avoid death the same way a priest does. Except for extraordinary conditions, these three are prohibitions that are not basic needs like food or shelter. Yet this is a practice of the past, can we understand it in the present? The answer comes from asking other questions. How do we take vows and have the discipline to do something with them? We find that taking a vow is actually rather easy, it just needs a statement.

Much of the first part of the Talmud tractate on the Nazirite is about the oath itself. It is exceptionally easy, and with key words one locks themselves into various types of Nazirite vows. While admittedly not reading the Gemara for the entire tractate, I think it is clear there is a message here: it is easy to make a promise. One can phrase a promise many different ways, but still end up promising something. In the case of the Nazir it is a promise to God to do an act of devotion. In this case it is three things that most people can actually do without endangering their life. It is not a full fast of thirty days, for example, which would cause harm. It may be difficult to avoid grapes, to look unkempt for a month but it is possible without any harm to the person. As in the case of Samson's mom and later Hanna, Samuel's it is harmless enough that even a pregnant woman could do it. Indeed keeping away from any alcohol or diseased dead bodies might actually be good for the fetus.

Therefore it is also easy to keep this promise. For many of our promises that is also true. Making and keeping promises are easy. The third of the three disciplines is again not difficult under normal circumstances. Most people don't handle dead bodies on a regular basis. The Torah itself is clear that sometimes bad things happen. A nazirite might be caught in a war, and end up with dead bodies all around them, making it impossible not to touch a dead body. So there are procedures for essentially starting from scratch, removing the hair involved from the original oath, and repeating the entire oath from the beginning. This gives us an very important lesson: if we fail in our oath, we are not punished but given another chance to do so again. Unintentional mistakes are unavoidable, and when we make promises, we might break our promise from circumstances beyond our control. What are we to do? Get up from our mistake, Apologize, clean ourselves off from our mistake, and try again.

I've been thinking a lot about that. While it is not a vow, I did make Shlomo's drash a major discipline in my life. And as those who have followed this for while know. I am scrupulous in getting something written every week. I've skipped only a few times, and that was due to a lack of Internet connection in the Galalpagos Islands or in deepest darkest Africa. Otherwise, I'm always getting one of these out.

Except for the last few weeks.

For that time period I could not write a single word. While I have been very busy, there have been times in the past I was a busy and still got this out, so lack of time is only an excuse. I've realized what was wrong in Nazirite terms because I touched a metaphorical dead body. My ideas and writing died when touching it. So while I've been trying to write, I keep having miscarriages of ideas and nothing gets written.

It happened this week as well. But reading the text, I realized the old advice I gave as a computer tech support guy is still the most sage: Reboot.

9. And if any man dies very suddenly beside him, and he has defiled his consecrated head; then he shall shave his head in the day of his cleansing, on the seventh day shall he shave it.[Numbers 6]

Cut off the desecrated hair, clean yourself, and a few sacrifices later, the Nazirite starts the whole process over again. So, as hard as it is to do the reboot. I'm going ahead and writing this week. I'll give the oath here that has been my life for nine years now: I want to write Shalomo's Drash to my dying day. I'm not stopping even though I contemplated it many time. I'm going to write and write forever. It's my dedication to God, to study Torah and give my insight to everyone else. If they care to read it is up to them, but I have done the writing.

I may falter very once in a while, but in the spirit of a nazirite, I will merely stop, clean up, and start again. I'm still human, and can make mistakes like everyone else.

So thank you, I'm here to stay. period.