The prayer we call Mi Sheberach, because it starts with those words, is usually recited as a request of healing. The opening words mean “may the one who blessed” and is almost always followed by the names of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and. frequently, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. It is recited for other people and other occasions too, such as those who have been called to the Torah, someone embarking on a trip, especially to Eretz Yisrael, B’nei Mitzvah, brides and grooms, new parents and so on. Basically, it is a phrase used to invoke God’s blessing on anyone undergoing a life-changing experience.
I would like to focus specifically on Mi Sheberach as a prayer for healing. In the prayer we mention the names of those whose difficulties are a source of distress for us and whose healing and well-being it thus important to us. On shabbat and Yom Tov we add a phrase acknowledging our understanding that this is not a day for petitions but these are special circumstances. The Mi Sheberach formula includes a request for both physical and spiritual health and includes not only the loved one named but universalizes the request to all who are ill.
Mi Sheberach is a lovely prayer and a lovely concept but its recital also raises some questions.
Am I to believe that is it OK to actively ask (pray) for a miracle? Can we really ask or demand of God that the laws and the established order of nature, in my opinion, the real miracle, be abrogated on behalf of one ordinary individual? Of course, Moses did on Miriam’s behalf when she was stricken with a leprous-looking skin disorder in the desert but, in context, that was a very special set of circumstances. Perhaps what we are really asking is that God NOT directly intervene. It may be that our prayer is that our incredible and intricate body, one of our many gifts from God, be allowed to engage in the process of healing itself. This healing need not be a solo effort. The text available for insertion in our daily Amidah includes a request to strengthen the hands of those concerned with our loved ones’ healing, indicating that science and the medical arts are part of the process. So, I am not backing off and saying “God, You heal her”; I am saying “God, let the self-protective power You have given our bodies and the wisdom, and scientific knowledge You have made us capable of, do their tasks”.
(As an aside, we are probably asking for miraculous intervention if that fails. We are, after all, only human)
The Mi Sheberach prayer mentions healing of the body and also healing of the spirit. So, the question is: are we addressing mental as well as physical illness or are we suggesting that a person’s emotional state can affect their bodily well-being and their ability to fight disease? I think the answer is, both. We need to be able to recognize and acknowledge that mental health is a very real concern and that mental illness, however manifested, is something that has to be addressed as openly and non-judgmentally as we do physical ailments. A person suffering from some psychosis is no less human and no less deserving of our concern as someone with pneumonia or a heart condition. At the same time, it is also clear that a patient’s attitude and outlook can have a very real effect on their outcome. There is even evidence that indicates that people who know they are being prayed for and that they are cared for and about tend to have better results, thus the importance of “bikor cholim” visiting the sick.
There is one more, really hard question. What do we do when there really is no hope? Do we give up on reciting the prayer or adding a particular person’s name? Do we change our kavanah, our intent, to hope that when the end comes it will be painless and peaceful, sort of a spiritual hospice? Do we actually ask for a miraculous intervention? It isn’t easy and there is no stock answer to this or, for that matter, any of these questions. Like all prayer and all religious or spiritual activity, there are as many answers as there are people. Each of us has to look into our own soul and try to figure out our own relationship to prayer to God and to matters of the spirit.
So then, why recite Mi Sheberach? For those of us who believe in an immanent God, a God who has a “finger in the pot” or, as a dear friend insists, is driving the bus, the answer is simple. It is a direct request to One who pays attention and responds to prayer. For the rest of us there is still a very real need to do something, to feel that we have tried. It can hurt and it might help. We can’t just stand idly by and not try to help somehow.
May we all enjoy good health and not need such a prayer. And may we always be surrounded by loved and loving people who will pray for us when we need it.