I Wanna Hold Your Hand

2 JUNE 2018 / 19 SIVAN 5778

Parsha Summary
In this Torah portion, the Israelites receive instructions regarding Passover. They journey forth from Sinai and complain to God on several occasions, provoking God’s anger. Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses. Miriam is stricken with illness. Moses calls out to God to heal Miriam.



אל נא רפא נא לה, el na, refa na la -- "please, God, heal her."

It was the summer of 2011. It was hot, but I was cold. I was cold, but the cool of the pillow case still felt good against my bald head. The white curtains waved at the light, bright on the other side of the windows. I was feeling pretty good that day, good enough to lose myself in a perfectly titled book by Gary Schmidt about Doug, a 14-year-old kid, and his friend Lil who find a safe haven from an abusive father and the realities of the Vietnam War in the art-plate pages of a book of John Audubon's birds in a local library. Okay For Now. That’s the title. And I was. Until - spoiler alert - Lil got diagnosed with what I’m pretty sure was leukemia right near the end of the book. It’s been seven years and thanks to that I’m now much better at seeking out spoilers - for t.v. shows, for movies, and for books. Life has plenty of surprises, and I just don’t need them in my entertainment. Still, in the fuzziness of a seven-year-old memory, I love Doug for coming and hanging out in the hospital room with his friend - even though he hated it and it scared him. He showed up. He couldn’t do much to help, and he knew it, and he showed up anyway.

We’ve learned to show up like this more than a few times in the Torah, and again with Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, back in Exodus. (Ex. 18:20) In discussing the text in which Yitro encouraged Moses to establish a judicial system to help guide the people in the right way to go, Rav Yosef taught that part of the message was to go beyond the letter of the law in respect to visiting the ill and burying the dead. Why? Because visiting a person who is sick removes 1/60th of their illness. (Gemara Bava Metzia 30b)

1/60th, 1.66%, is on the threshold of existence . . . there, but not quite there. Talmud Tractate Berachot 57b lists fire as 1/60th of hell, honey as 1/60th of manna, Shabbat as 1/60th of the World to Come, sleep 1/60th of death, and dreams 1/60th of prophecy. Showing up for someone who is sick or hurting may not do much, but Judaism is clear, just showing up always does more than nothing.   

The main components of visiting the sick are 1) seeing what the person needs, 2) speaking pleasantly with that person, and 3) praying for their health. (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 193:3)

It can be tempting to try to fulfill the first by saying something along the lines of, “If you need anything, just let me know!” Of course, upon a bit of reflection, that’s not usually so helpful. It’s hard to ask for help in the best of circumstances, and the reality is, a person who is sick may not know what they need, or may not have the energy to ask. They may not know what kinds of things the person can actually do to help, and may hesitate for fear of asking for too much or the wrong thing. What has worked for me when I’ve needed help is something more like, “I’m here. I can run an errand or bring you something to eat.” or “I can take your dogs for a walk, or come by with a book.” or “Do you need some distraction? ____ is on Netflix. Want me to come hang out and we can watch it together?” or “I have a flexible schedule, let me know if you need a ride to a doctor’s appointment.”

As for speaking pleasantly, what is pleasant for one person could be odious to someone else. Talk about vampires while receiving a blood transfusion? Count me in! In this dance, it’s the person being visited who should get to lead. If they are all about silver linings, help them find them. If they want to talk of battling disease, wage on. And if they want to acknowledge the suckiness, or reframe a metaphor away from militaristic analogies and onto something more along the lines of animal husbandry, follow them there. And when we ask, “How are you?” or “How is it going?” . . . well, sometimes those questions are just too . . . big. I like, “How are you right now?” Because in this moment, in the right now, I can know how I am. And much of the time, in the right now, for now, I can be okay. Okay for now. For someone else, a different way of asking might work better, or even, “What do you wish someone would ask you right now?”

That last one may be the most challenging of all for some of us: pray for their health.

What if their illness might well end their life? What if wholeness seems impossible? What if . . . Pray? How do we do that? What is there to say? Why say anything? 

When Miriam is stricken with tzara’at in this parsha, Aaron asks for Moses to pray for her, and Moses turns to God.  אל נא רפא נא לה, el na, refa na la - "please, God, heal her." Nothing fancy. Nothing flowery. But this eleven-letter prayer points us toward the eleven-letter name of God, the name God gives to Moses at the burning bush: אהיה אשר אהיה, ehyeh asher ehyeh, "I will be who I will be."

Illness and wellness are not static. Moses’s prayer invokes a name for God who is continually becoming to heal and strengthen his loved one who needs transformation and change.

Rather than think of a prayer for healing as adding another weight to a scale to tip the balance in someone’s favor, an idea that offends me to my core, I think of trust games and group initiatives. I think about how holding out one hand no one person can catch or hold the weight of another. But a dozen people each holding out a hand can.

Moses prayed, and the people waited. While Miriam was sick, no one traveled. The journey through the wilderness . . . paused. Everyone, each person, held out a hand to hold her. That’s what our prayers for wellness, for wholeness do - they hold someone.

When someone is ill, we go beyond the letter of the law. We find them where they are. We learn what they need and we do something about it. We join them . . . nothing fancy. We just . . . join them. And we reach out with a hand and with others we catch them, or we take on some of their weight. We hold them. El na refa na la.

Looking for some great lessons about being with people experiencing illness?
Look here.