Praying for Healing – Understanding the Refa’einu Blessing
Parsha Halacha – Parshat Beha’alotecha (Shelach in Israel)
Praying for Healing
Understanding the Refa’einu Blessing
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The Torah portion of Tetzaveh discusses how Miriam criticized her brother Moshe Rabeinu (Numbers 12:1-16). When she was afflicted with Tzara’at (leprosy) as a punishment for her sin, Moshe prayed for her and she was healed. This article will discuss some of the details of that story as understood by the commentaries as well as some of the meanings of the eighth blessing in the Amidah which relates to healing.
Text of the Story
Here is the text of part the story in both Hebrew and English (Numbers 12:10 – 13)
וְהֶעָנָ֗ן סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל מִרְיָם וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת׃ וַיּאמֶר אַהֲרֹן אֶל מֹשֶׁה בִּי אֲדֹנִי אַל נא תָשֵׁת עָלֵינוּ חַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר נוֹאַלְנוּ וַאֲשֶׁר חָטָאנוּ׃ אַל נָא תְהִי כַּמֵּת אֲשֶׁר בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵרֶחֶם אִמּוֹ וַיֵּאָכֵל חֲצִי בְשָׂרוֹ׃ וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה לֵאמֹר אֵ-ל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ׃
The cloud departed from above the Tent, and behold, Miriam was afflicted with tzara’at as white as snow. Then Aaron turned to Miriam and behold, she was afflicted with tzara’at. Aaron said to Moses, “Please, master, do not hold us accountable for our sin for we acted foolishly and sinned. Let her not be like the dead, for since she also came out of [our] mother’s womb, [she is our own flesh; leaving her in her present state is as if] half [of our] flesh [is] consumed!” Moses cried out to the L-rd, saying, “I beseech you, G-d, please heal her.”
Why Did the Cloud Leave?
There are various opinions as to why the cloud left immediately before Miriam got tzara’at. Here are some of them:
- Since the cloud surrounded the camp, the departure of the cloud from that spot indicated that Miriam was going to have to leave the camp in order to be healed from her tzara’at (Seforno).
- The cloud represents G-d’s presence (the Shechinah) which cannot rest in a place of impurity. As such, the cloud departed before Miriam became ritually impure with tzara’at (Bechor Shor).
- The Ha’amek Davar (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin) explains that G-d would communicate with Moshe through the cloud. As such, the departure of the cloud indicated the conversation with G-d was over.
- The cloud rose to indicate that it was time for the Jewish people to travel (seeNumbers 9:17). Despite this, the Jewish people remained in their place so as not to leave Miriam behind (or outside of the camp) as they traveled. This was a reward for Miriam’s waiting for Moshe when their mother put him in a basket in the Nile River (see Exodus 2:4). If the cloud would not have departed, it would be thought that the reason the Jewish people didn’t travel was that it wasn’t time for them to leave. G-d therefore lifted His cloud so that the Jewish people realize that the only reason they were not traveling was out of respect for Miriam (Rabbeinu Bachaye).
- Along similar lines, the Chatam Sofer says that by having the cloud depart and the Jewish people remain in place in honor of Miriam, G-d was “using up” the merit of Miriam’s mitzvah in this world rather than saving it for the World to Come. This was part of Miriam’s punishment for the way she spoke about Moshe.
- The cloud departed to symbolize that G-d didn’t want to “see” Miriam at the time of her disgrace (Ba’at HaTurim, see Avot 4:18).
Tzara’at for Lashon HaRa Is Not Learned from Miriam
According to the Talmud (Arakhin 16a) Tzara’at is a punishment for speaking lashon hara (slander). The Talmud proves this from various sources but does not mention the story of Miriam although she spoke lashon hara and was punished with tzara’at.
The Birkat Asher on the Torah (by Rabbi Asher Wassertheil) gives several explanations for this:
1) The Talmud is talking about one who causes strife (machloket) by speaking lashon hara. This was not the case regarding Miriam.
2) Perhaps Miriam was punished more harshly due to her being such a righteous woman. The same punishment would not necessarily be appropriate for a regular person.
3) Perhaps Miriam was punished more harshly because she disparaged the great Moshe, our leader. The same punishment may not be warranted for one who spoke against an ordinary person.
4) The Talmud is referring to one who became a confirmed metzora whereas Miriam was healed before she was confirmed as having tzara’at.
לֵאמֹר – Saying
The word לֵאמֹר – Lemor usually means to repeat or to tell others. So why does the verse say that Moshe prayed to G-d Lemor when obviously Moshe did not want or expect G-d to repeat or tell it to others. Several explanations are offered:
- Moshe asked G-d to inform him if He was going to grant his request (Rashi). In this context, Lemor means that he was asking for a response.
- Before praying, Moshe verbalized that he forgave Miriam for having spoken against him. Thus Lemor could be understood to mean “after saying” (Ohr HaChaim).
- Also, Moshe prayed so that people not say that he was ignoring his sister’s pain. Lemor therefore means that the prayer was a pronouncement of his concern (ibid).
- According to the Ha’amek Davar, Lemor means that Moshe said many other words before he said the words of prayer that are recorded in the verse. This is because one should first praise G-d before making any request. (But see below that according to some, the words kel na were the praise before the prayer.)
- Rabbeinu Bachaye explains that Lemor means that he enunciated the words. Although G-d knows our thoughts, it is important to pronounce the words of our prayers as the spoken words create angelic forces which then rise and plead our case in front of G-d’s throne.
- The Arizal (quoted in Pardes Yosef) writes that most people must pray out loud in order to help them concentrate. Great tzadikim (holy people), however, have no difficulty concentrating. The reason they must pray out loud is so that others can be inspired by their prayers.
- The Alshich explains that Moshe was afraid to pray at length as people might say that he was taking his time to pray while his sister was in pain. On the other hand, if he would pray a short prayer it could be misconstrued to indicate that he didn’t care enough for her to pray at length. He remedied this by praying a short prayer but with a lot of emotion, as it says, “vayitzak, he cried.” This emotional outpouring showed that he truly cared for his sister. The meaning of lemor is that the manner in which he prayed was how he “told” the people that he cared.
Five Words of Prayer
Let us examine some of the wording of Moshe’s short prayer:
אֵ֕-ל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ I beseech you, G-d, please heal her (immediately)
Rashi and Rabbeinu Bachaye explain that Moshe first praised G-d by saying אֵ֕-ל נָ֛א /”I beseech you, G-d’” and only then making a personal request – נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ/ “please heal her.”
אֵ֕-ל – Kel (G-d)
The Ibn Ezra writes that Moshe used the name Kel to indicate Hashem’s strength (to do as He pleases). Similarly, Rabeinu Bachaye says that Kel means the Strong One, i.e., despite Your ability to punish, please hold back and do not do so.
On the other hand, the Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh says that Kel is the name of Divine
kindness, as the verse says (Tehillim 52:3), “the kindness of Kel is all day.”
נָ֖א – Immediately
The Seforno writes that Moshe was asking G-d to please heal Miriam immediately so that we not have to declare her a metzora’at (lepor) and embarrass her by sending her out of the camp. This is based on the fact that the word na can be translated as “quickly.”
The Chizkuni explains that despite this request, G-d responded and said that he wanted Miriam to remain outside the camp for seven days. (Although she was healed immediately, she needed to remain outside the camp as a punishment.)
The Maharsham HaKohen al HaTorah (quoted in Pardes Yosef) explains that נא- Na is the gematriya of 51 alluding to the 30 days of Ellul and the first 21 days of Tishrei. Moshe was asking that God accede to his prayers just as He accepts our prayers during these holy days of Divine compassion.
Three Reasons to Heal
The Alshich writes that Moshe was asking of G-d to heal her for three reasons; because
G-d is kind, because Moshe forgave her and because of Miriam’s high stature.
Specifically, he was saying
Kel – You are the master of kindness so please help her.
Na – Do it quickly because I already forgave her
Lah – Do it for her sake because because she is a tzadeket.
How a Tzaddik’s Prayers Work
The Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 3:3) says that the reason women must pray (although prayer is a time-bound positive mitzvah and women are exempt from most such mitzvot) is that every person must pray for himself. As such, the commentaries question why the Talmud says (Bava Batra 116a) that if one has a sick person in their home, they should go to a wise man (a tzadik, righteous person) so that he pray for them.
The Pardes Yosef (Beha’alotecha 310) explains that a tzadik feels the pain of others when he prays for them. This can alleviate the decree as G-d usually decrees that a fixed amount of pain be felt in the world due to this illness. By sharing in the pain the tzadik can remove the pain from the sick person. In addition, since tzadikkim feel the pain, when they pray they are also praying for themselves — that they be alleviated of that pain.
Why Moshe Would Have Prayed At Length?
Rashi says that Moshe prayed a short prayer so that the Jewish people not say, “For us he only prayed a short prayer, but for his sister he prayed at length.” This indicates that if not for this concern, Moshe would have prayed at length. The question can be asked, though, if Moshe could pray a short prayer effectively, why pray at length?
The Pardes Yosef explains (in the name of Rabbi Chayim Pinchas Luria) that usually a tzadik senses the underlying spiritual cause of the illness and can thus encourage the person to fix the cause. In such a case, the tzadik need not pray at length as the cause of the illness has been rectified. The root cause of Miriam’s illness was the fact that she spoke against Moshe. Due to Moshe’s humility, however, he had trouble identifying this root cause since, because of his humility, he did not feel insulted. Moshe therefore would have prayed at length to try and identify the underlying cause of the illness.
The rest of this article will discuss some of the meanings of the 8th blessing of the Amidah which is about healing.
The Bracha of Healing, רְפָאֵנוּ
In the eighth blessing in the Amidah, we ask G-d to heal us. The wording of the beginning of the blessing is based on Jeremiah 17:14 modified to the plural form as the text of all of our prayers is in the plural.
The verse in Jeremiah reads
רְפָאֵנִי ה’ וְאֵרָפֵא הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתִי אָתָּה׃
Heal me, O L-rd, then shall I be healed; help me, then I shall be helped, for You are my praise!
Rashi explains that after one is healed, he must praise G-d for saving him
The Metzudot David explains the double expression (רְפָאֵנִי / וְאֵרָפֵא and הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי / וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה ) to mean that if G-d heals a person and saves him then he will be truly healed and saved.
The Tzaverei Shalal (a commentary of the Chida on the Haftorah of Parshat Bechokotai) gives the following interpretations on this verse:
The double expression רְפָאֵנִי / וְאֵרָפֵא and הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי / וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה means that one should beseech G-d and say, “Heal me from my spiritual wound, and then I will be healed from my physical wound. Save me from the avenging angels (created by my sins), and then I will be saved from my physical ailment.”
Thank you for Giving us Small Doses
In this prayer we use the name of G-d which indicates mercy (Havayeh). As such, we are asking for Divine mercy that we be healed even if we don’t deserve it. Although people say (quoted in the Talmud Bava Metzi’ah 85a) that a doctor who doesn’t charge is worthless, in this case, the healing is from G-d and is certainly effective. We praise G-d (כִּי תְהִלָּתִי אָתָּה – for You are my praise) and thank Him for giving us the illness in small doses so that we can bear the suffering.
When G-d heals a person directly, He does so in a gentle manner – without side effects. Whereas when the healing comes through doctors, it is often not gentle and can impact the person negatively in other ways. This is why the words about healing (רְפָאֵנִי and וְאֵרָפֵא) have letters without a dot (the letter פ/phei) since the soft form of this letter indicates a gentle healing. When the Torah talks about the healing of doctors, however, (in Exodus 21:19) it uses the form of these same words but with a dot (the letter פּ/pei) – וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא. The hard form of this letter indicates that the healing may not be so gentle. In addition, although G-d heals “for free” (even if we don’t deserve it) and doctors charge us for their services, the Divine healing is superior.
Elevating the Divine Sparks
According to the Arizal, there are 288 Divine sparks of energy hidden in this physical world. When we use the world in a positive way, we elevate that hidden spirituality. As such, when a person is ill and is experiencing physical suffering, he should strengthen his trust in G-d as the great Healer of all flesh. By doing so, one reveals G-d’s Hand in this world (by recognizing that He controls and directs everything) and elevates the G-dliness (the sparks) hidden within his suffering.
Along these lines, Rabbi Chayim Vital, the foremost student of the Arizal, had a dream in which the Arizal told him that when he prays for healing in the eighth blessing of the Amidah, he should have in mind that the first letters of the last four words of the blessing equal the number of Divine sparks trapped in this world – 288. (The first four letters of רופא חולי עמו ישראל are ר, ח, ע and י which equal 288.) Similarly, the gematriyah (numerical value) of וארפא “and I will be healed” is 288.
G-d is Responsible for Our Rectification
According to the Rambam (Shegagot 10:6), a husband must pay for his wife’s sacrifices as he is responsible for her atonement. In terms of the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d, we are like the wife and G-d is like the husband. As such, G-d is “responsible” to purify us from our sins and when He cleanses us from these, we will be healed from our physical illnesses.
When G-d heals a person directly, the healing is permanent. When the healing comes through doctors, however, the disease sometimes reoccurs. Thus one should pray that one’s healing come directly from G-d and that the illness never return. Similarly, in the verse quoted above, the prophet Yirmiyahu was asking that G-d redeem us is an everlasting manner so that we never experience exile again.
May we be healed and redeemed by G-d gently and permanently!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shlom Umevorach!