Shiur #13: Health

  • Rav Ezra Bick


            Finally, a berakha for which we do not need deep philosophy! What could be simpler or more straightforward than a request for health?


Heal us, HaShem, and we will be healed,

Save us and we will be saved,

For You are our praise;

And grant a perfect healing for all our wounds.

For You are a faithful and merciful God, King, and Healer.

Blessed are You, who heals the sick of Your people Israel.



I. Reading the text


            Indeed, this berakha is readily comprehensible. But I do not think we can hurry on to the next one. There are too many textual anomalies here.


1. Why do we state, "Heal us HaShem, and WE WILL BE HEALED?" What does the (obvious) result of God's healing have to do with the request itself? In no other berakha do we find a declaration of the result of God's actions beside the request, surely not in such a redundantly tautological formulation.


2. Since the subject of the berakha is clearly health and healing, what is the meaning of the request to "save us (and we will be saved)?"


3. What does "for You are our praise" mean? The clause beginning with "for You are..." following a request is usually the basis for our assurance that God will grant the request. This was true in the previous berakhot (check it out). But how does the fact that "God is our praise" (whatever it means) serve as the reason that He will cure us?


4. In fact, we do find a normal "for You are..." clause in this berakha - at the end: "For You are a faithful and merciful God, King, and Healer." But this merely deepens the mystery. Why are there two clauses of this type here. The berakha appears to be split into two - two requests, each with its own concluding phrase.


5. What is a "faithful" (ne'eman) healer? Why does this expression of confidence in God's power not modify the other attributes of God in the Shemona Esrei? Why do we not call God a "faithful" forgiver of Israel, or redeemer of Israel?


6. Why does the conclusion refer to God as the healer of the illnesses of "His people Israel?" With the exception of the previous berakha of redemption, the attribute of God in the conclusion did not limit His power to Israel. Redemption is an understandable exception, since redemption is a concept which has specific meaning within Jewish history and the national relationship of God with the Jewish people. But health?? Does God have a special kind of healing relationship with Israel, which is different from the (non-partisan) relationship of knowledge ("who grants knowledge"), repentance ("who desires repentance"), or forgiveness ("who greatly forgives"), to mention just those that preceded the berakha of health? Health and sickness are HUMAN problems, not Jewish problems. In fact, earlier in the morning, we recited a berakha which explicitly praised God who is "the healer (of the illnesses) of ALL FLESH and does wondrous things."


II. God as the healer of Israel


            The last question sends us to look for where we find health as a sign of the relationship between God and Israel. We are immediately reminded of the famous verses which concludes the "Song of the Sea" recited after the parting of the Sea of Reeds.


He said: If you will diligently hearken unto the voice of HaShem your God, and do that which is right in His eyes, and listen to His commandments, and keep all His laws, then all of the diseases which I have brought upon Egypt I shall not bring on you; for I am HaShem your healer" (Ex. 16,26).


            The Jews have just successfully and miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds, leaving the Egyptians behind. Are they sick, that God needs to heal them? On the contrary, the verse is clearly saying not that they will be healed, but that they will never be sick, nor afflicted in the manner of the Egyptians, who have just experienced the ten plagues.


            The Yalkut Shimoni quotes a midrash to this verse which asks this question:


"All of the diseases which I have brought upon Egypt I shall not bring on you." Then what is the meaning of "For I am HaShem your healer?" The explanation is that God said to the Jews: The words of the Torah which I have given you are life for you and healing for you. (Yalkut Shimoni 257)


            What this means is that the Torah is life, so that the people who are bound up with the Torah will not be sick, for the source of life is within them. God heals, not in the sense that He is a doctor treating illness, but that His presence (through the Torah) within the people prevents any possibility of illness to begin with. In other words, this is "prophylactic medicine."


            I think the explanation of this verse is as follows. The Jews have just passed through the Sea, with the walls of death standing above them on either side. Normally, health is normal and disease an anomaly, a deterioration of the natural state. But for the Jews, whose lives have been suspended by the miraculous hand of God over a chasm of death, their very existence is seen as a miracle, as a (preventive) cure against the (natural) state of death by drowning. God says: If you keep the words of the Torah, then it will keep you from the waves as you pass through the valley of death. This is the healing promised in this verse, and this is the attribute of God as the "healer of the sick of His people Israel."


III. The Biblical source


            The source for the first half of this berakha is a verse in Yirmiyahu:


Heal me, HaShem, and I shall be healed

Save me, and I shall be saved,

For You are my praise. (Jer. 17, 14)


            Examination of the previous verse clearly places this "healing" in the context we have described:


God is the hope of Israel;

All who forsake You shall be shamed,

and they that depart from You shall be written in the earth,

for they have forsaken a fount of living water, HaShem. (17,13)


            The verse is saying that life and health are not natural but are dependent on being close to the "fount of living waters - HaShem." He who has left God will, therefore, be shamed, will wither. The prophet immediately exclaims, using the unusual first person, "Heal me, HaShem, and I shall be healed." It is clear to Yirmiyahu that the healing of Israel is the opposite of "forsaking God," and the closeness to God is life and health.


            In other words, the prayer of the prophet is not for the gift of health, in the sense that God will create a cure for his illness; but rather a request that the spirit of God, the "fount of living waters," be with him, which will result naturally in health and strength and the vibrancy of life.


            We now understand the redundancy of "Heal us and we will be healed." The act of healing here is quite distinct from the result. The act of healing is not through medicines but through closeness to God. We are not asking, as Yirmiyahu did not ask, for a particular medicine which will act against a particular germ or malady. The act of healing is general, a definition of Jewish existence as accepting the covenant of God and the presence of God that goes with it. The result - health and life - is therefore a not-to-be-taken for granted miracle, as promised by the verse which followed the crossing of the Sea.


            For the same reason, the explicit request for healing is followed by "Save us and we will be saved." The real goal of the prayer is the presence of God in our midst, which is expressed as health and life. Since the prayer is not limited to health itself, although health is the principle expression of life, we expand the request to salvation in general. Life - the fount of living waters in the language of the prophet - is first of all perceived in health, but it will also be expressed in other ways, in vitality and success - hence, "and we shall be saved."


            This further explains the enigmatic "For You are our praise (tehilateinu)." Rashi (Jer. 17) explains that we are proud and we praise You for being our savior and healer. How is this a reason for our being granted health? Once we realize that the health here is not a gift in and of itself, but an expression of God's presence within us and the fulfillment of His covenant with us, a covenant which on our side requires that we accept God as our savior and kind, it becomes clear. Our existence is one where we praise God and identify ourselves as the people who praise God, who carry His name on our lips. If this is true, if we maintain the covenant, then that is the REASON for health, for health is but an expression of the closeness to God inherent in the covenant and a result of His presence within His people. If our lives are based on the connection to God, then we will be healthy.


            Finally, we add the specific request for health in the narrow sense, as a cure for any maladies from which we suffer - "And grant a perfect healing for all our wounds." This specific request is a derivative fulfillment of the general request for life with which the berakha opened.


            The "chatima" is therefore "who heals the sick of YOUR PEOPLE ISRAEL," for we are not requesting the health "of all flesh," simple respite from the afflictions of the flesh, but a spiritual connection with God based on the Jewish covenant with Him.



IV. Faithful healer


            This expression does not have a biblical source. R. Yehuda b. Yakar, searching for a source for "faithful" (ne'eman), cited this verse, from the description of Divine retribution: "God will make your plagues amazing, and the plagues of your seed - great and faithful (ne'emanim) plagues, evil and faithful diseases" (Deut. 28,59). What is a "faithful" disease?


            Rashi explains that "ne'emanim" means that the diseases and plagues will faithfully fulfill their mission of punishment; in other words, you will really suffer from them. The Ibn Ezra suggests that "faithful diseases" are incurable and permanent. This would imply that "refua ne'emana," faithful healing, means a permanent cure. This is apparently the understanding of R. Yehuda b. Yakar, who quotes the midrash about the freeing of a bird as part of the cleansing of a metzora, which states: "Just as the bird will not return, so the plague will not return, as is written, 'For I am HaShem your healer.'"


            The cure is not based on a medicine, where the effect will eventually wear off, but on the covenantal connection with the presence of God - shekhina - and shekhina is permanent.


V. Eighth berakha


            The Tur offers an explanation for the order of the berakhot of the Shemona Esrei. In our case, where healing is the eighth blessing, he writes that this is a reference to brit mila, circumcision, which is performed on the eighth day. You could claim that the only connection is that the baby AFTER the brit requires healing, but this, I think, is a rather trivial connection. Rather, the meaning of this comment of the Tur is that the brit is itself the healing, in the sense that we have been discussing. The brit is a physical manifestation of the spiritual covenant (brit means covenant) between the Jew and God - and this is, as we have seen, the basis of the connection to life and health of the Jew.


May the faithful and merciful healing King send a complete healing to all the sick of Israel.