July 8, 2020

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Praying an ancient prayer in time of COVID-19

My congregation, like all religious institutions around the world, has shut its doors and we have had to deal with a new reality—being in community without physically in proximity to one another.

For a faith community that has not been accustomed to the use of social media for worship services we have been amazed by the many—literally dozens—of people who are joining our Zoom meetings for evening services.

To keep people connected, we have launched several online opportunities, trying to engage with many members, such as "Etz Chayim Branching out" project, which seeks to create more connectivity and support despite the need to be physically apart from one another. 

With this in mind, I offer these thoughts.

Each week during the Shabbat/Sabbath morning service when reading the Torah, in my synagogue we stop and pause to recite the Mishebeirach L’Cholim, the blessing for those in need of healing.

We do so with enormous humility but quite deliberately in front of (and holding onto) the Torah scroll.  We manage in this moment of ambiguity to ask God (or ask ourselves?) to suspend disbelief and our need to rationalize prayer for the benefit of someone we love who is in need of healing.

As an addendum, we insert a sweet and soulful song that contains only a few words, such as El na r’fana La, Moses’ spontaneous prayer for his sister, Miriam, after she was stricken with the tzara’at, or leprosy. His words, found in the Book of Numbers 12:13, is the first formal healing prayer in the Bible. 

It occurs when his brother Aaron, in a moment of despair, turns to Moses and asks him to intercede on Miriam’s behalf. All Moses can do is call out to God: "El na r’fa na la." "O God, pray heal her!"

The song El na r’fa na la captures Moses’ heartfelt prayer for his sister in a moment when any semblance of hope had been lost. Despite his inability to control the situation, he still called out—releasing a primal sound he drew up from his kishges, his guts.  

We are like Moses today. Like him, we have not control over the pandemic. We have no profound words to offer those who are suffering with COVID-19. There is nothing we can do to change the situation. All we can so is simply be present to their suffering, to stand up and emotionally walk with them in their distress.  

How God chooses to address the pain of an individual remains a secret, but our involvement in the care of one who is ill is not a choice we get to make. This is something we must take and do so boldly with compassion. Right now, in this very surreal reality of living through a pandemic, we each need to be diligent about protecting ourselves and those who are most at risk of contracting the virus.

At a time of social distancing, when we need to stay home and avoid contact with each other, how can we be present to each other? One thing we can do at home without the slightest chance of infecting anyone else is to pray. More than that; we have an absolute obligation to remind God of Her need to attend to the suffering of others, whether they have the virus, or whether they are struggling with anxiety about it.

So just like Moses long ago let our voices be heard, whether whispering or shouting from our homes or via Zoom: El Na, Refa Na La. God, please heal her, him, they, me and all of us.

Kliel Rose is rabbi at Congregation Etz Chayim in Winnipeg.

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