The Healing Power of Prayer

Sermon given Rosh Hashanah Day, 5757, September 14, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

In my family, the “old country” is Mississippi. When I was a child, though, the oldest living member of my family was not from Mississippi, but from nearby Monroe, Louisiana. She was my great-grandmother, and her name was Rose Lemle Masur, but we called her “Dear.” Although she was always a Jew, Dear spent many years as a Christian Scientist.

I do not know very much about the reasons for my great-grandmother’s interest in Christian Science, but I can speculate. Dear had had two brothers, Sidney and Leo, to whom she had been close. Both were diabetic, and both died very young. We know that they would have lived much longer had they been born a few decades later, after the advent of insulin therapy. And yet, Dear’s brothers did have access to the best medical care that their “modern day” had to offer. The greatest of scientific minds were dedicated to their cause, but they died young nonetheless. Perhaps my great-grandmother lost her faith in progress, in science, in medicine.

At the same time, in her Southern Reform Temple, Dear was offered only a “rational faith.” Anything else was considered to be “superstition,” and was flatly rejected. Perhaps she went to her rabbi seeking guidance, striving to pray for her brothers’ recovery. Likely, he told her that she could pray for strength and peace and comfort, but not for healing. Any rationally religious person would know that healing would be determined in her brothers’ cells and tissues. Only modern medicine could have any real effect on the biological realities of their disease. There was no “Prayer for Healing” in her Union Prayer Book, just as there is none in our Gates of Prayer.

I thought of Dear, and of her years as a Christian Scientist, not long ago, when a Past Temple President asked me an interesting question. He wanted to know about the Prayer for Helaing we now offer at every Shabbat Service. He asked: What is the difference between our Prayer for Healing and Christian Science? Are we suggesting, as some Christian Scientists do, that a person with a dreaded illness should pray for healing instead of seeking medical attention?

I reminded him that our Prayer for Healing asks that God “guide the hands and hearts of those who are entrusted with their care.” Clearly, we are not suggesting that those in need of healing turn to prayer alone. What, then, is our goal when we pray for healing? Are we merely hoping to have a favorable psychological effect on the patient, since a positive attitude facilitates healing? Or is it something more? Do we believe that God can or will actually intervene in an individual’s physical recovery? Is there a spiritual, possibly even supernatural, element to healing? Is God involved?

Recently, Rabbi Stahl reminded me of a wonderful biblical passage that may help us toward an answer. The story, in the Book of Second Kings, is about Naaman, the chief general of the Arameans. Naaman is suffering from leprosy. He hears that an Israelite prophet can cure leprosy, so he sends a request to the King of Israel. Naaman asks that the prophet be sent to cure him. The King of Israel is skeptical. He asks: “Am I God, to deal death or give life, that this fellow writes to me to cure a man of leprosy?” The King of Israel is basically saying that Naaman needs a physician, not a prophet.

When the prophet hears about it, though, he says that he can help. He asserts that Naaman will be cured if he will come to Israel and bathe in the holy waters of the Jordan River. Eventually, Naaman does so, and is cured. He thanks the prophet, but he praises the One Whom he knows to be the ultimate Source of his healing; Naaman praises God.

Rationally, Naaman could not expect to be healed without pursuing a plan of action. Bathing was indeed the best remedy that the modern medicine of the day had to offer. Religiously, though, he could not hope to be cured without the help of God. Bathing alone is not sufficient without prayer. Naaman presents us with an excellent model for our own lives. Human beings must act. When we are ill, we must avail ourselves of the greatest wisdom that medical science has to offer. And yet, as human beings, we are limited. Even our best efforts do not guarantee healing. Human beings must pray. We need God’s help.

In our own time, just a few months ago, Time Magazine ran a cover story about faith and healing. The article describes a study that purports to prove that prayer has the power to heal. The subjects of the study, all of whom sought medical attention, were not told if they were among those for whom prayers were being said, or if they were in the control group, for whom no prayers were offered. As a group, those for whom prayers were recited had a higher rate of recovery. Of course, there is no general agreement that the study is reliable.

Perhaps the problem is in trying to explain or examine the workings of God, or any matter of faith, in rational terms. Can’t we acknowledge, logically, that some things can not and will not ever be explained rationally? Even the most gifted physician can’t always tell us why some people recover, while others with the same illness, and similar mitigating factors, quickly deteriorate and die. There are aspects of each and every healing process that seem to be out of the physician’s hands, that may be without any logical explanation. We may therefore quite rationally accept that there is a role for prayer, for spirituality, indeed for God, that we humans can not explain, can not quantify, can not limit.

Maimonides taught that, because we are mortal, imperfect, we human beings can not truly understand God. God is immortal, perfect, and totally beyond human comprehension. Though we can not ever know God, we can experience God. We can share our experiences. And, perhaps, we can be healed. Let me share three experiences with you.

I want to tell you about a woman I’ll call Joyce, a member in our congregation who found herself hospitalized with a life-threatening malignancy. Joyce’s doctor, also a Temple member, told me that her particular cancer was usually fatal. Joyce simply did not accept this verdict. She told her doctor that she intended to live to see her grandson, then five, celebrate his Bar Mitzvah.

Joyce told me repeatedly that she believed that God was on her side. At the conclusion of each visit that I made to her in the hospital, I held her hand and offered a prayer, concluding with the Shema, which we recited together. One day, by coincidence — or was it Divine intervention? — her doctor came into the room while I was still there. She witnessed, and then joined in, our prayer. I could see that the doctor was moved, and later she told me that the prayer had affected her deeply.

Joyce recovered from that illness, and we continue to pray that it will not return, that she will indeed celebrate her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. Would she have recovered without medical attention? Certainly not. Did the prayers have an effect? I believe that they did. Were our prayers answered because of the positive mental effect they had on Joyce, and on her doctor, or because they invited God’s intervention? I don’t know, but I am sure that nobody can prove that God did not bring healing. As evidence for the healing power of prayer, I have provided no more than an anecdote. But I will add: I affirm, with faith, that God was there in that room when Joyce and her family, her doctor and I, were saying those prayers. God was there in her recovery.

Another example: By the first time I met Sam, as I’ll call him, he had been ill for several years, and cancer seemed to be getting the best of him in early middle age. At the conclusion of my first visit, I asked if I could say a prayer, and he agreed. Each time thereafter, even if he didn’t have much strength to talk, he would ask me to pray with him.

From talking to Sam’s family, I soon learned that he did not have long to live. He urged his oncologist to continue treating his cancer aggressively, and the doctor did his best, for as long as that made any sense at all. As it became increasingly clear that there was no hope for a cure, Sam became somewhat agitated. When I came to visit, though, Sam and I continued to pray. The words of the prayers began to change, however. I stopped asking that God grant the doctors and nurses the wisdom and compassion they needed to help Sam toward a refuah shleimah, a complete restoration of health. I prayed instead that God would grant them the ability to keep him from pain. We prayed for peace and for comfort, and we still said the final line of our Prayer for Healing, Baruch Atah Adonai, Rofeh ha-holim, We praise You, O God, Source of healing and health. For Sam, healing would now be found in the comfort of facing death surrounded by his devoted family, free of pain, secure in God’s everlasting love.

The very last line our prayer, as always, was the shema, that great Jewish affirmation of faith in God. Sam died, having affirmed that faith with me and with his family, over and over. His cancer was not cured. And yet, I believe sincerely, Sam did find healing in prayer.

A third example: Many of you who have attended services in recent months have heard the name of Brad Schifman recited repeatedly at the beginning of our Prayer for Healing. Brad gave me permission to speak about him today. Brad has acute lymphocitic leukemia, which is most often incurable in young adults. Brad and his wife, Dr. Marjorie Beebe, have an eight-month-old daughter, Hannah, whom we named and blessed earlier in today’s service. Brad has much to live for. Though he and his family are realistic about his predicament, they intend to beat this cancer.

You and I have been praying for Brad for many months now, just as his family and I have been praying with him at his bedside at Brooke Army Medical Center. In addition to praying, many of you have also been tested as potential donors for a bone marrow transplant, and I am delighted to report that, somewhere, an anonymous donor has been found.

Brad just left the hospital after being there three solid months, most of it in the Intensive Care Unit. Several times, I rushed to the hospital, twice after midnight, because we didn’t know if Brad would make it. He had developed a pancreatic complication which is almost always fatal. Brad survived, and may continue to be healed, for several rational reasons: because he is young and otherwise healthy, because he has excellent medical care, including that of his wife, a very persistent surgeon, because he has a positive mental attitude aided by a wonderfully supportive family. And yet, I must also affirm my faith: Brad survives, at least in part, because of your prayers, his prayers, our prayers, because God’s presence was powerfully brought into Brad’s hospital room, time after time after time.

Neither Brad, nor Sam, nor Joyce needed to turn to Christian Science, as my great-grandmother did. Of course, today, Jewish people in search of spiritual healing would be less likely to turn to Christian Science than to New Age spirituality or to a cult. What Brad and Sam and Joyce learned, what I have learned, what I think our congregation and many other Reform Jews around the world have learned, is that Judaism, even Reform Judaism, need not be exclusively a rational faith.

As Reform Jews, let us be both rational and faithful, both modern and traditional. Let us seek healing through medicine, and also let us find healing in prayer. And let us affirm: healing can be found in Judaism, in our own tradition, in our own faith. We need not look elsewhere for that spiritual elixir.

And so, I will conclude with our own Prayer for Healing. The opening paragraphs are modern, but the signature conclusion is taken from our ancient tradition. If those last words are familiar to you, please say them with me.

“O God, in our hearts, we name those men, women, and children who are now suffering from physical, emotional or spiritual illness and pain. We join our prayers with the prayers of all who love them. Give them renewed comfort and courage.

Strengthen in them the healing powers You have placed within us all. Guide the hands and hearts of those who are entrusted with their care.

May the knowledge of Your love, O God, as well as our love, give added hope to them and to their dear ones. May they find ever greater strength in the knowledge that our prayers are linked with theirs.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Rofei ha-holim; We praise You, O Lord, the Source of healing and health.”

Amen. NOTE: I am grateful to Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl, whose editorial advice was most helpful in the development of this sermon. The Temple Beth-El Prayer for Healing, quoted in this sermon, is based on a prayer written by Rabbi Harry K. Danziger of Temple Israel, Memphis, Tennessee.