I’ve been sick for about a month now. With an MRI next week, assuming everything looks good, then I’ll make a full recovery.
But what if I don’t? What if God does not heal me?
A lot has been written about this in Jewish history: an attempt to understand why bad things happen, and what God’s reasoning is for allowing life to come to a bitter, violent conclusion, or be swept back into glorious renewal through some series of events that could only be a miracle.
I was asked last year to perform a bedside vidui (a sort of Jewish version of “last rights”) for a man who, quite honestly, had no real hope of recovery. The machines were working at maximum strength to keep his body alive — or as alive as one can be when unconscious.
Before I began, I pulled out my rabbi’s manual, ready to recite the uncreative, dry poetry of mourning that reads something to the effect of, “dear God, cause a miracle to happen. And if not, then give us the strength to move on.”
I hated this prayer. It makes God either impotent or apathetic. It takes away the real pain that people feel, knowing full well what is going on, and replaces it with a platitude. It’s like telling the mother of a dead child that “at least he’s somewhere better.” I’m not sure what hurts more, the pain that comes along with human impermanence, or the sting of well meaning but completely clueless comforters.
Judaism teaches that there are certain prayers which cannot be said. Talmud Brachot 54a reads:
TO CRY OVER THE PAST IS TO UTTER A VAIN PRAYER. IF A MAN’S WIFE IS PREGNANT AND HE SAYS, [GOD] GRANT THAT MY WIFE BEAR A MALE CHILD, THIS A VAIN PRAYER. IF HE IS COMING HOME FROM A JOURNEY AND HE HEARS CRIES OF DISTRESS IN THE TOWN AND SAYS, [GOD] GRANT THAT THIS IS NOT IN MY HOUSE, THIS IS A VAIN PRAYER.
This text leaves me with a question: if it’s inevitable that I am going to be permanently ill, are all my prayers in vain?
I don’t know what the right answer is, so I’m going to do what all rabbis do: I am going to completely cop out and do something else.
I am going to thank God for making me sick.
The morning blessing includes a line called Asher Yatzar, sometimes known as the “bathroom prayer” because…well…you say it after going to the bathroom!
It speaks of God as creator who fashioned our bodies with wisdom, and remarks that had God made us in any other way, we might not function at all. That prayer is great, but it’s total garbage when frankly, your body does not feel like a wondrous creation.
So I decided to rewrite this blessing, taking the Asher Yatzar and folding into the words of other Biblical and Jewish texts. The English translation is a weaving together of the JPS Tanakh, The New Union Prayerbook (Classical Reform), Siddur Or Hadash (Conservative) and Siddur Eit Ratzon (post-denominational), as well as my own words.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving For Ill Health
I give you thanks, Eternal source of comfort, for allowing my body to arrive at this place and in this time in whatever fashion it may be in, for today I am alive and can stand before you, and your perfect design is clear to me. Praised are you, Adonai my God, for sustaining me in wondrous ways.
I offer praise to you, Eternal God, for forming my body with all of its part arising from a natural order: allowing your creation to steer its own course and develop in its own way. In showing me your true and everlasting love through the gift of this freedom, I humbly show you my love by accepting the mitzvah which you commanded: to love all creatures and to bring them closer to your Torah.
My soul you have put in me is pure, and so long as my soul remains in me, I will offer thanks to you, my God and God of my ancestors, creator of all living things, guardian of all souls.
I offer this prayer of thanks to you, Eternal God, in Whom all things are possible.
Written by Rabbi Patrick Aleph, Executive Director of PunkTorah.