Healing Prayers – an Inspiring Conversation with My Friend

An Email from Daniel

Rabbi Emanuel,

Firstly, happy Hanukkah!  What a beautiful reflection on the connections between Judaism and Christianity, united in our belief in one, almighty, everlasting G-d!

Secondly, I benefited from your essay “Thoughts About Healing Prayer” and its exploration of various levels and modes of prayer.  Let me quote below a passage from “The Catechism of the Catholic Church”, #1502, 98-102.  I’m wondering what you think about this, and specifically the question: “Are conversion and physical healing related?”.

“The man of the Old Testament lives his sickness in the presence of God. It is before God that he laments his illness, and it is of God, Master of life and death, that he implores healing.  Illness becomes a way to conversion; God’s forgiveness initiates the healing.  It is the experience of Israel that illness is mysteriously linked to sin and evil, and that faithfulness to God according to his law restores life: “For I am the Lord, your healer.”  The prophet intuits that suffering can also have a redemptive meaning for the sins of others.  Finally, Isaiah announces that God will usher in a time for Zion when he will pardon every offense and heal every illness.”

In a communion of prayer, faith, love, and hope, Daniel.

My Answer to Daniel

Shalom dear Daniel,

Thank you, Daniel, so much for your greetings! May the Omnipresent reflect your blessings back to you and yours tenfold, in this coming Christmas and the New Year that follows shortly after!

What a thought-provoking passage!  I read it a few times and let it sit with me for a while.  I’d refer to three elements in my response.  The first, would be what is the purpose of suffering.  The second would be to try and unpack the concept of conversion.  The final one would be the connection with healing, and not physical healing only.

The Purpose of Suffering

“The experience of Israel is that illness is mysteriously linked to sin and evil” is only one approach of many.  Talmud (Berakhot 5a:9) teaches: … Rav Ḥisda said: If a person experiences suffering, one should examine one’s actions.  Generally, suffering comes as a punishment for one’s transgressions.  It is stated (Lamentations 3:40): “We will search and examine our ways, and return (make T’shuva, repent) to God”.

And then, on the other hand, we read on the very same page.  “…Rav Huna said: Anyone in whom the Holy One, Blessed be He, delights, He oppresses him with suffering.  It is stated (Isaiah 53:10): “Yet in whom the Lord delights, He oppresses him with disease”.  This statement is without any reference or conditioning to sin or evil. 

We can understand this approach when we look back at our childhood and at our own behavior as parents.  Sometimes we, as parents, inflict suffering on our children, BECAUSE we love them.  The purpose of that is to help them learn something that will be very important in their future life.  This approach talks about suffering coming from love, the Love of God, the love of a parent.

How do I integrate these two, seemingly contradicting, assertions?  Do they really contradict or complement one another?

I need to reflect on my deeds all the time: before I act and during my action.  Finally, I need to evaluate the effect of my action after the fact.  Do I intend to cause harm to someone? Hopefully not… and yet, my actions may hurt another person.  It may happen not because of my intent, but by the way the other interpreted what I said and did.  In this case, I missed the mark, my deed didn’t meet the purpose I intended it to be.

In Hebrew, the verb for missing the mark is the same as for sin.  This call to reflect on my actions also prompts the corrective actions.  Asking for forgiveness from those I offended, or changing my conduct in the future.  This change of behavior and adopting a different characteristic is T’shuva – repentance.  I’d claim that T’shuva, repentance, is a type of conversion, and I will explain it later.

Suffering is a form of sacrifice.  The definition of Sacrifice includes: suffer a loss; give up; destroy or surrender something for the sake of something else.  In Hebrew the verb To Sacrifice is the same as “To get close to”.  The sacrifices slaughtered on the Temple’s altar intended to bring the person who offered the sacrifice closer to God.

This is the approach I took with regards to the sufferings I experienced in my struggle with cancer.  I accepted the sufferings as a sign of the Love of God to me.  They were my sacrifice that brought me closer to God and receive His love more intently.  I express my gratitude to God and to his Love to me by being more diligent in examining my acts, my behavior and attitude, and doing T’shuva, repentance.

The Broader Meaning of Conversion

The Oxford Dictionary defines Conversion as “the process of changing or causing something to change from one form to another.”  Within a religious context it is “the fact of changing one’s religion or beliefs.”  In my view, Daniel, neither of these stand-alone definitions adequately describe conversion in the context of the passage you quoted.  For that purpose, I suggest to augment the second definition with a humanization of the first one. 

Conversion is “the process of changing or causing a change within someone’s own character, behavior or beliefs into something else”.  The conversion can be from one religion into another, or a conversion of a behavior, or a specific characteristic.  In Mussar language, I’d claim that adopting a trait, improving one’s implementation of the Middot is also a conversion.

Furthermore: I believe that T’shuva is also a process of conversion.  T’shuva is commonly translated to mean repentance.  However, this translation misses many of the deeper meanings of T’shuva.  T’shuva is also an answer, as well as returning, going back to an origin.  Putting it together, the process of T’shuva incorporates all these meanings.

First, comes a question:  what did I do wrong?  Where did I lose the way of doing the right thing?  Then, there is an answer to the question – a T’shuva.  Having the answer, one can decide to follow and implement that answer.  The answer may require going back to the point where the miss happened – another T’shuva.  The way back may be difficult, painful and involve suffering, asking for forgiveness.  This part is the repentance, yet another T’shuva.  To understand the final step of T’shuva, let me quote, in conclusion, Isiah 55:7:

The wicked will give up his ways, The sinful man his thoughts; Let him repent-return back to the LORD, And He will be merciful to him; To our God, for He forgives in abundance.

 יַעֲזֹ֤ב רָשָׁע֙ דַּרְכּ֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אָ֖וֶן מַחְשְׁבֹתָ֑יו וְיָשֹׁ֤ב אֶל יְהוָה֙ וִֽירַחֲמֵ֔הוּ וְאֶל אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ כִּֽי יַרְבֶּ֥ה לִסְלֽוֹחַ

Abandoning the thoughts here means abandoning altogether the way of life and thinking that led one to sin.  Instead, the person follows the way that returns one back to God and God ways of conduct.  It is a complete conversion of the “old” person and the creation of a “new” personality – a new person.  This is what the Talmud calls a Complete and Final T’shuva.  This “new” person does not bear the liability and consequences thereof of the sins done by the “old” person.  

Another kind of a conversion in Jewish thought, is a change, or an addition, of a name.  Hebrew names bear (most of the time) meanings.  In a miraculous way, when the parents name their babies, they enjoy a moment of prophecy.  Many more times than not the name the parents gave the child reflects the person that baby will be.  In time of dire sickness or suffering, there is a custom to add a meaningful name to the person.  Ḥayyim (Life) or Mazal (luck) are added to the sick or unfortunate person, with the hope that this change, conversion, will affect one’s future.

How Does all the Above Affect Healing?

Your question, Daniel, was specific to physical healing, and I want to expand it to healing in general.  I reason that many time the spiritual healing of a person negates the impact of the physical disability and suffering.  The paralympic games provide numerous living examples to the validity of the assertion I made.

I argue that the various aspects of suffering and forms of conversion, lead to spiritual and emotional healing.  An initial, reflexive, response to suffering, illness or pain is to accuse God or lack of fortune as the cause.  Accepting the suffering as an expression of God’ Love and getting closer to God is a conversion.  This acceptance, that conversion, in and by itself is a profound spiritual healing that elate one’s spirit. 

The process of conversion of a person that now cares more for the other, betters one’s own life.  This elated feeling and spiritual state, provides more energy, more strength, to deal with life’s hardships.  The same is true with T’shuva, which is yet another way of conversion.  Doing T’shuva may involve in most cases asking for forgiveness, and forgiving others.  No matter which direction the forgiveness goes:  it will aways lessen the burden on one’s spiritual shoulders.  The end result is that the spirit frees energies and directs them towards one’s own healing

So is the case with converting into another religion.  A person that seeks such a conversion doesn’t feel at home in one’s original religion.  This discomfort stresses that person, and consumes one’s energies that otherwise could be diverted towards healing.  Once conversion is completed, that person feels “at home”, in a new, balanced, place in one’s life.  The process itself is elating and invigorating, expanding the desire to continue on living and exploring the new home. 

In turn, the motivation to heal and the ability to withstand the pain and suffering increases, and so is the probability of physical healing.  Physical healing is not a result of these spiritual processes only.  All other means, such as good medical advice and care, proper eating habits, physical activity are crucially important.  The spiritual state that results from all those modes of conversion support the physical means, and render them more effective. 

And yet, we must remember that physical healing will not always happen, and the inevitable, death, will come.  Then, the spiritual healing is the only that will bring peace and equanimity to the soul.  The passage, the journey out of this world into the unknown will not be feared, and embraced with content.

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