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February 15, 2018 by

Wrestling with the Gender Politics in Mi Sheberach

One night as I was leaving the Westchester Reform Temple, the synagogue where I am a cantor, I received a frantic text message from a dear friend, who has a five-year-old son named Noah. “At Greenwich hospital,” the text began, “Noah accidentally poked a hole in the inside of his cheek late this afternoon while playing with a magic wand.” She continued her text message in texting shorthand: “Rushed him to the hospital…got quick help…already repaired with surgery…just millimeters and it could have been much worse.”

Thanks to the quick actions of his mom, Rachel, he made it to the hospital, into the emergency room, and in and out of surgery in record time, and I am happy to report that he is now just fine. Yes, so many of us know this cascade of events, having taken loved ones to emergency rooms, and we are relieved when a loved one is safe and continues the course of recovery. Of course we know that is not always the case, and our hearts hurt for those who have lost loved ones to accidents or other causes, but in this case, we can feel thankful that Noah’s time in the operating room and the hospital was brief and that he came through with flying colors.

In fact, an hour or so after the first text I received, Noah’s mom me sent me a picture of Noah in the recovery room, playing with his iPad, snuggled close to his dad, David, who had a look of ebullient relief on his face. Noah’s father is himself a renowned surgeon, yet in this moment, David was in the role of “dad,” comforting Noah with a loving embrace, the two of them sharing a moment of close connection.

No doubt the quick and loving actions of both parents—his mother and his father—and the skillful hands of an expertly trained pediatric surgeon together with the attentive care of the nurses and other caregivers, worked together to repair the wound and tend to Noah’s physical and emotional needs.

Upon receiving Rachel’s initial text describing the accident, I told her that I would keep Noah in my prayers. She thanked me, dearly, and then texted me his Hebrew name: Noach ben David v’Rachel.

The following morning, I kept Noah’s name at the center of my prayers, just as I do with all the other members of the congregation who have signaled the desire for prayers of healing. I don’t expect that God will literally heal Noah, or that a surgeon’s suturing skills are improved if I pray. But I do know that offering to pray for someone is what I can contribute to the effort of care giving. I pray that those who are ill find courage and strength to endure treatment, and I offer prayers of gratitude to care-givers. I don’t do this only because I am clergy. Anyone can pray for healing.

Over the centuries, Jews have prayed for healing in many forms. The oldest prayer for healing is found in the book of Numbers where Moses prays emphatically for his sister, Miriam, “El Na, r’fa na la.” Please God, Please heal her.”

Centuries later, the rabbis formulated a prayer to be offered during the Torah service. When a person was called up for an Aliyah, the honor of blessing the Torah, a prayer for healing could be offered. Incidentally, prayers could also be offered on the occasion of a milestone birthday, a bar mitzvah, for a woman who just gave birth, and of course, for one in need of healing—all using the same Hebrew formula.

The formula begins with words “mi sheberach,” which means simply “may the one who blessed.” Otherwise put, the words mi sheberach are a kind of prayer prefix, and then the prayer suffix, if you will, is the subject of the prayer: a birthday, a bar mitzvah, a woman who just gave birth, or someone in need of healing. The final component is the insertion of the person’s name, so we can all know about whom we are praying.

In theory, I would pray for Noah using his full Hebrew name Noach ben Rachel v’David. But that’s not actually the normative observant practice. You see, historically, prayers for healing only invoke the Hebrew name of the mother. So, in accordance with this practice, one would pray for Noach ben Rachel….Noah son of Rachel. This is because of the traditional association of feminine qualities of nurturance, closeness, and with healing.

Before we reject this as exclusionary in light of the caring and nurturing cadre of men who are caring for their children (or siblings or parents), much in the way David was snuggled in the hospital bed with Noah, consider this fact:

Every other prayer of this style only uses the name of the father. If we were saying a prayer for Noah’s bar mitzvah, his milestone birthday, or even calling him up to the Torah according to observant practice, we would call him up using only his name and his father’s name “Noach ben David

So what to do with this tradition in Reform Jewish practice, where we affirm the full participation of all genders in ritual and prayer practice?

There are a number of ways to think about and address this. One creative usage comes from the great Jewish songwriter and teacher of liturgy, Debbie Friedman z’l. She re-sets the prayer, if you will, to a congregational melody (rather than a liturgical chant offered by a cantor in a Torah service) that we can all sing together. She universalizes the prayer, and addresses—indirectly, but effectively—the issue of language by singing “mi sheberach avotienu” (may the one who blessed our fathers) and then in the following verse “mi sheberach imoteinu” (may the one of who blessed our mothers). She leaves it up to you to name your loved one quietly in your heart in whatever way you wish. And we too at Westchester Reform Temple, also leave it up to you to tell us how you’d like your loved one to be referred when we offer names for healing.

Whether we pray for those just out of surgery, those suffering from a long illness, or those who are in need of spiritual healing, we are mindful of all the dimensions of healing, which come together in the nexus medical expertise, spiritual sustenance, and the strength of a loving and supportive community.

Jill Abramson serves as Senior Cantor of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.