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For Those Dealing with Chronic Illness: A Prayer for Persisting

In her article, Prayer for Persisting: Moving Beyond Mi Shebeirach, my colleague Rabbi Julie Pelc, Assistant Director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health, reflects upon facing the constant long term of chronic illness:

During Rabbinic school, I spent more time in doctor’s offices than in seminary classrooms. Whereas it was initially an acute illness (for which the traditional misheberach and prayers in hopes of a “refuah shleima” would have been appropriate), the years of recovery and the resulting, permanent disability ensuring thereafter no longer qualified for such a hope or wish.

She thinks about the many who are with incomplete health, yet, are not entirely “sick” either:

I think of my coworker with diabetes, a friend with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an aunt struggling with chronic clinical depression, a classmate with lupus and ulcerative colitis and an acquaintance living with HIV. I think of my own incomplete recovery. To pray for “complete healing” for those whose ailments cannot or will not ever be completely “healed” seems audacious and even offensive. My coworkers, colleagues, family, friends, and I will negotiate medications, medical appointments, dietary needs, and fears throughout our lives. We will face unexpected side effects, professional and personal repercussions of our special needs, and stigma from many well-meaning strangers every day. Our everyday reality is one of incomplete health; yet, we are not entirely “sick”, either.

She offers a new kind of Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for a different kind of healing:

To pray for the “complete healing of body and spirit” is to misjudge the realties of many people’s lives. To understand or redefine “healing” as “making peace with one’s fate” is to alter the meaning of the prayer and it may also serve to ignore our specific kind of suffering and its ever-changing realities… We need a prayer that acknowledges the reality of chronic illness. We need a prayer that asks God for the strength to persist even in the face of challenges that may seem insurmountable. We need a prayer asking that we be granted the courage to continue in life even as we face the reality of our death; to rage and to praise, to bless and to curse, to accept and to reject diagnoses simultaneously.

Her prayer:

“May the One who blessed our fathers and our mothers, bless _______ son/daughter of _______: strengthen his/her heart and raise up his/her hand, with the blessings you gave to Yaakov, to Yonatan and David, to Daniel the Prophet, to Tamar mother of Peretz, to Miriam the Prophetess, and to Naomi.
May God give to him/her grace, compassion and loving-kindness; love, harmony, peace, and companionship. Speedily, Adonai our God, hear our voices, take up our prayers, and watch over his/her life-force, spirit, and soul. With respect to your power, your loving-kindness, and your great compassion, behold we say to him/her: be strong and of good courage . Spread over us all Your shelter of peace. And let us say: Amen.”

Why these Biblical ancestors?

Rabbi Pelc writes:

  • Jacob struggled with an invisible being in the night, emerging with a limp. He would not cease his wrestling until he also emerged with a blessing from his adversary.
  • Jonathan was the rightful inheritor of his father’s (King Saul’s) throne but desired instead to yield leadership to his beloved friend, David. Because he refused to abandon his deeply held convictions, he fought against his father and died in battle defending his companion and his beliefs.
  • David (King David) is perhaps best known for his battle against the giant, Goliath, though the odds were firmly not in his favor.
  • Daniel’s enemies threw him into the lion’s den, by order of the king.
  • Tamar was twice widowed, childless, and then denied remarriage by her father-in-law because he feared that she would somehow cause the death of a third husband, were she to be allowed to marry again.
  • Miriam was struck with a skin disease, tzarraat, which forced her to live outside the camp until she was healed.
  • Naomi lost her husband and both her sons in quick succession in a foreign land. She cried out, “God has embittered my soul”, feeling that she was left completely empty, devoid of blessing or hope.
  • As Moses passes the mantle of leadership to the next generation, he says, “hazzak v’amatz”, meaning: “May you be strong and courageous”

So often we are able to deal with the crisis of illness. We know how to reach out before or after the surgery or visit to the hospital. But when illness moves into the long-term – like Fibromyalgia, chronic depression, or…, we often do not know how to sustain our support. This prayer may help both the person living with chronic illness and the community as we try to change attitudes.

Read Rabbi Pelc’s full article here. Read my more complete teaching on this topic here.

4 comments

  1. Lori says:

    Thank you, my brother. For the recognition of those of us living with chronic illness, for the words of prayer that speak more closely to our situations, and for the effort to educate those caring, but ill-informed members of our communities. I love you, Lori

  2. JuliePelc says:

    Wow – what a blessing that you’re writing about this in your blog and sharing it with your community. I feel so honored to be included in your teaching, and to help – in any way I can – as people navigate the difficult journey through chronic illness and the specific kind of suffering that accompanies it. Thank you so much for helping me to help others…

  3. Karen Harris says:

    Because I have been living with chronic illness for almost 30 years, Rabbi Pelc’s article and prayer spoke to that part of me that realizes that I will never be “cured”. It included me in a segment of the population that pushes through our days in pain, both physical and spiritual. I have never related to the Mi Shebeirach for myself. Although I love singing the prayer and include others in my well wishes, I know that I will never have complete healing.
    The prayer that Rabbi Pelc offers speaks to me in a way that other “healing prayers” do not.
    Sometimes we just need the strength of body and spirit to get through our days. I am thrilled to know that this subject is being widely addressed.

  4. Diane Lipson says:

    Prayers for courage and strength always go directly to my soul and help greatly. The most difficult challenge of my chronic disability is accepting its permanence, and this new prayer is exactly what is needed. I still go through dark moments when I need the courage to face what is.

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