The Hidden Link Between Refa'einu and the Exodus

You can find a video presentation and full transcript of this class on Aleph Beta's website, as well as tune in to the rest of this series of classes. Click here to see the full presentation.

Sefirat HaOmer, the strange period of counting between Passover and Shavuot, and COVID-19. What do they have in common? You might think the answer is nothing.

While studying both the blessings in the Amidah and the story of the Exodus from Egypt, with the background of the pandemic, we began to see that it all fit together.

In this lesson, part 1 of the Refa'einu series, we will think about the Refa'einu (Heal us) and Re'eh vaenyenu (See our affliction) blessings, sickness, and relating to God as a healer. Along the way, we will look at the texts describing the journey of Israel in the desert as they left Egypt, the 49 days from the Exodus to the foot of Mt. Sinai, which is the time that we are counting during the Omer period.

What arose from our study was the fascinating revelation that the rabbis, as they put together the prayers of the Amidah, weren't just using language that came out of their heads. They were actually using our history as a guide. It turns out that in blessing after blessing, they seem to be referring to events that took place in the Torah. In other words, what the rabbis were doing was grounding our prayer in our history.

To see how this works, let's begin with the 8th blessing of the Amidah.

Re'eh Vaenyenu - See our Affliction

רְאֵה [נא] בְעָנְיֵנוּ. וְרִיבָה רִיבֵנוּ. וּגְאָלֵנוּ מְהֵרָה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ. כִּי גּואֵל חָזָק אָתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', גּואֵל יִשרָאֵל:

[Please] See our affliction and contend for our strife, and redeem us quickly for the sake of Your Name, for You are a strong redeemer. Blessed are You, O Lord, Redeemer of Israel.

What is this blessing about?

On one level, this is a personal request. We're saying to God that maybe we're going through hard times as a nation, or maybe as an individual, but either way, we're looking for God to help us out.

But the prayer doesn't come out of nowhere; it comes out of a certain kind of grounding, something historical which gives it a great deal of power, a great deal of hidden power.

Where, though, does it come from? Where in the Torah did God see our affliction and redeem us?

The quintessential redemption, is yetziat mitzrayim [the Exodus from Egypt] and you can see this in both the words of the prayer and the words of the story in the Torah.

In the blessing we say look at our suffering, look at our oppression, take up our cause and redeem us. The blessing ends with God as Redeemer of Israel.

Where in the Exodus story do we also see the notion of God not just relating to our suffering but specifically seeing our suffering?

In the following text, Pharaoh has recently died and the people cry out to God. Let's see how God responds.

(כג) וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃ (כד) וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ (כה) וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃ (ס)

(23) A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. (24) God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. (25) God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew.

Four verbs are used in conjunction to God: He heard, He remembered, He looked (saw), and He knew.

  • What did God hear?
  • What did God remember?
  • What did God see?
  • What did God know?

It's as if God is collecting the data with His "senses" and then knows.

What does He know? He knows everything that He hears, He knows everything He remembers, He knows everything that He sees. And what happens when you know in that way?

This is really the moment of God being empathetic with us. The sense is that when I really know, I get it. I come to understand or identify with what's going on. It's in the forefront of my mind, I get it, I know.

And the very next verse is action. The very beginnings of redemption — it's the blessing of "Go'el Yisrael (Redeemer of Israel)"

(א) וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה׃ (ב) וַ֠יֵּרָא מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל׃
(1) Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. (2) An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.

With the vision of the burning bush, Moshe's attention is grabbed, God introduces Himself, and what is the first thing that God says to Moshe after He introduces Himself as God? Take a look at the next text.

(ז) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה רָאֹ֥ה רָאִ֛יתִי אֶת־עֳנִ֥י עַמִּ֖י אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְאֶת־צַעֲקָתָ֤ם שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י נֹֽגְשָׂ֔יו כִּ֥י יָדַ֖עְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָֽיו׃

(7) And the LORD continued, “I have seen the suffering of My people in Egypt and have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I have come to know their pain.

This is where it all begins, where God says here's what I've seen: I've seen the suffering of My people and I will not stand by any longer. And look at how the verse ends: "I have come to know their pain." When did we have that before? At the end of chapter 2!

And then God is basically telling Moses, I get this. I see what's going on, I understand it, I understand the depth of pain.

So what is God going to do about it? Let's read the next verse.

(ח) וָאֵרֵ֞ד לְהַצִּיל֣וֹ ׀ מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרַ֗יִם וּֽלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ֮ מִן־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַהִוא֒ אֶל־אֶ֤רֶץ טוֹבָה֙ וּרְחָבָ֔ה אֶל־אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָ֑שׁ אֶל־מְק֤וֹם הַֽכְּנַעֲנִי֙ וְהַ֣חִתִּ֔י וְהָֽאֱמֹרִי֙ וְהַפְּרִזִּ֔י וְהַחִוִּ֖י וְהַיְבוּסִֽי׃

(8) I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

So to put it all together, the rabbinic sages of the Talmudic era who wrote the Amidah prayer used these two chapters as a template for us if we're ever in difficult straits. In chapter 2 Israel cries out to God. What does God do? We know the end of the story — He hears their suffering, understands their suffering, He empathizes with it, and He puts together a master plan to actually save them from it. He becomes the Redeemer, He follows through, He answers the prayer. So the rabbis say, what a great prayer — God, can You do what You did back in Exodus chapters 2 and 3?

If you look back at the prayer (at the top of the sheet), that is basically the prayer, but with one extra word, "please".

We're asking God "please." We have a request, which we are rooting in history. We're not coming out of nowhere, where we're asking You to look at our suffering, to look at our pain, and to redeem us from whatever personal troubles or natural troubles we find ourselves in. We know this is who You are — it's written there in the book. We're just going back in our history. You've proven yourself as the Being who has made good on a promise. You made a promise here in Exodus 3, and You fulfilled it.

Now let's look at the next blessing, which asks God to heal us.

Refa'einu - Heal Us

רְפָאֵנוּ ה' וְנֵרָפֵא. הושִׁיעֵנוּ וְנִוָּשֵׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתֵנוּ אָתָּה. וְהַעֲלֵה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָל מַכּותֵינוּ.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed, save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete healing to all our wounds,

If in the previous blessing the Sages are clearly alluding to historical events, are they doing so also in the Refa'einu (Heal us) prayer? If so, what historical events are they alluding to?

Where in the Five Books of Moses do we have God revealed in this kind of way, as a savior, as someone who we can scream "save us" and God is there and He saves us. Is there an event that comes to mind in the Torah where that becomes clear?

After the sea was split, the people have crossed into safety, and the Egyptians have died, we see the following verse.

וַיּ֨וֹשַׁע יְהוָ֜ה בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֛וּא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יִם וַיַּ֤רְא יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם מֵ֖ת עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיָּֽם׃

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea.

In the Amidah blessing, "and God saved us on that day." becomes "Save us and allow us to be saved."

And there was precedent for that. We cried out to God at the sea and God responded by saving us. We're crying out to God now, "Save us and we will be saved." And now, even before we get to the Heal us part of this blessing, there are an interesting kind of bookends that emerge here. If you think about these two blessings, "See our affliction" and "Redeemer of Israel" on one hand and "Heal us and we will be healed, save us and we will be saved" on the other hand, we see that they both reference the Exodus from Egypt, but they reference two vastly different points in the Exodus from Egypt.

The two blessings contain the very beginning of the redemptive process, when God hears, and the very end of the redemptive process, when God splits the sea.

That leaves us with one remaining question. What part of the story is the model for "Heal us and allow us to be healed" in the Amidah prayer?

No healing took place at the splitting of the sea but we can see it soon after, which could mean that the story doesn't end when the waters close.

Read the continuation of the story in the text below.

וַיַּסַּ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִיַּם־ס֔וּף וַיֵּצְא֖וּ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־שׁ֑וּר וַיֵּלְכ֧וּ שְׁלֹֽשֶׁת־יָמִ֛ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֖ר וְלֹא־מָ֥צְאוּ מָֽיִם׃ וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ מָרָ֔תָה וְלֹ֣א יָֽכְל֗וּ לִשְׁתֹּ֥ת מַ֙יִם֙ מִמָּרָ֔ה כִּ֥י מָרִ֖ים הֵ֑ם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמָ֖הּ מָרָֽה׃ וַיִּלֹּ֧נוּ הָעָ֛ם עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹ֖ר מַה־נִּשְׁתֶּֽה׃ וַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל־יְהוָ֗ה וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ יְהוָה֙ עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל־הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם שָׁ֣ם שָׂ֥ם ל֛וֹ חֹ֥ק וּמִשְׁפָּ֖ט וְשָׁ֥ם נִסָּֽהוּ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר֩ אִם־שָׁמ֨וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַ֜ע לְק֣וֹל ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ וְהַיָּשָׁ֤ר בְּעֵינָיו֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְהַֽאֲזַנְתָּ֙ לְמִצְוֺתָ֔יו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֖ כָּל־חֻקָּ֑יו כָּֽל־הַמַּֽחֲלָ֞ה אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֤מְתִּי בְמִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לֹא־אָשִׂ֣ים עָלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה רֹפְאֶֽךָ׃ (ס)

Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test. He said, “If you will heed the LORD your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the LORD am your healer.

  • At the end of this incident, how does God define Himself?

This is the only moment in the entire Five Books of Moses that God specifically refers to Himself as a healer. And the sages seem to be wrapping this up together with the splitting of the sea, which is the first great mystery of Refa'einu. These events seem like they have nothing to do with each other. The sages seem to say that you can't talk about the splitting of the sea, "hoshienu v'nevasheya," without talking about "Refa'einu Hashem v'nerafei." And it's the strange story of marah [bitter], which is part of the climax.

The sages, in writing this prayer of Refa'einu, are bundling together two events that don't seem like they're bundled. Here's this prayer, which centuries of Jews over the ages, from people in the emergency room praying for their loved ones to, those suffering from smallpox and the black death and all of the dark moments in all of humankind's history, in all of our history — this is the prayer that the sages put together to speak about God as our healer, and it all comes back to this Biblical source.

In part 2 of the series, we will take a deep dive into the story of marah.

It feels to me like it is worth exploring this time when God Himself speaks of Himself as a healer. I think if we look at the story of marah carefully, we may find hidden dimensions of what it means to speak of God as our healer.

Before moving on to the next part of the series, take some time read again the story of marah, which is the previous text. Read through the verses and ask yourself, what's strange about this? Clear your mind, pretend you've never seen the verses before, and just read it for the first time.

And when you are ready, click on part 2, A Closer Look at the Bitter Waters of Marah.