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.
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.
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)"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.