Balance is one of the challenges in large and complex sacred communities like Beth David. Good things, essential practices, and valued constituencies can conflict, and we have to find ways to honor competing needs. We have been struggling for a while with one such circumstance around the mi shebeirakh prayer for the sick at Shabbat morning services.
Jews have been saying prayers for the sick since biblical times. The mi shebeirakh prayer developed in the Middle Ages. For centuries, this prayer was said when someone who had an aliyah requested it on behalf of a sick family member or friend. More recently, the practice became to recite a single prayer including the names of all those in our thoughts — both names called out by those present, and the names submitted for an ongoing list.
Another historical note: for most of Jewish and human history, there were few chronic diseases: people got sick and either got well or died. Thanks to modern medicine, people can and do remain on the list for years. Thankfully, some people recover and their names are gratefully removed. Other people die, and their names come off the list. But it seems to be the nature of things that the list grows ever longer, to the point that as of this writing, it has 130 names.
Which leads to the countervailing good. There is a concept in Jewish law of tirḥa de-tzibura, which means burdening the congregation. One example of how this principle is applied is the ruling that you are forbidden to roll a Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] from place to place during worship. The Torah should be set at the correct spot before the service, and if there are two readings, then you should have two separate scrolls, one for each passage.
We heard from many worshippers that reading the list was burdensome. The list is read quickly, so it is hard to concentrate on individual names, and the list grows ever longer. A few weeks ago, Rabbi Pressman led a discussion at Shabbat services, giving those present a chance to reflect on the meaning of this prayer to them. There was considerable agreement that we continue the practice of people standing and calling out names, but not read the printed list out loud. Instead, the prayer would reference the list. Several people suggested that we read out loud any new names on the list, since one of the purposes of the mi shebeirakh as a public prayer is to inform the congregation that there are members in need of support.
We sent a letter out to all those who have names on the list soliciting their reaction to these suggestions, with a largely positive response. So here is our plan:
- Those present will continue to stand and call out names.
- We will continue to publish the full list in the weekly Shabbat bulletin.
- We will read aloud the newest names.
- We will follow the mi shebeirakh with quiet time and a contemplative prayer to allow each of us to personally engage with the names. *
With these changes, we hope we can rekindle the experience of compassion for individuals, knowing that at any time, we, or those we love, might be on the list. We will begin on February 1st, the Shabbat of the Board installation.
Rabbi William Cutter has written about the mi shebeirakh, “For some people — usually — and for all people some of the time, it is a prayer for divine intervention: ‘God, do something!’ For others and almost all of the time, it is more of a communal and public affirmation of hope — binding people together in a sharing of each individual’s particularity.”
Prayer is always a balance of individual and community. Weighing the obligation to pray for those who are ill, and the concerns of tirḥa de-tzibura, we believe that changing our practice in this way will maintain the proper balance.
Rabbi Daniel Pressman
Rabbi Philip Ohriner
*Rabbi Ohriner wrote a lovely melody for the prayer from the Torah el na r’fa na la (God please heal her), to chant following the mi shebeirakh while we contemplate the list. Here is the link: https://app.box.com/s/jpicjebeaxf9bs09332x