Beha’alotcha: Prayer and Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’aloteha

In any event, this week it’s full steam ahead in the Torah portion
Beha’alotcha, which has many and varied laws and narratives: the lamp
of the Mishkan, the “second-chance” Passover, grumpy and complaining
Israelites, prophets among the people, and a bit of a family conflict
between Moshe, Aharon and Miriam- the “first family” of the wandering
Israelites.

This sibling squabble occurs at the end of the portion, and it’s not
exactly clear exactly what happened, but the basic idea is that Aharon
and Miriam said something uncharitable about Moshe (and maybe his
wife) and as a rebuke, God punishes Miriam with “tzara’at,” or the
sort of scaly skin disease that is commented on at great length back
in Vayikra/Leviticus.

Moshe, to his credit, prays for Miriam’s recovery using just a few
short words in Hebrew, in a verse which has been incorporated into
many prayers and liturgies. (Cf. Bamidbar/Numbers 12:13). Connecting
this story with a contemporary mitzvah practice, we may note that
several traditional sources say that praying for a sick person is an
essential part of bikkur cholim, or “visiting the sick.” Moshe wasn’t
exactly visiting Miriam, as such, but his response is nonetheless
deeply moving; at that moment of crisis (emotional, physical,
theological) he put aside any personal issues and offered his
compassion in the best way he knew how.

By praying for the sick, we are not necessarily relying on miracles or
a suspension of the laws of nature to take the place of modern
medicine. Rather, I see prayer as part of strengthening and lifting up
the whole person and defining them as more than their illness or
symptoms. To put it another way, illness can be demoralizing, and
deeply felt prayer communications connection, dignity and love freely
offered. Prayer on behalf of the sick says: “I care about you so much
I’m going to bring your pain into my relationship with the Holy One,”
and this in itself gives strength to the spirit.

That’s why prayer is such an important part of visiting the sick, to
the extent that some commentators say you haven’t done the mitzvah if
you haven’t prayed for them.

Returning to our Torah portion, we note that Moshe prayed for Miriam
using only five words- demonstrating that prayer doesn’t have to be
poetic, alliterative, metaphorical, rhetorical, elegant or literary.
It has to be honest, heart-felt and real in the moment, and when it
is, hearts are connected and made strong.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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