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A Prayer for Pandemic Times

The Misheberach is usually said for people with a temporary, acute illness. But as someone with chronic illness, I know the prayer can still be useful when facing an illness with no known end.

Allison Lerman-Gluck
June 12, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

It’s that time in the Torah service. That time between the fourth and the fifth aliyot. One week, I close my eyes. Another week, I rise to stand. Or another week, I say the names. Yet another week, I join hands on the bimah.

I’ve been saying the Misheberach, or the Jewish prayer for healing and renewal, for myself and my community every time I attend services for the past eight years. And I’m not better yet.

I keep saying the prayer, even though I know that there is no full recovery in sight, no return to my former stasis. I’m 29 years old and chronically ill.

Now, during the global pandemic, the world around me is suffering from illness with no full recovery in sight, and many people are expressing feelings of helplessness. These are big feelings, and the question at the core of them is profound: How can you hope to recover when the illness facing you has no cure?

Living with chronic illness, I have some experience with taking ownership over these big feelings and learning what it means to heal, even when the wound remains open.

I was 21 when I first got sick. It started as a series of back-to-back sinus infections, but the illness never went away. After years of doctors’ appointments, stints of being mostly housebound, and plenty of well-meaning people telling me that I was “too young to be this sick” or that I didn’t “look sick,” I finally gathered a few diagnoses: fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis, to name two. They are both chronic illnesses. Chronic, meaning they are not acute. Chronic, meaning they recur. Chronic, meaning they will not go away. They aren’t life-threatening illnesses, but they affect everything about the quality of my life and the decisions that I have to make.

When I was a young rabbi’s kid (or “RK” for those in the know), I’d say the Misheberach for a friend who had the flu, or for a loved one with cancer. I would set my intention on aiming positive, healing thoughts in their direction, trying to hold them in my mind as if I was wrapping them in a blanket of my love.

Customarily, the person recovering asks for the prayer to be said, or sometimes a friend or family member makes the request for them; people stop saying the Misheberach when the person has recovered, or stops making the request for prayer. I would say the prayer weekly during Saturday morning services for as long as the recipient’s illness or injury lasted. Sometimes, I’d say the Misheberach for someone who I knew was suffering, even if they hadn’t asked, or weren’t Jewish, or even if I didn’t know them, like if there was an accident on the news. Sometimes, I would ask if I could say the Misheberach for them, and sometimes, I would not. Sometimes, I would say their name aloud, and at other times, I would recite it in my mind. I’d say the prayer weekly, for as long as I knew they were suffering for, or until they started to report significant improvement.

Misheberach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu hu yivarech virapei et hacholim.” May the one who blessed our ancestors bless and heal those who are sick.

The prayer goes on: “May the holy blessed one overflow with compassion upon them, to restore them, to heal them, to strengthen them, to enliven them.”

When I was saying the Misheberach for those with acute illnesses, the intention in my mind was always the same: God, whatever force of life you are, help to guide this person to a full and complete healing. Help to restore them to who they once were, body and spirit, before their illness.

The prayer even says: “The One will send them, speedily, a complete healing, healing of the soul and healing of the body, along with all who are ill among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay.”

And there’s my duty, done, I would think. V’nomar: Amen. Hopefully, whatever small power my thoughts might have would be starting to work their magic.

When I started to get sick, only close friends and family members knew what I was going through. I wasn’t trying to hide it, exactly. It just took so much energy to explain my illness, to explain that I didn’t have a diagnosis, to explain that, no, I didn’t feel better today than I did yesterday, and I probably wouldn’t next week either. People tend to show discomfort at the idea of long-term illness. We are much better at providing care, both physical and emotional, when we know that the illness has a cure, or an end date, so to speak. It’s much easier to tell someone to “feel better soon!” than to sit with the idea that they might not feel better soon, and we might have to dig a little bit deeper to support them. We might need to support them around this illness for a long time—maybe even forever.

The people who knew about my illness started asking if they could say the Misheberach for me when they went to services. At first, I took them up on their offers. However, after a while, as I continued to be sick, I started to feel silly, and I stopped accepting these offers. Why should my friends and family take the time to say a healing prayer when it didn’t seem like healing was in the cards for me? Although I wasn’t diagnosed, I also wasn’t getting better. It almost felt like I was taking away space that belonged to other people, to people who had a chance of full recovery, of healing, as I had understood it up until that point. I kept saying the prayer for myself, though, because sometimes when it felt like no one could hear me, I had to keep bearing witness to my own experience.

Last year, when I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I experienced a sense of grief, a loss of my self as I once was, able-bodied and well. I had been suffering for seven years but part of me was still holding onto some hope that I was one doctor’s appointment away from finding a simple solution to my woes.

That day, as I left my rheumatologist’s office, I finally had to accept that it was time to stop holding out hope for a cure to my illnesses because there are no known cures. It was time to stop waiting to find the magic pill that could change my life. I had to start just moving through the world, day by day, focused on managing my symptoms and appreciating what I have.

Through reclamation of the word “healing,” I’ve been able to take back the Misheberach. I learned from my chronically ill community about the “spoon theory,” which provides a device for explaining our minute-to-minute physical and mental statuses and abilities. This taught me that healing is a daily journey with mountainous valleys and peaks, and that my goal is not total physical wellness. My goals are acceptance, with a healthy dose of motivation to take the best care of my body and mind.

I also want to reframe the idea that a return to able-bodiedness is a necessary finish line for the journey of healing. We all deserve the type of care that people emit when saying healing prayers. I hope that shining that light of loving attention on chronically ill people leads to further action on the part of able-bodied, well people. If you’re saying the same prayer for someone, week after week, how long will you keep saying it? How long will you remember them? And what can you do as a tangible act of support for them after you say the prayer? Being well-thought about is a form of healing from societal ableism.

This year, everything has changed on a global level. We’re faced daily with the prospect of illness, of death. Over the past few months, there have been many days when I’ve turned to my loved ones in mourning and chanted, “When will this end? When will this end?” as though by speaking the words, I could will the resolution of a global pandemic.

Barring post-viral symptoms, COVID-19 is an acute illness. Many people are getting sick, and although some are dying, and some are suffering long-term health repercussions, many are recovering. So on an individual level, COVID-19 is something finite—like the flu or an injury, something entirely appropriate for the Misheberach as it’s traditionally understood.

But on a societal level, the pandemic is a chronic condition: There is no known cure. There is no vaccine. There are no tried and true treatments. There is a big difference between having an acute illness that affects just you, and possibly your family, and having an illness that will affect the whole world, at different times, potentially over years and years. This is an illness that has shut down our economy, shone light on deep structural racism and economic inequity, and kept many of us inside, scared, lonely, with our lives shaken to their core. Physical healing will come for many who get sick during this time. But this is a pandemic that has no end in sight. Our societal healing has barely just begun, as we start to mourn the lives lost, even as more lives are lost still. Looking toward the future does not bring relief. There will be more illness, more loss, more death, global instability, loss of income, loss of health care, iniquity and oppression on a wide scale.

It can feel pointless to pray for healing when there is currently no definitive end in sight to the illness and suffering all around us. But it is not pointless.

For the past eight years, I’ve said the Misheberach for my chronically ill community, even though healing doesn’t look like closure or like the period at the end of a sentence. The same is true in this global moment. We can find healing even as the suffering continues.

Healing comes in many forms. Here are some of mine: For me, healing means accepting my limitations but also knowing my strengths, and celebrating both, because they contribute to the holiness of my body and spirit. Healing means finding solidarity with others who live with chronic illness and disability, through the silliness of sharing memes or through the quietness of telling someone “I see you” when they’re bed-bound in a darkened room, and they cannot see themselves. Healing means surrounding myself with people who are able to meet me exactly where I am each day and cutting out the people who say things like “you’re too young to be this sick” or “but you don’t look sick.” Healing means taking in every good moment as a blessing, and holding on to those blessings for all the bad moments still to come. Sometimes, healing means sitting with a hard moment and really seeing it, really experiencing it, not trying to distract myself from it. And healing means action, working for change when structural inequity is revealed, because all oppressions are connected, and our liberation is bound together.

In the midst of a global pandemic, these hard moments fill my days right now like a self-propagating water pitcher. I hold onto these tools for healing that I’ve developed, every day sharpening my skill set so that I can become an expert in keeping myself afloat.

I say the Misheberach now with acceptance in mind. I know that I cannot change the moment that I am in. There is no fast-forward button. I find healing in doing everything within my own power to stop the spread of illness. I picture the faces of those on the frontlines. As a white person, I remember that black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This reminds me why I need to stay the course. I pray for comfort for the sick, the suffering, and the bereaved. I find healing through building solidarity with a global community of people who are experiencing different levels of grief. I find healing in cooking something delicious, or talking to an old friend on the phone, or sitting outside.

I don’t find healing in anticipating what’s to come. Although many people seem eager to get back to “business as usual,” we will likely be dealing with this illness for a year or more. I don’t have the power to speed the production of the right vaccine. All I can do is advocate for what I think is right. All I can do is sit with this moment and really see it, when I am able to. All I can do is relish in the sweetness that is being alive, even when it’s hard, and even though I’m sick. I know that my days won’t always be this hard. I also know that they will never be as they once were, before this pandemic.

Misheberach translates to “the one who blessed.” May the one who blessed our ancestors bless and heal those who are sick, suffering, and dying. May the one who blessed our ancestors give me strength to continue on, day by day, one foot in front of the next, with my intention set on doing everything within my power to contribute to the process of global healing. May that healing come in whatever forms are most needed. May we all be blessed. And let us say: Amen.

Allison Lerman-Gluck is a Northeast-based theater educator, facilitator, director, and storyteller.

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