We marvel when the impossible becomes possible.
In the last 24 hours the news broke that has caused more than a ripple in the scientific community. A prediction in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has been proven. Gravitational Waves exist.
This 1916 theory that was vigorously debated when presented by Albert Einstein, which was labeled by prominent anti-semitic German physicists as: “world-bluffing Jewish physics,” has today become more than formulaic calculations to the world. We have heard gravitational waves at two facilities in Washington and Louisiana of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
As the Washington Post describes:
“The “chirp” is bright and bird-like, its pitch rising at the end as though it’s asking a question. To an untrained ear, it resembles a sound effect from a video game more than the faint, billion-year-old echo of the collision of two black holes.”[i]
With this discovery, we marvel that the impossible is now seen as possible. In an instant, like two black holes colliding, an amazing energy filled with power is released as we realize that this world is more mysterious and that there is so much more that we as humans can fathom.
Last week’s Torah Portion, Mishpatim, ended with such an unfathomable vision. The last nine verses of the reading report that Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu ascended part way up the mountain – and before Moses ascended the full distance mountain, the gathered crowd SAW God – “under whose feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet [God] did not raise a hand against the leaders of the Israelites” (Exodus 24:9-11) Such an impossible vision rendered possible according to the witness of our Torah text.
Mishpatim leaves us at this truly dramatic and mystical and incredible moment… and then… we arrive at this week’s Torah Portion Terumah. Suddenly we are plunged into the needs and hows for building the Tabernacle. The fantastical Godly vision in Mishpatim is replaced by the tangible and practical of building a shrine.
The modern orthodox commentator, Aviva Zornberg, in her book “The Particulars of Rapture” begins her chapter on Teruma noting this odd transition. She suggests that traditionally there have been two types of responses to awe-some, in the full sense of an awe experience.
One response to awe is being inspired to act in a more holy manner. She cites the commentator Ramban who reflects on the Israelites entering into a covenant after their face-to-face encounter with God. In other words, an encounter with the unknowable, enters us further into a sense of the holy.[ii] A covenantal relationship is established.
The second response she cites out of the work of Rashi, Midrashic sources and other commentators. Confronted with the awesome, the result is rupture or disjunction. To this end, some claim that the placement of this Torah portion Terumah is out of order. It does not belong where we read it.[iii]
Aviva Zornberg, in her own style of analyzing Biblical text with the eye of an English PhD with a touch of obsession with human psychology, suggests that perhaps the portions of Mishpatim and Terumah are not a disjuncture, but rather what Jonathan Lear calls an idiopolis, a powerful fantasy that begs reenactment.
We see God and then… we need to build something that will bring God’s presence into our midst, a conduit for the power of a vision we cannot sustain, but which we wish to be reminded of. The building of the Mishkan is that vehicle in our biblical text.
We are at the place in our service where we insert our MiSheberach, our prayers for the sick. The mystery of our health and being is a life mystery. It is an awe moment. Given the complexity of our biology surely it is a miracle when we walk around in health. Our morning prayer tomorrow (at 10.30am) will include the recitation of Asher Yatzar which puts into words this marvel.
So when our bodies or that of our friends and family go awry, we are plunged into contemplating the unknowable awe of life. The fact that we exist at all. The miracle of our body working. Big large expansive being.
Aviva Zornberg suggests there are two typical responses to awesome; and I would suggest at the moment of MiSheberach, people can respond in either way yet both those paths end up in prayer.
First, we may be moved towards prayer because we have a greater sense of the Holy One and God’s mysteries. We feel more bonded and connected to God as intimate. We yearn for the support this connection gives to us.
Debbie Friedman, the great Reform Jewish composer of liturgy, imagined the last paragraph as Adon Olam as a prayer for healing, a prayer that sings about such an intimate relationship. She composed a beautiful settting of B’yado, which is the last paragraph of Adon Olam to that end.
Indeed this fifteenth century hymn, Adon Olam, connects us to mystery with a sense of our own vulnerability with its words. It is not just an end of the service song – in traditional synagogues it is also sung in early morning prayers – to evoke a sense of reverence. Listen to its words and you will see how they can be contextualized as a healing prayer:
|Into God’s hands I commit my spirit||B’yado af’kid ruḥi|
|When I sleep, and I awake||b’et ‘ishan v’a’ira|
|And with my spirit, my body||v’im ruḥi g’viyati|
|God is with me, I will not fear||Adonai li v’lo ‘ira|
The alternative response to awe is disjuncture. For those of us who feel the disconnect when our health and that of our acquaintances goes awry, there is a yearning to do something. A recitation of a prayer for healing is our need to build, like the Israelites needed to build the Mishkan. It is our need for a tangible response.
Cantor Lisa Levine in a 10 Minutes of Torah Blog piece on the MiSheberach notes that the MiSheberach was eliminated in early Reform Prayer Books by our rationalist founders. Debbie Friedman reintroduced the notion of our need for prayers for the sick. Debbie’s beautiful prayer which we sing at most our services, combines both an element of connecting to the Divine Holy One, as well as fulfilling a need for a vehicle of expression.
Debbie said of her compositon: “But what is it that the healing prayer says? Take what we have and make our lives a blessing….fill our lives with everything possible, giving all we can, being all we can, loving with all we have. The body? Maybe it will never recover. It will never be the way we would have wished. Maybe it will always get in the way and do its own thing. And the healing of spirit? It is not just about ourselves, it is about making the world of ourselves, our immediate world, our extended world and the world as a whole a more loving and healing place to be. When we ask for God’s blessings I believe there is always a subtext….For that which I ask you, God, let this be the beginning of the ripples that ultimately have an impact on the rest of the world. So it is with the Mishebeirach.”
Cantor Lisa Levine has also written a Mi Shebeirach which we will shortly sing which also combines both reactions to the awesomeness of being. It was written out of tragedy – the sudden death of a dear colleague and friend – Cantor Stuart Pittle. She writes that: “From the depths of grief and sorrow came a heartfelt melancholy melody, this time in a minor mode, which again invoked the names of our ancestors: mothers and fathers. My version also elaborates with an English interpretation of the text. I approached the prayer with an intention of creating a familiar traditional call and response “hear our prayer (hear our prayer)” so that people could learn and sing the prayer easily, and then brought it closer to the congregation by ending with the words “and bless us as well”.
A good MiSheberach prayer will acknowledge both the need of those to connect with intimacy to the Divine in the face of sickness, and the need of those who require a tangible vehicle to express their needs at times of awe when our own, our friend’s or our family’s health is vulnerable.
I am often asked whether these prayers work. My response is that we pray “as if” this is possible. We believe the impossible is possible. Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity stood, even though he could not prove the existence of gravitational waves. He maintained their existence “as if” because it made sense and would be a pity for God if it was not true.
We pray for healing for it would be a pity for us and those around us if they were not true. We pray “as if”. We pray because we need to connect with the Holy in the face of awe. We pray because we need a vehicle of expression and reaching out at a time of disjuncture. We pray because we know there is more in the world of our existence than we can fathom. We pray.
On this Shabbat, we offer our Mi Sheberach Prayers for:
[names] [additional names]
We ask God, in the refrain to this beautiful melody written by Cantor Lisa Levine, this tangible vehicle of hope – for our intimate God to “hear our prayer” and finally to… “bless us as well.”
[i] The Washington Post 2/12/2016
[ii] Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p 316.
[iii] Ibid, pp.318-319