The Torah can be a source of healing for the spirit and psyche. Some rabbis “prescribe” sacred verses for use in mediation. For someone who is anxious about her self worth, a rabbi may recommend she sit quietly, breathe slowly, and for five minutes twice a day repeat this verse: “Yismach Moshe b’matnat chelko; Moses was satisfied with his portion.” Or for fear, the last lines of “Adon Olam.” “B’yado afkid ruchi, b’eit ishan, v’aira, v’im ruchi geviyati, Adonai li v’lo ira; into God’s hands I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake; and with my spirit and my body also, God is with me, I will not fear.” Or for insecurity: “Adonai karov l’chol korav, l’chol asher yikraoohoo ve’emet: God is near to all who cry out to God, to all who cry out to God in truth.” Or to enhance a sense of gratitude: “Zeh ha’yom asah Adonai, nagila v’nismecha vo; This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Rabbi Richard Levy of Los Angeles teaches the wisdom of writing the verse and affixing it where one will see it throughout the day: above one’s desk, on the telephone key pad, on the dashboard. Meditation upon a verse of Torah, upon the Shema, or upon Hebrew letters can calm the spirit, and bring it into communion with the Divine.
The chasidim have historically made great use of the niggun, the wordless tune, which has become part of many Reform services. By repeating a wordless tune over and over again, or one with nonsense syllables (like “Yai bai bai”), one can begin to still the mind and open the heart. Nonsense syllables are especially helpful, occupying the linear language-making part of our brains so that it is easier to let go of thoughts as they arise. The nonsense syllables function as a mantra whose message is that our being is greater than our thinking.
The psalms have been our primary devotional literature of healing. The rabbis have prescribed different lists of 10, 18, and 36 psalms to be recited at times of illness. These sacred verses invite the person reading them to identify with the psalmist in his pain and longing. Psalms of healing take the reader through a cycle of bewilderment, anguish, complaint, and renewed hope and faith.
Jewish tradition also offers active modes of spiritual healing. When the experience of illness compromises our sense of power, we need to feel that we are contributing to the good of the world by acts of tzedakah and gemilut chassadim (kindness). For the Jew, tikun olam (repair of the world) and tikun hanefesh (repair of the soul) are inseparable.
Taking part in Jewish communal life breaks the isolation that often accompanies illness. The mandate “al tifrosh min hatzibur, do not separate yourself from the community,” is never more important than at a time of illness. Of course, this means that Jewish institutions must be especially responsive to the particular needs of Jews who are ill.
Eve, David, and Shoshanna are testimony to Judaism’s richness and importance in helping bolster the spirit. Eve recovered beautifully, and now volunteers as a lay counselor with others who are struggling with cancer. Prior to David’s death earlier this year, he expressed enormous gratitude for the connection and warmth he felt from the Jewish community. Shoshanna continues to participate in healing services, has joined a synagogue, and participates in a women’s Torah study group. In preparing for her own passing, she is guided by the wisdom of Jewish tradition. In a recent conversation, Shoshanna expresses her regret for not having actively brought up her children as Jews, adding: “I think it’s not such a bad lesson to leave them with, after all, to see that their mother found her own authentic way to Judaism in her 50s. Maybe they’ll follow my example and find their own authentic Jewish paths as well.”
Rabbi Nancy Flam is the west coast director of the Jewish Healing Center. The ideas for this article were formulated with Rabbi Amy Eilberg.