El na r’fa na lah. - Please God, heal her.
In Numbers chapter 12, Miriam harshly criticizes her brother Moses for marrying a Kushite woman. Following that, she is quickly punished. As the Torah tells us, Miriam became leprous, white as snow.
Almost immediately, Moses cries five words to God, El na r’fa na lah. - Please God, heal her. These 5 words, El na r’fa na lah, are the only words uttered by Moses in this Torah portion. Each of these short words ends in a vowel, as if Moses is crying out, shouting to God with all of his strength. Saying the words, you can almost feel the deep longing of Moses’ words.
This brief incident helps teach us a few things about healing and prayer.
God is a healer.
Throughout the Bible, God provides comfort and strength. Following Abraham’s undoubtedly painful circumcision at 99 years old, God sends him three visiting angels. When Hagar and Ishmael are cast out of Abraham and Sara’s home, God comforts them with reassurance. God protects Isaac as he is about to be sacrificed. Throughout the Ten Plagues in Egypt, God protects the Israelites from the harmful effects of the various punishments that are experienced by Pharaoh and the Egyptians, culminating most prominently in the angel of death “passing over” the Israelite homes.
When Miriam is sick, Moses immediately prays to God, because the God of our Torah has the power to heal.
Thinking about the incident of Miriam’s leprosy, It’s clear that Miriam was struck with a painful, physical ailment. But the cause of that ailment was not a physical condition, but rather her scornful words to her brother. Her words mirror an emotional pain, a spiritual pain. This leads to our second lesson about healing.
Healing is not only physical.
Throughout the Torah, our forefathers and foremothers experienced emotional and spiritual pain. Loneliness, husbands and wives seeking love, the inability to conceive children, the fear of being a leader … all of our ancestors needed spiritual healing, mental fortitude, and emotional maturity.
There are eleven letters in these 5 words, El na r’fa na lah. When Moses first meets God, Moses asks what God is called. God tells him, ehyeh asher ehyeh, I will be who I will be. This three-word Hebrew response also has eleven letters.
This bit of wordplay helps link the concept of healing with transition and growth … change. We need healing when a relationship ends. We need healing when we face the anxiety of leaving a job. We need healing when pain and tragedy strikes. This healing helps to transform us into the people that we will become. Healing is growth. And as such, we all need healing. To be who we will be, each of us needs healing and strength.
There’s one other lesson that can be gleaned from Moses’ exhortation on behalf of his sister. And it is perhaps our most important lesson.
We have a responsibility to ensure the healing of those we love, including ourselves.
God only heals Miriam after Moses requests for God to do so. Thinking about our holiday of Pesach, God frees the Israelites only after the Israelites cry out to God. This teaches us that God requires us to pray, and ask for the healing that we need.
Prayer is more than the Hebrew scripture that we recite in synagogue. That being said, it is often our liturgy that helps turn our words of prayer to actions of healing. When we call someone after hearing their name on the Mi sheberach list, that is a kind of prayer. When we visit someone in the hospital, that is a prayer. When we gently request that someone seek help from a therapist, that too is prayer. Moses’ prayer to God reminds us that we are partners with God in the healing of the sick. We are not meant only to pray to God. We are commanded to work alongside of God.
In a moment, we will sing Go Down Moses. When God tells Moses to go to Egypt, Moses balks. Moses doesn’t trust himself. At first, Moses doesn’t even trust God. But God gives Moses the strength - the healing - that he needs, and Moses transforms into our teacher and leader.
On this last day of Pesach, Go Down Moses reminds us that we need God to strengthen us and that we need each other so that we can find the courage and inspiration to continue to transform, to become what we will become, to heal others, and to heal ourselves.