April 8, 2010 Week 334, Day 4 24 Nisan 5770

Lisa Levine

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Recently, while celebrating Shabbat at Beit Shalom, the Conservative Synagogue in Havana, Cuba, I was honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. After the Aliyah I moved around the reading table and was asked for my Hebrew name. A Mi Shebeirach was then chanted on my behalf, praying for my well being. After the sixth Aliyah had been chanted, a Mi Shebeirach was recited for a member of the community who was ill and his name inserted into a different healing version of the Mi Shebeirach  This placement  of the Mi Shebeirach after each Aliyah while the Torah is on the reading table is customary in most Orthodox  and Conservative synagogues today.

Mi Shebeirach means “May the One Who Blessed” and names our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the person to be blessed by their Hebrew name, a petition to protect the named person from all agony and anguish from afflictions and disease and ends with a blessing for all their efforts and success amid the people of Israel.

The traditional Mi Shebeirach for healing did not appear in any Reform prayer book until the recently published Mishkan T’filah. The practice was eliminated from our liturgy as the rationalist founders of Reform rejected some of the more miraculous rubrics of prayer they deemed unnecessary to our communal worship experience.  

Debbie Friedman changed all that in 1988 with her now legendary rendition of the Mi Shebeirach prayer which grew out of the URJ camping experience, and which has become the cornerstone of the healing and renewal movement in the decades since.  Debbie’s gorgeous major mode melody not only incorporates English lyrics, which capture the heart and stir one to tears, but the sentiments of blessing our Avoteinu and Imoteinu, both our fathers and our mothers, opened the doors to newer compositions which were able to reinterpret the ancient text in similar ways. The melody inspired the permanent addition of this prayer to Reform liturgy. The prayer is generally sung either before or after the silent prayer or during the Torah service.

Debbie shares her insights about the prayer:  “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.”  Listen

My own version of the Mi Shebeirach was written out of tragedy –  the sudden death of a dear colleague and friend – Cantor Stuart Pittle. 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”. Listen

While the Mi Shebeirach prayers within the Torah service of Mishkan T’filah on page 370 & 371 are prayers for wellbeing and for healing, respectively, a Mi Shebeirach prayer is often sung in other places within Reform lifecycle observances today.  Whether at a Bar Mitzvah, brit milah, baby naming, wedding or aufruf, new versions have continued to be appropriate expressions of  blessing. Cantor Robbie Solomon has composed a gorgeous setting of the Mi Shebeirach designed to be flexible and which has interchangeable verses for different occasions—celebration, travel, healing, etc. Framed on each end in a classical choral style with an interesting mix of major and minor modes in between, the sweeping melody provides a perfect balance for any occasion. The recurring text, “May you always be sheltered in the arms of love” expresses a wide range of sentiment and emotion that touches the heart and lifts the spirit.   Listen

The newer settings of the Mi Shebeirach prayer have set a wide range for stylistic interpretation. Cantor Erik Contzius set the beginning of the healing text ("Mi shebeirach avoteinu...") in the major mode as per tradition, then turned it to the familiar minor again, as per tradition. The chorus for the congregation ("El na r'fa na la") is based directly on Ellenstein's "Bonei v'rakhamav Y'rushalayim" to illustrate how nusach, or traditional modes and mi-sinai tunes, can meld into a memorable prayer for congregational singing. Listen

The text El Na R’Fa Na La,  taken from the story of Moses when he heard his sister Miriam was ill, has become interchangeable with the Mi Shebeirach and has been set by a number of contemporary Jewish composers including Rick Recht..  The words and melody came into Rick’s head when, while in Hawaii, he witnessed a diver drowning.  He repeated the melody over and over to pray that the person would survive.  Later, Rick himself came close to drowning and he finished writing the song from his intense near death experience. The beautiful lyrical setting begins with a chorus of “El na r’fa na la r’fuah sh’leima…please heal this soul”…then continues, “with faith and love together we bring hope and healing to those in need.”  This setting brings to us a calming, spiritual message of healing for all God’s creations. Listen

The addition of the Mi Shebeirach prayer back into Reform liturgy reaffirms our need to acknowledge that as a community, our prayers have the power to heal.  We call upon our ancient traditions for a stable foundation just as we depend on Reform creative liturgy and composers to provide us with a wide palette of moving words and melodies.  These are the expressions of our deep and profound belief in the ability of prayer to unite us and fill us with Divine Spirit, strength and hope.

Cantor Lisa Levine serves as Cantor of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase MD.
Her book "Yoga Shalom" will be published by URJ Press next year.


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