I’ve spent most of my week thinking about just two words from the Torah, verapo verapei, ‘be sure to heal.’ They’re accompanied in my mind by sentences from Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking – Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic:
‘There is almost no situation that cannot be made better by someone reaching out, with love and tenderness…’
That’s what she’s seen among nurses, volunteers, doctors, drivers, despite the unrelenting daily pressures they face month upon month:
‘I fear…the public is unaware of how exhausted, stunned – shell-shocked even – many NHS staff and care workers remain.’
One has only to read the papers, pretty much any day, to understand how true both these sentences are. I therefore write with admiration, concern, respect, and also shame at recognising from the side-lines what is being done for us by so many whom we can never adequately appreciate or repay.
The Torah’s words call out in three distinct ways:
First, ‘be sure to heal’ requires anyone who’s injured others to pay for their care. Rabbinic tradition takes this to include medical costs, time off work, loss of future earnings, pain and humiliation. In all but the nastiest of cases no one has deliberately made someone else get Covid. So one could say that no one in particular has the duty to heal.
It’s just this which makes the NHS so profoundly moral, so right. Society, we, collectively take responsibility for our injured and our ill. We aren’t, and can’t all be, nurses or doctors. But we can, and must, enable them to care. Underfunding, (by more than one political party), shortages of personnel, lack of beds, especially in ITU: this is not what the Torah teaches when it says, ‘be sure to heal’. Nor does it mean that so many on whom we are so dependent should remain so badly paid.
Second, verapo verapei is a double verb, ‘heal, heal;’ it’s the most emphatic form Hebrew has. Rabbinic tradition often ascribes to each word of such doublings its own specific meaning. This leads me to almost everything I’m reading and hearing about those on the front line now. They’re striving to heal and heal.
They’re trying to use the best knowledge, subtlest skill, most careful monitoring and the latest almost up-to-the-minute research to save lives, care and, if possible, cure. Yet many are giving something else too: intuition, imagination, love.
Rachel Clarke describes a lady who knits tiny hearts and gives them to the hospital. Mandi, a nurse, knows exactly what to do with them. She puts them in pairs: one she conveys to an anxious family, the other she puts by their loved one’s bed. Since the family can’t visit, she shows them that heart via video:
In this new hospital world of absence and barriers, the hearts speak of love, of kindness and compassion…
This is a double devotion: skill and soul at once.
Third, since they’re written without vowels, the Torah’s words can be pronounced in different ways. Verapo verapei can be (mis-) read as verofei verapei. It’s a sleight of hand Hasidic teachers often practise. Taken this way, the words mean ‘the healer shall be healed.’
A picture in today’s Guardian shows a doctor who’s volunteered to work in ITU. She’s watching the birds, a tiny moment of relief. What will bring restoration to those who’ve struggled so hard to save lives, yet attended on much dying? Who heals the healers?
Some healing is beyond human capacity. The Torah says, ‘I am God, your healer.’ To many, healing may only come slowly, perhaps through nature and music, both sacred and soothing – if only they get time to breathe them in.
But healing must also come from us, at the very least through acknowledgement and appreciation. Rachel Remen, whose life is devoted to caring for carers, writes that ‘medicine is as close to love as it is to science.’ Some of that love needs to come from each of us.