I’ve never been a believer in angels, at least not of the winged variety. But I’ve come to love the bedtime prayer about the four archangels:
At my right hand is Micha’el (whose name means ‘Who is like God’)
At my left hand is Gavri’el (God is my strength)
Before me is Uriel, (God is my light)
Behind me is Repha’el, (God will bring healing)
And over my head is Shechinat El, the presence of God
I feel safer when I say those words.
Healing is on all our minds. Yesterday at 8.00pm I was about to lead Shiva prayers for a family in mourning when we heard the cheering begin for the NHS. We agreed a pause and went to our doors or windows to join in. I include in my deep appreciation all those in the front lines of health and social work; the staff of every care home; everyone ensuring there’s food for all of us, especially the homeless, the most isolated and refugees; those making protective gowns and visors; also Anthony, the kind and thoughtful sexton at our cemetery, and his staff, for they too take risks to bury our dead with dignity and help our struggling hearts begin to heal. I include the musicians, storytellers, teachers and entertainers who lift our spirits, and, in thankfulness to nature, the birds in the garden who sing to us at dawn. They too are part of Repha’el’s entourage, God’s healing team.
The Torah this week treats of the disease translated as ‘leprosy’; whatever its precise nature, it was contagious and greatly feared. The priests had the critical role: they had to decide who had the symptoms, whether they were progressive or in remission, who needed to be quarantined, who put into isolation outside the camp and who could safely be allowed back home. I used to feel negative about those priests. They were the ones who sent people off into the loneliness beyond. I don’t think that way anymore.
The priest’s primary role was to officiate in the sanctuary, offering the korbanot, the sacrifices to God. I don’t believe in animal sacrifice and I’m a passionate vegetarian. But that’s not the relevant point. The key term here is korban, from the root meaning ‘near’: the priests are those who bring near. Their aim is to bring the people close to God and the sick back to their families. They represent ministry in its most profound sense of care for the whole person. I’ve met lots of their contemporary incarnations, on hospital wards, in shops, at the front door picking up bags for foodbanks.
Healing in the Bible isn’t just about bodily wellness, essential as that is, (and the Torah insists that ‘we pay great heed to our health’ and that of those around us.) It’s about relationships. Meaning no. 2, says the classic Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon of Biblical Hebrew, is healing the hurts of the nation. Meaning no. 3 is healing individual distress. ‘Often involving forgiveness,’ the editors note.
Despite, or rather as an oblique result of, the corona virus, society has begun to travel a path of healing. It’s expressed in a deeper awareness of each other and our neighbours, in the understanding that we are in this together and therefore need to stand together, and that we are all profoundly indebted to the contributions of people we may previously have ignored or taken for granted.
Our world, too, has glimpsed a further road of healing we must travel: the healing of the bond between humankind and nature. Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Through Hazon, ‘the Jewish Lab for Sustainability,’ I participated with hundreds of leaders and activists, musicians, children and even dancing baby goats in a great worldwide call to heed and heal the earth. There’s a new humility, a deeper appreciation that the trees, fields, even insects are our healers and that we can’t live without their ministrations.
Malachi prophesied that one future day the dawn will be lit by the sun of righteousness with healing on its wings. We all have power to bring that day a little bit nearer. May we use it, and may God’s healing surround us and protect us.