Bless Me Rabbi!

          When I was a Student Chaplain at Belleview Hospital in New York City, I’ll never forget going into a patient’s room to see how they’re doing. The patient was agitated and in pain. Her reply was “Bless me rabbi!” As a rabbinical student I had never learned how to do spontaneous prayer. I didn’t know what to say and, in the end, I said something similar to our Mi Sheberach for the ill. The patient closed her eyes and immediately seemed to feel comfort and ease. Since that encounter, I have learned how to do personalized, spontaneous prayer.

          Often Jews are uncomfortable with spontaneous prayer from the heart. We rely on the words 3030in our Siddurim, our prayerbooks. Yet spontaneous prayer is part and parcel of our tradition. Isaac’s meditating in the field[1] is an act of spontaneous prayer. Moses saying אל נא רפא נא לה “Please God heal her please!”[2] regarding Miriam’s leprosy is as well. In Parshat Shemini, we read “Aaron lifted his hands towards the people and blessed them.”[3] We don’t know what Aaron said or how he said it, but we know the result. The presence of God appeared before everyone, fire came forth and God consumed the sacrifice on the altar. Aaron’s blessing Israel results in the Divine Presence emanating directly before the people.

          There have been times in my career where I have felt inadequate to the task at hand. One of them is when I have been asked to bless people. It likely has to do with my father being a doctor and knowing that he has saved peoples’ lives. In comparison, what does a rabbi do: save their souls? Over time, however, I have learned that we should never underestimate the power of a heartfelt prayer. There have been studies that when people know they are being prayed for, all the more so when they are being prayed for in person, they fare better. Is this a placebo effect or is this part of something beyond human comprehension? We can understand principles of physics, but metaphysics is more challenging to know and the exact spiritual connection between people is perhaps the most difficult of all.

There is a power to prayer. When we pray for someone on the Mi Sheberach List with all our heart and all our soul, we feel a connection to him/her that is profound. Similarly, when in the moment we utter a prayer from the heart, we feel something deep. That is what prayer is all about עבודה שבלב, the worship of the heart.

The next time someone asks you to bless them or to pray for them, recognize that we have a strong basis for it in our tradition, including in Parshat Shemini when Aaron lifts his hands and blesses Israel. You don’t need a High Priest or a Rabbi: each of us is independently a spiritual agent who can connect with others through invoking heartfelt prayers asking the Holy One to bring a complete healing of body, mind, and spirit. In addition to blessing one another, we can bless God through the beautiful words of the Hallelujah.


[1] Genesis 24:63

[2] Numbers 12:13

[3] Leviticus 9:22

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