Calligraphy by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan reading 'El na refa na la,' a line from this week's Torah portion.
Calligraphy by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan reading 'El na refa na la,' a line from this week's Torah portion.

This soothing healing prayer puts care and comfort into the world

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Beha’alotcha
Numbers 8:1-12:16


The student watched the Rabbi of Chelm write out Hebrew letters on a small piece of parchment — just 11 letters, just five syllables, just five words. The rabbi wrote them out several times, each time singing softly, “El na, refa na la.”

Then the rabbi stopped.

“What are you writing this time?”

“It’s from this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, Numbers 12:13. When Moses’ sister Miriam is stricken with tzara’at, a skin blanch, Moses prays a short one-line healing prayer: ‘El na, refa na la — God, pray, heal her, pray.’”

“That’s really short.”

“Rashi teaches that it’s short so that the Israelites would not say, ‘His sister is in distress and he is standing and going on and on in prayer!’”

“That makes sense. But why doesn’t he say her name?”

“The Torah does not say. But the Talmud learns from Moses our teacher, Berakhot 34a, that one does not have to say the ill person’s name when praying for them. And in Ta’anit 23b, there is a story that one rabbi asked another rabbi to pray for his wife, and the first rabbi asked, ‘What is her name?’ The Maharil (Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin) teaches that only when in the presence of the sick person may the name of the sick person be omitted. Otherwise, the name should be mentioned. Working backward, Moses was next to Miriam when he said, ‘God, pray, heal her, pray.’”

“That must have been of comfort to her. Did that cure her?”

The Rabbi of Chelm responded: Let me tell you a story. Long ago, Chelm only had one doctor, and the doctor was making his monthly rounds at the edge of Chelm where the poorer citizens lived. He did this as tzedakah, going house to house, a one-person free clinic. He saw a young woman sweeping the front steps of an old house and asked if there was anyone in need inside.

“Yes, bless you, my grandmother is ailing. She is in the loft above the house.” The doctor climbed the steep stairs to the loft and indeed found an elderly woman, tucked into bed. She had labored breathing and a weak pulse, but she looked at the doctor kindly. He made a quick examination. Going down the stairs, he whispered, “El na, refa na la — please, God, heal her.”

Outside he took the granddaughter aside and quietly pressed some money into her hands. “This is for her burial, there is nothing I can do.”

The next month found him on the same street, and to his amazement, there was the grandmother sweeping the front steps of the same old house. He rushed inside and found the granddaughter.

“It’s an answered prayer!” the doctor said.

“Maybe,” replied the young woman. “I may be from Chelm, but I’m smart. I took your money, left Chelm, and came back with a better doctor.”

“That’s how we came to have two doctors?” the student asked the Rabbi of Chelm. “Huh. Then what cured Miriam?”

“The prayer provided comfort and put into the world love and care,” the rabbi answered. “Maybe it even helped Moses and his brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, come to peace with each other, as they had been arguing. However, Numbers 12:14 says that Miriam went into isolation for seven days. The whole camp waited for the skin blanch to heal, and in time, it did.”

“What are you going to do with the words you have lettered?”

“Put them in a little envelope to someone who is ill. In the synagogue we will say their name as part of the Mishebeirach for healing.”

“It gets very quiet when the service leader asks for names.”

“The conclusion of the Mishebeirach for healing is quite powerful: ‘May The One send him/her, speedily, a complete healing — healing of the soul and healing of the body — along with all the ill, among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay, and let us all say:  Amen!’ And we do.”

“And you still write and chant, ‘El na, refa na la’?”

“It soothes me. It focuses me. Eleven letters, five syllables, five words. You should try it.”

“What if the person doesn’t get better?”

The Rabbi of Chelm smiled, “Someone will.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].