Illness is ill-defined. Sometimes it’s clear when to start praying for someone who is ill: Cancer. Surgery. Heart Attack. Stroke. Often it’s not.
Should we pray for healing when someone has a cold? What about for a “routine surgery” (such a phrase feels oxymoronic)? What about the flu? Or a broken arm? Or chronic depression? Or diabetes? Should praying for someone be reserved for when life is in imminent danger? Or should we continue to pray for those who struggle with chronic, lifelong illnesses? Can a person be in our prayers for “too long?” What would that mean?
I am grateful these days to carry a different question with me: When do you stop including someone’s name in your prayers for healing? Or, more specifically, should I stop including Jennifer’s name in my prayers for healing? Jen is, thankfully, done with chemo, done with radiation. Her strength is returning. Her hair is growing. She is resuming a regular schedule. Except. Except she still has a port. Except every three weeks until October, she will receive infusions. Except labs and tests. Except, like every cancer patient, we carry the fear of cancer’s return. Do I stop praying now that the toughest part is done? Do I keep praying for healing even though the uncertainty persists and some of these scars are now life’s new normal?
Jewish law defines so many things. How much wine must be drunk in each of the four cups on Passover? (3 ounces). How many ounces of matzah must one eat on Passover night? (2.6 ounces for Motzi-Matza, 1.3 ounces for Korech, and 2.6 more ounces for Afikomen.) How long does one say kaddish for a parent? 11 months. Judaism expresses so much through measurement in an effort to understand when we have – and have not – fulfilled God’s commandments. I’ve yet to find an answer to the question, “Exactly when do you stop including someone’s name in your prayers for healing?”
Someone suggested, “Ask the person if s/he still wants you to pray for him/her.” But nobody can make it alone. We are not always our own best judge. The Talmud (Berachot 5a) relates the following story:
Rabbi Johanan once fell ill and Rabbi Hanina went in to visit him. He said to him: “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” He replied: “Neither they nor their reward.” He said to him: “Give me your hand.” He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why could not Rabbi Johanan raise himself? — They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.
Sometimes a person may insist, “I’m fine now,” when they are not. While we should never publicly disclose someone’s illness against their will, does that mean that if we continue to pray privately for someone, we are committing a sin? Is it ethical to pray for people privately even if they don’t want us to?
Every three weeks – at least – I say Jen’s name in my personal prayers for healing. I pray the treatment should go smoothly. I pray her healing should continue. But at a synagogue staff meeting after Passover, I explained to the staff that we feel like Jen is out of the woods. I announced we could take her name off “the list.” Yet Gladys, the matriarch of our synagogue community, continues to say Jen’s name on Shabbat. Even though Jen is officially "off the list," when Gladys says her name, I’m grateful that Jen remains in her heart and the heart of so many others. I’m grateful for the love we have experienced the past nine months from a supportive community of family and friends and I’m okay that it’s hard to tell exactly when all this will be over. The fuzziness of this period will continue for a while and I’m okay with it. Because while it is true - illness is ill-defined – it is also true – so is love.