Faith on a Stretcher Rabbi Russ Resnick
Healing is a deep and universal human need, and praying for the sick and afflicted has always been part of my ministry as a rabbi and teacher—never more so than in recent years, with the Covid pandemic and a good number of friends and colleagues beginning to decline in health and vitality. In the midst of this we’ve seen some remarkable answers to prayer, enough to keep me encouraged, although we’ve also seen some great losses as well.
The Scriptures provide numerous verses that can fuel our prayers for healing, and one of my favorites appears in this week’s parasha: Ani Adonai rofecha—“I am Adonai who heals you” (Exod 15:26). Simple words, but they provide profound insights into the gift of healing and how to gain hold of it.
In context the passage doesn’t appear to be talking about the sort of healing I often pray for, recovery from physical or emotional/psychological injury or disease. Here, it’s part of nature, the waters of Marah, in need of healing, because they’re bitter and undrinkable, which leaves the Israelites in a desperate condition just days after they escaped from Egypt. Hashem shows Moses a tree; Moses casts it into the water; and voila!—the waters become sweet. Hashem tells the Israelites,
If you diligently listen to the voice of Adonai your God, do what is right in His eyes, pay attention to His mitzvot, and keep all His decrees, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians. For I am Adonai who heals you. (Exod 15:26 TLV)
At first hearing, these words seem to diminish the gift of healing, by making it contingent upon doing right, paying attention to the mitzvot, and keeping all Hashem’s decrees. But before we consider this apparent limitation of God’s healing, let’s ponder two lessons here that can help us get hold of healing today:
Healing is needed not just in our individual bodies and minds, but also at times in our environment.
God’s creation is awesome and magnificent, but deeply damaged through the rebellion of the image-bearers God assigned to have dominion over it, namely us. We live in a broken world, a world of danger and disorder, but God’s healing power is at work within it.
This healing power is inherent to God’s character, or in biblical language, to his name—“I am Adonai who heals you.”
Healing is not another deed that God does, but an aspect of who he is, so that when Hashem shows up in Israel as the man Yeshua of Natzeret, he immediately begins healing the people who come to him from all around (for example, Mark 1:32–34, 45; 3:9–10; 6:54–56).
So, we learn in our parasha that healing is not limited to diagnosable medical conditions, but is far more expansive, and that healing is an aspect of who God is, not just a kind deed he does now and then.
But questions remain—is healing as dependent on our good behavior as Exodus 15:26 seems to say? And what does Hashem mean when he talks about the diseases he put on the Egyptians? The language here reflects the reality of covenant, which God has already made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and is about to extend to all the Israelites (Exod 24:6–8; 34:10–28). Covenant-making was part of the ancient world of the Near East and the terms of covenant were familiar. What’s unique—and amazing—here is a covenant that the one true God extends to unworthy humans. This is an unconditional act of hesed or grace, and it entails benefits of hesed, including healing. At the same time, this unconditional, hesed-driven covenant includes stipulations. This brings us to another lesson in healing from this week’s parasha:
To receive the fullness of covenant benefits, including healing, the Israelites must stay in right relationship with Hashem.
In contrast, God has put diseases upon the Egyptians because the Egyptians, who live in the same broken world as the rest of humankind, are serving false gods who have no healing power at all. The Israelites have been brought into a right relationship with the one true God through his hesed, and they reap the benefits of that relationship through embracing his ways and serving him.
This seems like a straightforward reading of Exodus 15:26, but it worries me. It still sounds like we have to earn healing, and that if we remain sick or afflicted it’s our own fault. I don’t have the space for a whole discourse on this tough question, but an incident during Yeshua’s healing ministry sheds much light on it.
In Mark chapter two, Yeshua has returned to his home base in Capernaum after preaching all over Galilee, healing the sick and driving out demons. The house he’s staying in is soon thronged by crowds seeking to hear and see him, including four men carrying their paralyzed friend on a stretcher. They can’t get through the crowd to get close to Yeshua, but they don’t give up. A house like this would normally have a ladder or staircase to access its flat roof, and somehow the four comrades get their paralyzed friend up there. Then they put the stretcher down and dig through the layers of reeds and clay and branches resting on the roof beams. It’s a testimony to the noise level and intensity of the scene in the house that no one pays attention to what’s going on overhead until the friends break through and lower the stretcher down to Yeshua’s feet. Mark says that Yeshua saw their faith (2:5).
In Exodus 15, likewise our ancestors were to have faith you could see, by stepping out to cross the sea on dry ground, or by stopping their complaints against Hashem and his servant Moses. The admonition “do what is right in Hashem’s eyes” comes in the context of their complaining and unbelief—“Stop kvetching and cooperate with me!” Likewise, the friends in Mark didn’t just trust that Yeshua could heal; they did whatever it took to access his healing power—and that’s the trust/faith that Yeshua saw, faith-in-action.
Evidently, however, the paralyzed man doesn’t actually deserve healing because the first thing Yeshua says to him is “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Apparently he didn’t measure up. He wasn’t paying attention to the mitzvot and keeping all the decrees. Indeed, we might take his paralyzed state as a symbol of our spiritual condition, laid out on a stretcher and hoping only in God’s intervention—faith on a stretcher—which brings us to our fourth lesson:
4. Messiah Yeshua extends his healing gift to the unworthy and undeserving, if only they trust in him. The stipulations of Torah-obedience outlined in Exodus 15:26 are expressions of faith-in-action. And even when we fall short, Yeshua looks directly at the trust itself and responds with his healing touch.
So here’s a four-point takeaway from this week’s parasha:
We live in a broken world, a world of danger and disorder, but God’s healing power is at work within it.
This healing power is part of who God is, and it’s always near as he dwells among us.
We remain in a position to receive his healing touch as we keep our lives in alignment with his ways.
And even when we fall short, he will still see our trust and respond in compassion.
We may find ourselves paralyzed, laid out on a stretcher, but we can at least exercise enough trust to let ourselves be lowered down to Yeshua’s feet—and from there he reaches out to touch us.