This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, is famous for the Song at the Sea. The Israelites, having survived centuries of oppression, and having witnessed the plagues which struck the Egyptians around them, finally make their way to freedom. Although at first confronted by the Red Sea in front of them while the Egyptian army was in hot pursuit, Moses splits the sea in two to allow for safe passage. As the waters close behind them, they enact their first impulse of liberation: to sing.
The fact of this song makes this Shabbat a special celebration, called Shabbat Shira, the “Sabbath of Song.” Congregations around the world—including our own—will use this as a special opportunity to celebrate the place of song in Jewish tradition.
There is an interesting turn of phrase immediately following the song. Soon after, the euphoria wears off and the Israelites need something to drink. While they find bitter water, God instructs them to toss in a piece of wood, which has the effect of making the water sweet. The people are satiated.
God then reiterates the covenant, and says, “I am Adonai your healer.” (Exodus 15:26).
The “healer” language in this instance is interesting. We often invoke the idea of God as healer in our liturgy—we offer a prayer for healing every time we gather for a service. And while theologically we may struggle with a deity that both creates and removes illness, the fact of praying for healing provides a sense of strength and support for those who are ailing, and a means of demonstrating that support for those who are connected to the patient.
In this case in Exodus, God is not claiming the role of healer in response to a particular disease or ailment. As the Israelites begin their journey, and they are in need of provisions along the way, God says “I am your healer.” The implication being, moving forward, I will take care of you.
An object lesson for us. As we move forward in our journeys, we have the obligation to be the healer, the caregiver, for one another. If one is facing bitter waters, it is our obligation to throw in the block of wood to make it sweet. We may not be able to fully cure that which is troubling our neighbor, but we can do what we can to show support and ease the way.
There are times, though, that we can be true healers, one of the most important obligations we have. To participate in pikuah nefesh—saving a life—is of such paramount importance that we are allowed to override other mitzvot and sacred acts in order to carry it out. (One must eat on Yom Kippur, for example, if his or her health depends on it).
As some of you may know, one of the teens in our congregation of Temple Beth Hatfiloh was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and is currently undergoing treatment in Seattle. He is getting great medical care, and the family—temporarily relocated up north—has much support. Yet the desire to do something is so strong that we are taking action here as well. This Sunday we will be holding a bone marrow donor registry drive to increase to pool of potential bone marrow donors.
While it is unknown at this point whether our friend will need a bone marrow transplant, by holding the registry drive we are doing two things: we are showing him our support by letting him know we are thinking of him in his recovery, and we are creating a situation in which we are increasing the possibility that one of us will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh and save a life.
[The drive, run through Gift of Life, will take place at TBH between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.—before the Superbowl! Eligible donors need to be between the ages of 18 and 45 and in relatively good health. All that is required is a cheek swab! All are welcome!]
A few years ago, when another member of our congregation was fighting leukemia, we held a similar drive. I got my check swabbed then, and didn’t think much of it. A few years after, while standing in Target, I casually checked my email to find out that I was a potential match. I was excited, nervous and emboldened to recognize that I could be in the position to save a life.
A few days later a blood collection kit came in the mail, which I took to a local lab for a blood draw. It was sent off, and then nothing. I didn’t hear anything else. I guess I wasn’t enough of a match once the more extensive testing was done. I was a bit disappointed, but understood.
God tells the Israelites, “I am your healer.” We can tell our neighbors the same thing, “I am your healer.” There are many ways to do this sacred obligation of looking after and caring for our community. And one very special way starts with a cheek swab.