Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Behalotcha (Numbers 8-12)The Trebek Effect

Miriam (Moses’ sister) spoke negatively about Moses to Aaron, their brother. As a result, she broke out intzaras, a form of leprosy that existed only in biblical times; it emerged when a person spokelashon hara, negative talk-non beneficial criticism. Moses prayed for Miriam, but the prayer was just five words.Moses cried out to G-d, saying, “Please, G-d, please heal her.”(Numbers12:13)Rashi, quoting the Midrash, notes the prayer’s brevity and explains,So that the Israelites should not say, “For his sister he prays at length, but for our sake he does not pray at length.”There is an interesting edict found in theShulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, regarding visiting a sick person. If you don’t pray for the sick person sometime during your visit, you have not fulfilled the mitzvah. In spiritual, even kabbalistc terms, we can understand why one should pray in the presence of the sick person; we have a tradition that the Divine Presence hovers over the bed of a sick person and therefore the time and place of your prayer is extremely significant.  However, it’s not even mentioned that if you forgot to pray during the visit, you can rectify it when you get home by praying then. After all, G-d is everywhere; even though you missed the optimum time to pray, there should be another opportunity later on. Why isn’t this mentioned? It seems there is some other unique benefit in praying in the presence of the sick person, something that can’t be done later and one of America’s most famous game show hosts lets us know what that might be.In March 2020, Alex Trebek, long time host ofJeopardy, announced he had survived one year of treatment for stage IV pancreatic cancer. In a public statement two months after he had begun treatments, he said that pancreatic cancer has a survival rate of just 3%, but his was in near remission (after two months). Trebek told People magazine that he credited this medical miracle to the prayers of millions of fans, with doctors admitting they (the fans’ prayers) may have played a significant factor in his recovery. Dr. Richard Gunderman, Ph.D., Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine at Indiana University, has even termed this phenomenon the “Trebek effect,” saying that there are emotional benefits to having well-wishers. Here’s an excerpt from Trebek’s interview in People:”I told the doctors; this has to be more than just chemo. I’ve had a couple million people out there who expressed their good thoughts, their positive energy and their prayers. The doctors said it could very well be an important part of this.”Back to us. Being at one’s bedside offering a prayer is an emotionally comforting experience for a sick person; it is a comfort to know that people are praying for them. Neither we nor the sick person have any idea if our prayers will be accepted, but regardless of whatever impact our prayers have before the Almighty, the sick person benefits greatly from the outpouring of love that goes with these prayers.  Perhaps this is why theShulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, doesn’t mention that there’s a “make up” option of praying later if one missed praying in the presence of the sick person. Davening (praying) later misses a key element of the visit – to offer comfort specifically through prayer in the presence of the sick person.With this in mind, we can understand the brevity of Moses’s prayer on behalf of his sister. If he had offered a lengthier prayer, it might have been more effective in the heavenly realms, but Moses also factored in the human impact of his prayer. If, as mentioned above, the entire nation would have been criticizing Moses for the way he dealt with this situation, he might have been suspected of nepotism, which in turn could have had an emotional toll on Miriam, the one for whom he was praying. This thought is especially relevant given that Miriam’s illness was brought about through lashon hara; she had uttered negative comments about Moses. Her tzaras, “leprosy,” was embarrassing enough, she didn’t need people talking about the healing process. Perhaps Moses tailored his prayer to meet Miriam’s emotional needs.Most people don’t have millions of people praying for them, as Alex Trebek did, and the tremendous feeling that accompanies it, but we can do something else. Although you might feel uncomfortable, it’s worth those few short moments of inner turmoil for the emotional support you demonstrate to the one you are visiting. Most of us aren’t doctors, so we are limited in how we can help, and even doctors don’t have the treatment to heal every sickness or even significantly alleviate the patient’s pain in many cases. However, each one of us has the power to help; it doesn’t depend on one’s level of religiosity, scholarship, or anything else. A short prayer-Moses’ was only five words-will have meaning to the one you are visiting. All of us have the potential to give a person the strength to deal with his or her fears, pain, and sickness; let’s make sure we don’t deny something so beautiful to the people we love?   (Sources: Rashi, Numbers 12:13; Rama,Yoreh Dayah, 335:4;MeiriShabbos 12b; Rabbi Joshua Flug)
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 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center