May 4, 2002
At the conclusion of the haftarah, Jeremiah offers this prayer to God: “Heal me, O Lord, and let me be healed, save me and let me be saved for You are my glory.” (Jeremiah 17:14) This prayer is a reaction to Jeremiah’s pain. His pain was not physical. Instead it was a reflection of the harsh message he was burdened to carry. According to Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator, it was a response to what Jeremiah prophesied in a previous chapter: “Why is my pain perpetual and my wound incurable so that it refuseth to be healed? Will You [God] be unto me a deceitful brook, as water that fails?” (Ibid. 15:18) In this verse, Jeremiah expresses his angst over his difficult position as a prophet.
Jeremiah’s prayer, then, is not for a physical cure but for a feeling of God’s redemptive hand. Moreover, it is the prayer of an individual, the prophet Jeremiah, expressing his own needs before God.
This individual prayer is the basis for the eighth blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh, the weekday Amidah. In this blessing we beseech God to bring heeling to the sick of the community: “Heal us, God, and we will be heeled. Save us and we will be saved, for You are our glory.” The rabbis have turned Jeremiah’s individual prayer into a communal prayer. This transformation, however, presents a problem, since the rabbis posited that Biblical verses should not be altered: “A verse written in the singular should not be transformed into the plural; a plural verse should not be transformed into the singular” (Tosefta Megillah 3:41 – London Manuscript – see Lieberman, Tosefta Kipeshuta)
Rabbi David Abudraham, the 14th century Spanish liturgical commentator, offered a number of solutions to this question: “According to Rabbi Meir Halevi Abulafia, the 12th century Spanish Talmudist, this law only refers to the translation of Biblical verses, but when the use is for prayer it is permitted to change verses as necessary. Rabbenu Yonah, the great 13th century Spanish Talmudist and moralist, limited the application of the law from the Tosefta only to situations where the verse is quoted within its literary context, but where the verse is removed from its context for the purpose of prayer, changes are permissible.” (adapted from Abudraham Hashalem, Wertheimer edition, p. 99)
The sages realized the impact of the words of Jeremiah’s individual prayer and used them as a means for expressing the concerns of the entire community. The Jewish tradition teaches us through this process to look beyond our individual concerns and to pay attention to those around us. This is a crucial element of Jewish prayer and the basis of true religiosity. It is also an essential lesson for modern people.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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