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In Sickness and in Health

For the past 10 days, I’ve been sick. After two trips to urgent care, one to the ER, two visits with the regular doctor and even a brain scan, they think I have Viral Meningitis (but aren’t yet sure). Whatever the name of this illness, it’s not fun. With daily fevers and excruciating headaches, I’ve been completely incapacitated. My folks and in-laws are taking turns watching the kids when my husband’s at work because I’m out of commission.

This week’s Torah portion couldn’t be more apropos to my current condition. The parsha recounts how Miriam became ill with Tzara’at, a mysterious disease which turned her skin “white as snow,” during the people’s desert trek towards the Promised Land. Her brother Moses prayed on her behalf a short, poignant prayer: “El na refa na la” (“God please heal her.”) The text recounts that the whole community stopped their journey and waited for seven days for Miriam to recover before traveling again.

Reading this passage while being sick, I wonder whether Miriam was changed by these events. The name of the portion is Beha’alot’kha — it means “when you raise up” (and refers to lighting the candles of the menorah.) When Miriam finally arose from her illness and recovered, I wonder whether her life got back to normal or was different somehow — having faced her vulnerability and endured.

Unfortunately, the Torah doesn’t say. The text simply states that the people subsequently resumed their journey. The next time Miriam is mentioned is when she dies (eight chapters later). The Torah’s silence invites speculation. Miriam’s illness was immediately preceded by her and Aaron speaking about Moses and his “Cushite wife.” Perhaps her subsequent silence demonstrates that she had a new appreciation for the power of words. I imagine that Miriam must have been moved by the community waiting for her and by her brother’s prayer. When you’re sick, acts of kindness mean so much. I was so grateful this week for my step-mother’s chicken soup, my mother in law’s chicken and for the phone calls from family and friends.

What surprised me is how being sick immediately and completely changes your outlook. Thankfully, I’ve been healthy most of my life and I didn’t realize how much I take my health for granted. But when health is taken away, you realize it’s all that matters. Suddenly my other worries, plans and goals slipped away, and my sole desire is to be healthy enough to care for my family and be with my loved ones.

In the grand scheme of things, my condition is relatively minor. At the ER, I saw a women sobbing uncontrollably because her daughter had been shot. I saw a man with a metal neck-brace which seemed only tentatively holding his head on to his body. There’s nothing like a trip to the ER to snap life back into focus and make you stop “sweating the small stuff”!

I honestly don’t know how Miriam was affected by her illness. As for me, I hope that this virus leaves my body as soon as possible — and I hope that the appreciation it’s given me stays a lifetime.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.

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