The Hidden Link Between Refa'einu and the Exodus

Refa'einu: Prayer, Sefirah and Healing from Trauma


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Refa’einu is a plea for health found in the Shmoneh Esrei prayer. As the world continues to battle COVID-19, what better text to turn to for spiritual guidance. But when you take a close look at this prayer, something remarkable emerges. Refa’einu has an unexpected connection to Sefirat HaOmer, the period on our calendar that marks the time between the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah. 

Could understanding the deeper meaning of the Omer somehow help us understand Refa’einu? Could this connection help us learn to relate to God as our healer? 

Join Rabbi Fohrman and Immanuel Shalev, as they take a deep dive into Refa’einu and its Torah references, to shed light on what it means to truly heal--emotionally and spiritually. In this first episode of the series, Rabbi Fohrman and Imu begin their journey by looking closely at the language of Refa’einu. It turns out, this prayer is hinting at an event from the Exodus story. But it’s not one of the obvious contenders, like the plagues, or the splitting of the sea. It’s the strange story of the bitter waters the Israelites came to shortly after entering the desert, and how God turned these waters sweet for them. What does this have to do with Refa’einu? Listen to find out. 

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Transcript

Imu Shalev: Welcome, dear listener. I am Imu Shalev — 

Rabbi Fohrman: — and I'm David Fohrman. 

Imu: So, as a way of kicking things off, I want to talk about what this podcast is all about. I can assure you, it’s pretty relevant these days. This series is about sefirat ha’omer, the strange period of counting between Passover and Shavuot. But it’s also about what we’re all trying to cope with these days: covid-19, the novel coronavirus. Specifically, the question of how we can cope, spiritually, with this crisis: understanding faith, and prayer.

So, you’re skeptical, right? I would be. Sefirat Ha’omer and coronavirus seem pretty far apart - how have they come all together in one series? What, did you guys just want some clickbait - a few buzzwords? Not at all. It sorta just happened to us, in what felt, I don’t know, serendipitous. Here’s what happened... 

Several months ago, back in January, Ami Silver, a writer and researcher here at Aleph Beta, had come up with a fascinating theory about the middle blessings of Shmoneh Esrei. And he and Rabbi Fohrman were learning together, and recording those sessions, and they were pretty amazing. They were going through the amidah, blessing by blessing, and in the first week of March, they were up to the blessing of Refa'einu, about healing.

And now. It’s the first week of May, and we are two months into the new reality that coronavirus has brought us, and healing, and sickness, and thinking about the health of ourselves and our loved ones, has taken on a whole new meaning in our lives.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, it was really kind of weird. Really, like, the last week, before that normal kind of existence sort of crashed and burned and we all just kind of self-isolated, lo and behold, the blessing that we'd been up to was Refa'einu. Without any thought that healing would be something that would be anything more than the mundane kind of yes, God, You're our healer, well-visit to the doctor kind of thing. 

Imu: And so then, Rabbi Fohrman began to think more about Refa'einu, about sickness, and relating to God as a healer - and he began to call me and talk out some of the material, and lo and behold, it expanded. Not only was the confluence of coronavirus and Refa'einu coincidence too strong to ignore, the material we were working on just happened to be the texts describing the journey of Israel in the desert as they left Egypt, the 49 days from the Exodus to the foot of Mt. Sinai. In other words, the stuff we were learning about ended up illuminating the themes of Sefirat Ha’Omer.  And so, we decided to put all of this together - Refa'einu, Shmoneh Esrei, Sefirat Haomer, and coronavirus, and record a series of conversations about all of this. And that's exactly what we're doing now. So, with all that having been said, I'm really eager to actually get into it with you, Rabbi Fohrman.

Rabbi Fohrman: Sure, I am too. And I guess, to give a bit of a road map for our listeners, we'll be studying, actually, a bunch of different texts, stuff that you never would have thought. But the core is actually gonna be the stories that immediately follow the Exodus, which is really the period we're in right now, right? And the texts we're gonna be looking at are those texts in the Torah, the texts that begin with the splitting of the sea and take us on our journey towards Sinai. That's the center of what we're looking at. And we'll look at other ancillary texts as they help enrich that picture.

Imu: Phenomenal. So, just before we begin — most of this material here is Rabbi Fohrman's; I helped him develop some of it. Rabbi Fohrman's gonna be pilot, I'll play co-pilot. So, with that, Captain, how would you like to begin?

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay, great. So essentially, what happened was as Ami and I were going through these various blessings, we found something fascinating — at least something that I found fascinating — which was the rabbis, as they put together these texts, these prayers, they weren't just using language that came out of their heads. They were actually using our history as a kind of guide. It turns out that in blessing after blessing, they seem to be referring to events that took place in the Chumash. In other words, what the rabbis were doing was grounding our prayer in our history.

And as an example of that, and I think a good way of leading into what we're talking about with Refa'einu, which is going to be our main focus, the blessing for healing, I want to actually begin with the blessing right before that, which begins with "re'eh vaenyenu" ["see our affliction"] and ends with "go'al yisrael" [redeemer of Israel], when we ask God to look at our suffering and we play to God as a redeemer of Israel.

Imu: Right, I think that’s a good idea. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about the blessing before Refainu, it’s sort of like you can see “re’eh na v’onyeinu” as sort of a running jump, a lead-up to Refainu. So, what’s Re’eh na v’onyainu about? God should see our affliction, He should redeem us?

Rabbi Fohrman: So, on the one level, that's a personal request, right? We're saying to God that we're maybe going through hard times as a nation, maybe going through hard times as an individual, and we're looking for God to help us out. 

But that prayer doesn't come out of nowhere; it comes out of a certain kind of grounding, something historical which gives it a great deal of power, a great deal of hidden power. And to see that, let's play a little game: let's go back to the Chumash and try to ask ourselves where, if anywhere, in the Chumash, in the Bible, does this kind of language appear. So if we look at the language of that blessing, re'eh nah vaenyenu v'rivah rivenu, look at our suffering, look at our oppression, and to take up our cause as it were, and the blessing ends with God as redeemer of Israel. So, Imu, if I asked you what event does that remind you of in the Torah, where did God do that, what would you say?

Imu: So, "go'el," for me, "geulah," [redemption], the quintessential geulah, the quintessential redemption, is yetziat mitzrayim [the Exodus from Egypt]. And I see this word "go'el chazak atah" [You are a powerful redeemer], and that reminds me of the "yad hachazakah," "God's strong hand," God as a strong redeemer. So, perhaps Exodus? And then at the beginning of the blessing you have "re'eh vaenyenu," which is our suffering, and I'm pretty sure that word shows up all over the Exodus.

Rabbi Fohrman: Sure, the part of the word for "slavery" is "inui," right, "suffering." And again, that's gonna go all the way back to the very first time that slavery in Egypt is foreshadowed in the Torah, all the way back to Genesis 15, the famous story of the brit bein habetarim, the Covenant between the Pieces, when God comes out of the clouds and strangely tells Abraham, "yadoah todah ki ger yihyeh zaracha b'eretz lo lahem va'avadum v'inu otam arba meot shana." ["Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed 400 years."]

Imu: Right, "v'inu otam" ["and they will be oppressed"]

Rabbi Fohrman: They're going to be enslaved — but not just enslaved, "v'inu otam," they're going to be oppressed, they're going to be afflicted, for 400 years. I think you're right. And just to go to those texts, on the one hand you have the notion of God as redeemer. We drink four cups of wine — what do those four cups of wine remind us of? Of four leshanot, four expressions that God used to denote taking us out of Egypt, the third of which was, God says "v'ga'alti etchem" — "I will redeem you."

As you, I think, correctly point out, God is a "go'el chazak" ["strong redeemer"] — He over and over again, for some strange reason, speaks of Himself as redeeming us with a mighty arm and an outstretched fist, or whatever it is, right? "B'zroah netuyah" and "yad chazakah." And so, "go'el chazak" sounds like the kind of redeemer which God reveals Himself to be in Exodus. But the real kicker, as you yourself point out, is that language of "oni," of suffering, in the beginning, which is unmistakably the Exodus, not just because of the brit bein habetarim, but because of the pairing of seeing together with suffering. Right? So let me ask you, Imu, right — where do you have the notion of God not just relating to our suffering but specifically seeing our suffering?

Imu: So I think, if I remember, there's a verse where Pharoah dies and the people call out to God for the first time, and there's this really weird thing where God actually, He says He hears their "na'akatam" ["their moaning"], I think — he hears them crying out, and then it says that He sees, He sees their suffering, right? He sees — 

Rabbi Fohrman: So actually, let's go to the verses, and we'll quote it — 

Imu: Let's do it!

Rabbi Fohrman: It's really kind of remarkable. So, yeah, why don't you take it away from Exodus 2 verse 24? Or actually, 23 is where you start, where I'm quoting from.

Imu: Right. So, basically the king of Egypt dies, "vayenchu b'nei yisrael min ha'avodah," "they sigh from the work," "vayizaku," "they cry out," "vata'al shavatim el haelokim min ha'avodah," "their cries go up to the master, to God, from their work," "vayishmah elokim et na'akatam," "and Elokim hears their cries," "vayizkor elokim et brito," "and He remembers His covenant" "et avraham, v'et yitzchak, v'et ya'akov" ["{with} Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob"], "vayar elokim et b'nei yisrael v'yeidah elokim," "and God sees Israel and He knows."

Rabbi Fohrman: And your tone of voice there, I think, indicates the sense of the verse — there's something sort of silently emphatic about that "vayedah elokim" ["and God knows"], because the mystery is, what does He know? Right? It doesn't say what He knows. Usually when you know, you know something, it's a transitive verb. But here it's just "He knows," right? What does He know? 

Imu: Right. It's also, I feel like if I didn't have that, right, if it just said God heard their cries, He remembered His covenant, and then there's this new verse where there are two pieces that I don't feel like I need. One is, "and God sees Israel" — if I didn't know, if I just had the last verse, I wouldn't need Him to see anything — and on top of that, He knows something. So I don't know what's going on there.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's a mix of cognitive perception and sense perception, right? Sense perception is hearing and seeing; cognitive perception is remembering and knowing. In both cases, there's a far and near. Right? When I hear, I can hear something from afar, but when I see it, it's right in front of me. Begins with hearing, it goes to seeing. When I remember something, I recollect something from afar, something that happened a long time ago. 

But when I know it, I know it now. Right? And there's a sense of, how do we come to know things, if you think about it. The relationship between the sense perception and the cognitive perception is that generally speaking, the way we come to know things in this world is through our senses. Our senses are our spies — they gather data, they bring them into our mind, our mind collects it, and knows. So God knows. What does He know? He knows everything that He heard, He knows everything He remembers, He knows everything that He sees. And what happens when you know that way? So, you and I have talked about this a lot in the past — I think this is really the moment of God sort of empathetic being with us, the sense that when I really know, I get it. Right? I come to understand or identify with what's going on. It's in the forefront of my mind, I get it, I know. 

And the very next verse is action. The very beginnings of redemption — it's the blessing of "go'el yisrael" — the geulah begins with Exodus chapter 3 with the very next words of the text. And the very next verse, "umoshe hayah roeh et tzon yitro chotno kohen midyan" ["And Moses, watching the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, a priest of Midian"]. Moshe is ambling along, having a very fine life in Midian, and all of a sudden, bang, "vayerah malach hashem elav," an angel comes out to him and there's this vision of this burning bush, Moshe's attention is grabbed, God introduces Himself, and what is the first thing that God says to Moshe after He introduces Himself as God? Take a look at chapter 3 verse 7: "vayomer hashem," "and God said," "raoh raiti et oni ami asher b'mitzrayim." There it is. "I have seen the suffering of My people in Egypt." There it is.

Imu: I didn't even know you were going there! I thought we were going to do some loosey-goosey connection in the previous verse with God saw, what did He see, He saw our suffering, and that's where re'eh [seeing], but no! Black on white in the verse. "Raoh raiti et oni ami" ["I have seen the suffering of My people"]. So "re'eh na b'onyenu" ["please see our suffering"] is right out of this verse.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right out of this verse, yeah. And it's as if the sages are identifying that as the beginning of the process of geulah. It begins here, right? This is where it all begins, where God says here's what I've seen: I've seen the suffering of My people and I will not stand by any longer. And look at how the verse ends: "yadati et machavav," right? "I have come to know their pain." When did we have that before? End of chapter 2, right? God knows, right? And then God is basically telling Moses, I get this. I see what's going on, I understand it, I understand the depth of pain, I get this. And therefore verse 8, "vaered l'hatzilo," I'm gonna take them out of Egypt, this is the plan, "ulha'aloto min ha'aretz," I'm gonna take them all the way to the land of milk and honey.

Imu: So, putting it all together, it seems like this is actually what chazal [the rabbinic sages of the Talmudic era] are doing, is they're reading this chapter, these two chapters, 2 and 3, and they're saying, what's a really good prayer template for us if we're ever in difficult straits? Well, in chapter 2 you have Israel crying out to God. What does God do? We know the end of the story — He hears their suffering, understands their suffering, He empathizes with it, and He puts together a master plan to actually save them from it. He becomes the redeemer, He follows through, He answers the prayer. So chazal say, what a great prayer — God, can You do what You did back in Exodus chapters 2 and 3? 

Rabbi Fohrman: That's exactly what we're saying. 

Imu: That's the prayer.

Rabbi Fohrman: And that's the "re'eh na b'onyenu." Look at that extra word. What word have we added between the words of the verse, "va'yar et onyenu" ["and saw our suffering"]? One simple word, which is?

Imu: "Na" ["please"].

Rabbi Fohrman: Please. We're asking God "please." We have a request, which is, we are rooting this in history. We're not coming out of nowhere, where we're asking You to look at our suffering, to look at our pain, and to redeem us from whatever personal troubles or natural troubles we find ourselves in. We know this is who You are — it's written there in the book. We're just going back in our history. You've proven yourself as the being who's kind of made good on a promise. You made a promise here in Exodus 3, and You fulfilled it.

Imu: Very good. So, we see how "re'eh v'onyenu," one piece of the Shmoneh Esrei, comes from the Chumash. And I'm assuming that your theory will extend to Refa'einu, the very next bracha.

So, what I want to do in the final minutes of this first kind of session with you is take us into the next blessing of Shmoneh Esrei, kind of the mystery of Refa'einu. If the Sages are clearly alluding to events in Biblical history, events in yetziat mitzrayim, in the blessing of "re'eh na v'onyenu," are they continuing to do that in the blessing of Refa'einu hashem v'nerapei hoshienu v'nevasheya" ["heal us, God, and we shall be healed; save us and we shall be saved"]. So, let me actually take that phrase, maybe let's just translate it, Imu — that beginning phases of the healing blessing. Refa'einu hashem v'nerapei," "heal us that we may be healed," "hoshienu v'nevasheya," "save us that we may be saved." Now, you and I are going to focus a lot on healing and what that means, but let's look at the second line of that blessing. "Save us and allow us to be saved." So, Imu, let me ask you again — "save us and allow us to be saved" — put your Biblical hat back on. If I had to say to you, where in the Five Books of Moses do we have God revealed in this kind of way, as a savior, as someone who we can scream "save us" and God is there and He saves us, is there an event that comes to mind in the Torah where that becomes clear?

Imu: So, I'm gonna be a jerk for a second and sidestep your neat little target you painted for me to answer, and I'll answer you this way: if I were reading the bracha of Refa'einu on my own, I never would have thought that it comes from anywhere. I look at Refa'einu and I'm like, well, that doesn't remind me of anything, there's not a lot of healing in Egypt, but "hoshienu v'nevasheya," sure, you know, that sounds a lot like "vayosha hashem vayom hahu" ["and God saved on that day"], which is right after the splitting of the sea, it declares that God has saved us, and this is what we say every day, right before we say az yashir [section of morning prayers recalling the splitting of the sea and the song of rejoicing sung thereafter]. It's very clear God has saved us, and even if I continue in Refa'einu, right, now we have "veha'aleh refuah shelemah l'kol makoteinu" ["bring complete healings to all our wounds"], right — the makkot [wounds], the Ten Plagues [makkot] come to mind right here.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yup. And that's puzzling, by the way, the "makoteinu" ["our wounds"], because in the Exodus, the makkot don't seem to inflict — 

Imu: Right, nobody healed any makkot in the Exodus.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right, and we were the victims of makkot, because "makoteinu" means "our makkot," "our plagues," right — it was our enemies who were the victims of the plagues. So you're right, the makkot do seem to recall the plagues, but it's strange, it's a kind of inverse there. But I think you're absolutely right about "hoshienu v'nevasheya." "Hoshienu v'nevasheya" in Biblical text, it's gonna also be lifted right out of the Exodus, right out of the story of the splitting of the sea, which as you say, "vayosheh Hashem vayom hahu," "and God saved us on that day." That becomes "hoshienu v'nevasheya," "save us and allow us to be saved." And there was precedent for that. We cried out to God at the sea, God responded by saving us, we're crying out to God now, "hoshienu v'nevasheya," and save us. And now, even before we get to the Refa'einu part of this blessing, there's an interesting kind of bookends out there that kind of emerge here. If you think about these two blessings, "re'eh na v'onyenu" and "go'al yisrael" on one hand and Refa'einu hashem v'nerafei, hoshienu v'nevasheya" on the other hand, we see that they both reference the Exodus from Egypt, but they reference two vastly different points in the Exodus from Egypt. Right? "Re'eh na v'onyenu" was what moment in the Exodus?

Imu: Right at the beginning. It's in the midst of their suffering.

Rabbi Fohrman: Midst of their suffering. It's the very beginning of God's involvement. For 400 years God has been silent, and now all of a sudden here is God, right, coming down and responding to Israel, that sighed and cried out to God, and the first thing He says, the very first thing He says, is "raiti et oni ami asher b'mitzrayim," "I have seen the suffering of My people." And that becomes "see our suffering." And then the very next blessing is the culmination of that process, when God finally makes good on that process. When have we finally been redeemed? We don't really know it's real until we see the dead bodies of the Egyptians of that army that pursued us at the moment of the splitting of the sea. So there are both canons here. Those two blessings, right, contain the very beginning of the redemptive process and the very end of the redemptive process, seemingly. Right? The promise of the burning bush on the one hand, blessing number one, and the splitting of the sea and the victory of that moment in blessing number two, "hoshienu v'nevasheya." Leading us, really, to the 64,000 dollar question: what, then, is the first part of that second blessing, Refa'einu hashem v'nerafei hoshienu v'nevasheya" — "heal us and allow us to be healed" — 

Imu: Right, I don't remember a whole lot of healing at the splitting of the sea.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. It doesn't sound like that's what God was doing at the splitting of the sea, right? It doesn't sound like there was healing at all in the Exodus process. And what Ami noticed, and I kind of know this concurrently, and, you know, you and I have talked about it, is that there actually is a moment of healing. We don't think about it as the Exodus, but maybe what the sages are telling us with a wink and a nod is that the climax of the Exodus actually wasn't the splitting of the sea; it was the event that took place right after that. A healing kind of event. But they seem to lump together with the splitting of the sea, which is strange, because it's not the way you and I would realize. And I'm referring, now, to the very next event, right, which conventionally, we normally read it as, okay, the Exodus from Egypt is all over and we're moving on and we're going through Sinai, we're starting with our 40 years in the desert — the very first thing that happens — 

Imu: I think if you — it's strange that if you're stressing that the climax is not the splitting of the sea but the event that happens right afterwards, I imagine that most of our listeners' minds are going blank for a second. The event that happened right after the splitting of the sea…

Rabbi Fohrman: What event happened after the splitting of the sea? Is it just like Amalek?

Imu: What is he talking about? 

Rabbi Fohrman: Like, what is that event? The truth is, it's like a downer event, right? It's this really crazy events. The Israelites go through the desert for three days, they can't find water, they get to this oasis, right, only to find that it's bitter. And they scream to Moshe, they're upset, and Moshe asks God, you know, what's going on, God says don't worry, and He gives him this tree and he throws the tree in the water, the water becomes sweet. At the very end of that episode, God makes a little speech, and at the very end of the speech, He says that all the sickness that I have placed upon Egypt, "lo asim alach," "I will not place upon you." You hear those words that come out of the blue — "v'ani hashem, rofecha" — "because I am God, your healer." This is the only moment — 

Imu: Bingo!

Rabbi Fohrman: That's it, right? This is the only moment in the entire Five Books of Moses, to my knowledge, that God specifically refers to Himself as a healer, when God says this is who I am, I am a healer. And the sages seem to be wrapping this up together with the splitting of the sea, which as I said to you is the first great mystery of Refa'einu. These events seem like they have nothing to do with each other. It's like, okay, the Exodus is over, clap clap clap, right? Think about it, Imu. Think about all the Hollywood portrayals of the Exodus, right? Where do they end?

Imu: We've already — we've faded to black here at this point. The scene has been finished completely and the sages, like you say, are totally tying them together. In fact, most of the recountings of the Exodus — I can't remember any of them, not The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, that even include this scene. 

Rabbi Fohrman: The Prince of Egypt ends with the Israelites dancing off into the sunlight and Whitney Houston singing her song about miracles with the splitting of the sea and the fish and the drama, right? If you go to Universal Studios and they take you on that ride through the splitting of the sea from The Ten Commandments, nobody has the bitter oasis on the other side.

Imu: The bitter water.

Rabbi Fohrman: TIt's just not there! We barely remember it. And yet the sages seem to say you can't talk about the splitting of the sea, "hoshienu v'nevasheya," without talking about Refa'einu hashem v'nerafei." They are bound up together with each other, which is strange. You know, you read the story of the Exodus, it seems to be over, and the sages say it ain't over. There's another part of this story. 

And it's the strange story of marah [bitter], which is part of the climax. Okay, Imu, so we've got this incredible mystery here, right? The sages, in writing this prayer of Refa'einu, are bundling together two events that don't seem like they're bundled. Here's this prayer, which, it was centuries of Jews over the ages, from people in the emergency room praying for their loved ones to, you know, the smallpox and [35:00] the black death and just all of the dark moments in all of humankind's history, in all of our history — this is the prayer that the sages put together to speak about God as our healer, and it all comes back to this Biblical source. 

What I'd like to do with you in our next podcast together on this is actually to take a deep dive into that story of marah. It feels to me like it is worth exploring this time when God Himself speaks of Himself as a healer. I think if we look at the story of marah carefully, we may find hidden dimensions of what it means to speak of God as our healer. I think the answer to the secret will be found in marah. Marah is, as I think we'll see, is a very strange story. It's one of the stories that's pithy, it's short, it's five or six verses long, but it's got questions up the wazoo. 

And the question I would leave our listeners with as they ponder this and before they press play in the next episode of this podcast is, you know, take some time to go back to Exodus 15, just read through those five or six verses and ask yourself, what's strange about this? Clear your mind, pretend you've never seen the verses before, and just read it for the first time, just say gee, what's strange here, what is odd? Can you kind of catalogue those things? Do that, and come back with prepared notes. That's exactly what Imu and I are gonna do — we're just gonna go through the verses, what seems strange about them? Let's look at those questions, and I think if we put those questions together, they'll kind of beckon us towards a way of seeing the notion of God as healer, which I think is at once surprising and rich. So, Imu, that's what I think we have in store for us in our next session together, and I'm looking forward to that.

Imu: As am I. Thank you, Rabbi Fohrman, I think that's very exciting homework — don't skip it, you should definitely look at these verses yourself. I'll also say, it may not feel like it right now, but this is a course on Sefirat Haomer, and I'm hoping that it will have important implications for those of us struggling during this coronavirus. So, hang tight — I promise there's great payoff. Rabbi Fohrman, thanks so much for doing this with me.

Rabbi Fohrman: Thank you.

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