Healing, Heroes, and Holding Hands

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

Two learners stand outside at Queer Talmud Camp. They are facing one another, and they are surrounded by other learners who appear to be gathered in a circle around them.

Julie (my practically-perfect-in-every-way spouse) and I have, over the past few years, gobbled up a series of action-y adventure type TV shows—Warrior Nun, Stranger Things, Pose (yeah, this is an action adventure show in my opinion!), X-Men, and Black Sails—that specialize in a specific genre of superhero: those who can get hit with a ton of bricks, tossed into an emotional fire, run through with an actual sword, or pummeled with any number of semiotic fists, only to heal completely and swiftly. From Drag Queens who endure daily assaults on their humanness to small town teens who slip into disturbing and dangerous worlds beyond our own, these celluloid champions repeatedly bounce back from one barrage of insults after the other, be they emotional, physical, or spiritual. The message is clear: healing is a superpower that emerges only when we encounter danger, violence, force, or attack.

The average human body—flesh, spirit, heart, and mind—is designed to heal, though this process unfolds uniquely for every person. The tendency in our species is to gravitate back to center after we have experienced a major jolt; Flesh knitting back together, a slowing of nervous energy, an opening of heart, a calming of spirit. Certainly, there are some circumstances that make returning to our center after a trauma difficult, problematic, or even impossible. Without question, there are worlds upon worlds to unpack once we acknowledge such a constellation of situations. But the questions I’m wrestling with are two: first, do people generally trust in their own innate and singular propensity to heal? And second, what is the role of suffering in the hero’s journey? If my recent viewing history is typical I am getting that Hollywood is also piqued by these questions. So I wondered: what wisdom have the Rabbis, sages, and nascent psychotherapists of old contributed to this subject?

I consulted my “HaMafteach”(which I think means something like “legend” or “key”), a big old book that lists a wide range of topics alongside where they are explored in the Babylonian Talmud. I looked up “Healing”—nothing. OK, let’s try “Cure”—nothing. Hmmm, really? OK, how about “Wellness”? Nope. Nothing there. I thought “Maybe I need to go broader.” So I looked up “Health”. And, once again, the cupboard was bare.

Now, I know for sure that there are sugyiot that deal with these topics. I’ve studied them at SVARA! If a person needs to eat on Yom Kippur, can we feed them? (Yoma 83a); If a person has a belligerent and stubborn child (or could it be that they were grappling with depression, anxiety, pain, or some other agitation?), do the parents really have to take them out and subject them to death by stoning? (Sanhedrin 68b and beyond); When and how is a life saved when there are other/competing mitzvot? (Yoma 84b and beyond). So, I was a little flummoxed that none of these texts fell under the headings of healing, wellness, health, or cure.

I’ve been deeply steeped in Jewish thinking for long enough to know that when one asks a question and is met with radio silence, one might need to ask the question differently. And so, I decided to reverse engineer my quest. I looked up “Suffering”. There was nearly a full page of entries! Encouraged, (?!?) I boldly looked up “Sick” and I found around two pages of citations. “Pain”—another quarter page. Of course. I went upstairs, plunked a large ice cube in a proper tumbler and poured myself a dram of medicinal whiskey: the better to contemplate this finding, drop into the mindset, and consider what the contemporary redactors of this tome were broadcasting with this editorial choice.

When I returned to my desk, I decided to start my adventure with the heading “Suffering.” One of the first entries is “Suffering, are beloved to you,” Berachot 5b. I know this teaching. It both haunts and inspires me.

רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַבָּא חֲלַשׁ. עָל לְגַבֵּיהּ רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אֲמַר לֵיהּ: חֲבִיבִין עָלֶיךָ יִסּוּרִין? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לֹא הֵן וְלֹא שְׂכָרָן.אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַב לִי יְדָךְ. יְהַב לֵיהּ יְדֵיהּ, וְאוֹקְמֵיהּ.

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba was weakened (he became ill). Over him loomed Rabbi Yochanan (his teacher); he said to him: Are your sufferings beloved to you? He (R. Chiya) said to him: Not them, nor their rewards. He (R. Yochanan) said to him: Give me your hand. He (R. Chiya) gave him his hand and raised him up (he got better).

רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן חֲלַשׁ. עָל לְגַבֵּיהּ רַבִּי חֲנִינָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: חֲבִיבִין עָלֶיךָ יִסּוּרִין? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לֹא הֵן וְלֹא שְׂכָרָן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַב לִי יְדָךְ. יְהַב לֵיהּ יְדֵיהּ, וְאוֹקְמֵיהּ.

Rabbi Yohannan was weakened (he became ill). Over him loomed Rabbi Chanina (Chiya’s student); he said to him: Are your sufferings beloved to you? He (R. Yochanan) said to him: Not them, nor their rewards. He (R. Chanina) said to him: Give me your hand. He (R. Yochanan) gave him his hand and raised him up (he got better).

אַמַּאי? לוֹקִים רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן לְנַפְשֵׁיהּ! אָמְרִי: אֵין חָבוּשׁ מַתִּיר עַצְמוֹ מִבֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים.

Say what?!? Let R. Yochanan (who healed his ill student) raise himself! They say: A prisoner cannot free themselves from their house of imprisonment.

The recognition that even the greatest of our ancient sages didn’t heal on their own is an extraordinary challenge to our modern sensibilities. Rabbis Chiya, Yochanan, and Chanina are, all three, Talmud luminaries—but unlike Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, or Eleven, the superheroes of the Talmud are not defined by their ability to suffer great injury and magically self-repair. Rather their power lies in their capacity to give and receive healing. They don’t revel in their afflictions; they take no pleasure in either their illness or its privileges. Rather, according to these accounts, healing takes place through the extended hands, the connection of flesh to flesh, and the loving faith that exists between colleagues, teachers, friends, or students.

Though the paranormal mythology of Judaism’s Talmudic past and Tinsel Town’s contemporary blockbusters differ in their vision of restoration, they both fixate on the same essential worry and hope. Both lores explore the supposition that it is a part of being human to experience injury, hurt, pain. But they seem to depart in their world view regarding how human it is to heal.

Contemporary mythology—cinematic, graphic, and/or literary—has staked its claim on extraordinary humanoid creatures who heal faster, more completely, and with less trauma than can reasonably be expected of average mortals. I get that. I thrill when I watch or read about a character I have come to love take a bludgeoning and, a beat later, they are back on their feet, ready for action, and primed to keep on keeping on. But, that doesn’t square at all with my lived experience of physical trauma, be it something gnarly but skillful like surgery (months of recuperation), infection (weeks), or minor cuts/scrapes/burns (several days at best). A gunshot wound, if one were to survive it, can take years to even partially heal. Injuries that result from either inadvertent or intentional violence damage the body and the psyche, often profoundly so. And what of chronic illness—compromised immunity, mental health challenges, disease? Healing, in real time, in real human bodies, takes time if one is lucky enough to be average in this regard. So, of course, it is delicious to watch The Warrior Nun get sliced and diced by a nefarious adversary and minutes later she is knitted back together and ready to go another round. It is satisfying to indulge the fantasy that someone could get utterly pummeled on one night and be back in the saddle by the next morning. But as I age, and as it takes longer and longer to heal from run-of-the-mill household injuries—paper cuts, kitchen or shaving nicks, bug bites, the occasional cat scratch or upper body scrape—I am profoundly aware of just what a fantasy this is. I find myself marveling that healing never really stops. I’ve been steadily making progress for decades and decades, and I’m still healing. Childhood poverty. Alcoholic parents. Childhood sexual abuse. Transphobia—both internal and external. On the one hand, it’s a miracle I healed at all—and on the other hand I know that once those ruptures occur, nothing ever sets back to zero. We are marked by our suffering. But we don’t have to be defined by it.

And what of the exchanges between Chiya and Yochanan, and between Yochanan and Chanina? In our lives we will meet people who see us. Really see us—in all of our banged up, compromised, rough around the edges, straining against the winds trying-to-heal glory. And they will ask us to give them our hand and, if we do, they will raise us up. Teachers do this, and sometimes therapists. Parents and children can play either part with each other—will either party have the guts to admit it? Sometimes we see someone we love in pain, and instinctively we each reach out a hand. Friends come close and speak truth, co-workers compassionately call us out, sometimes a total stranger will engage in an honest conversation with us on the bus, at the market, in line at the café. They will ask us, in one language or another, “Is your suffering dear to you?” And when that moment arises, may we have the insight, the courage, and the strength to respond, “Not it, nor its reward.”

Our sages understood that healing—in whatever measure, and in whatever arena it occurs—is not only possible, but probable, and in some cases, even inevitable. But rarely does it happen in isolation or without support. Together with our modern sages and storytellers, Jewish wisdom understands that the Hero’s journey is not defined by an unblemished life, avoiding injury, or circumventing pain. Quite to the contrary—and here is where Hollywood and Talmud concur—luminaries are born somewhere between the moment of being wounded and the subsequent realization that healing starts happening the second we are raised up by love. Cellular love. Spiritual love. Human love. Divine love. And like Chiya, Yochanan, and Chanina, we need to be prepared for the moment when love, in any of its forms, says, “Give me your hand.” And we muster up all the strength we can to meet their reach.

We all have scars. May we learn to see them as reminders of our strength, courage, and luck. We have all been injured. May our curative superpowers make us fearless. We have all been attacked. May we be resilient. We have all had doubts. May we lean into our faith. We have all been lost. May we be present wherever we are. And when someone asks for our hand, may we never fall in love with our suffering.

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