EREV ROSH HASHANA 2017
ASHER YATZAR: LESSONS FROM A HOSPITAL STAY
On this night two years ago, as we began the Congregation’s 100th year, I asked you to commit yourselves to choosing something new to learn, something new to experience, something new to celebrate as a Jew in the year just beginning.
The purpose of that effort was to recognize that we should all seek to revitalize our Jewish lives by doing something new and breaking out of whatever well-rehearsed pattern we had developed over the years.
I asked you to share your ideas with me and many of you did. I hope you all have continued that spirit of discovery and innovation in your spiritual lives since then.
I never told you, though, what I chose to do, which new ritual I took on, and I want to tell you this evening.
I committed myself to adding a particular bracha to my davening each morning. The blessing I added is one that we often teach with a bit of a smile because it is the blessing traditionally said after one uses the bathroom. But that smile is misleading. It is so very serious.
The blessing, asher yatzar is translated in our siddur in this way:
Praised are you Adonai our God who rules the universe, fashioning the human body in wisdom, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them fail to function by being blocked or opened, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You Adonai, healer of all flesh, sustaining our bodies in wondrous ways.
The blessing may have its traditional setting but it has a broader context and that is why it is given a fixed place in our siddur as part of the morning blessings. The bracha recognizes the wonder of our bodies, the intricate way in which they function and the fact that we are always, in one sense, living on the edge, living with uncertainty, never knowing what each day might bring.
At the time I made the decision to say the blessing each day, I did so for a philosophical reason which I will explain in a few minutes. But I didn’t expect at the time was that the bracha would hold great personal meaning for me two years later.
Over the last 10 or 12 years, I have been suffering with occasional bouts of severe stomach pain and some related symptoms. After a long process of diagnosis, the cause was identified and, given it had been going on for so long and was not going away, my physicians suggested that I should consider surgery instead of merely tolerating the occasional painful episodes. I hesitated. But, this past summer, for a number of reasons, I finally decided to undergo the surgery which was completely successful.
But, having GI surgery puts the blessing about organs and bodily processes into a much different context. I have always remembered one of my teachers at the Seminary talking extensively about saying the asher yatzar blessing a few days after he had GI surgery and how it brought him to tears. I will spare you the details of his discussion and of the occasion on which I spontaneously said the blessing in the middle of the night a few days after the surgery- you don’t need to hear those details, believe me, – but I promise you saying that blessing was one of the deepest spiritual experiences of my life and I say that seriously.
In fact, the entire process of the surgery and recovery was in many ways a spiritual experience for me which I am still processing. When I thought about the operation and especially later when I received the detailed report of the surgery and read was done to the patient, namely me, I was deeply moved. I realized that I had placed my life in the hands of professionals and when it was over, I felt that they had worked to make God’s creation more efficient. While I did become grumpy and impatient when I thought I wasn’t going to be home for Shabbat, most of the few days I was in the hospital, I had a much different attitude.
Far from feeling violated or intruded upon in any way as the physicians and nurses did whatever they needed to do to help me heal and to be comfortable, I felt, in fact like they were re-creating me in some deeply, meaningful way. It was a tremendously moving experience to walk out of the hospital feeling whole.
Let me quickly add that I fully realize not all hospital stays yield such positive results and I am humbly grateful and I am deeply cognizant of and sensitive to all of those for whom physical healing does not come.
And, let me also add that I realize that I am privileged to have access to the health care I received and to be able to afford it. Every single person in this nation, in this world, should have the ability to access such medical treatment and the fact that our leaders are still squabbling over this issue while people suffer is a disgrace in our nation.
In the end, while I would greatly prefer other ways to have a spiritual experience, it truly has been a profound moment in my life.
But, as I mentioned, that was not the reason why I chose to say this blessing each day. It was for a much more philosophical reason. I chose to say the blessing as a celebration of God, our creator.
Tomorrow morning, I will refer briefly to discussion groups I have been involved with for many years which bring together life scientists and faith leaders to talk about issues of science and religious faith.
The more I learn about scientific fields, whether medicine, astronomy or biology or genetics or physics, which I never really understand, my belief in God as creator deepens. The intricacy of the world, and as I now know more intimately, the intricacy of our human bodies are evidence to me of what I cautiously but with stubborn determination refer to as “intelligent design”. I know the implications of such a phrase politically. You can be sure that I don’t intend it to be an excuse for creationism. Intelligent design simply means to me that the big bang and the appearance of human beings on this earth were not colossal and cosmic accidents.
I believe in a creator. I believe in the God of creation who gave this universe and therefore human beings a start.
But, as I have often said from this bima, it doesn’t matter to me whether or not anyone believes in God as long as they act like they do.
And we as a nation must act like we believe in God.
Believing in God as creator is a commitment to equality. All of us are equal parts of creation. As the Mishna teaches, believing in God as creator means no one can say: Abba Gadol Mayavecha, “My father is greater than your father”. That simple message has been forgotten by so many.
Believing in God as creator is an encouragement to live a life of purpose to reflect the purposeful way in which we have been created.
Believing in God as creator is a recognition and affirmation that everything we see, everything we build and everything we are, are gifts which need to be protected because they can so easily go wrong.
Equality, purpose and determination to protect that which has been given to us…In this nation, in this world, we need to act like we believe in those principles.
The rancor, the anger, the divisiveness, the pettiness and the arrogance that we see so often and particularly in the past year in this nation scares us all deeply. While I don’t believe that accepting God as creator will solve our problems, it will help us all to be appropriately humble and yet raise our vision higher.
And so, tonight I say a blessing.
Blessed be God who created us with such intricacy that we can function fully. Blessed be God who provides wisdom to many different people of many different disciplines that help us continue to thrive as human beings.
And on this day when we celebrate the anniversary of creation, blessed be God who has given us the dawn of a new year to try to make things right in our lives, in our community, in our nation and in our world.