It’s Amazing That Our Bodies Function

Spending time around my grandfather as he is dying pushes my thinking in interesting ways. One of those ways is about how amazing it is that bodies function, and how resilient they are.

Judaism has a specific blessing about this (arguably, Judaism has a specific blessing for everything), and it’s a blessing that has spoken to me for many years.

Blessed are you, Divine One, our God, nature’s rulemaker, who formed humanity in wisdom, and created within us openings and channels. It is evident and known that should one of these openings be closed when it should be open, or open when it should be closed, we would be unable to stand before you. Blessed are You, Divine One, healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

It is known, colloquially, as the bathroom blessing, since it is recited, among other times, when one relieves oneself (it is also a part of the litany of blessings recited each morning upon getting up).

For me, this blessing has always drawn attention to the miracle of the intricacy of the human body. How everything fits together, and, for the most part, functions without our conscious attention. How, until the advent of computers, it would have been impossible for humans to design a system this complex (which is not to say that I believe that we were “designed” by a conscious deity, merely that we could not have designed something like ourselves, which nature did). I have always seen it as a reminder of the delicacy of the human body, the fragility of our inner workings.

As I watch my grandfather slipping slowly down his final road, however, I am, ironically,  reminded just how robust the human body is. Even as his body is riddled with a cancer which does not belong, and squeezes out the organs which do, his body continues to function. His brain, for the most part, continues to function, albeit with the occasional fault. Our bodies are remarkably fault-tolerant, to use the language of technology. And somehow, I find this fault-tolerance an even greater occasion for wonder.

Blessed is the one who heals flesh and works wonders.

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Living in Death

Right at the moment, I’m feeling a little surrounded by death. I’m in Boston for an indeterminate period of time accompanying my grandfather on his journey towards death. As I wrote yesterday, Paul Bingman, a friend and amazing person died on Sunday, and I’m having conversations with various folks about planning a memorial service for him (something I know more about than most folks, being involved in several funerals a year in a professional way).

I’m coming to a conclusion. Dying is hard work. I don’t know how hard it is for the one actually doing the dying (though it looks pretty rough, and on the basis of my observations I really wouldn’t recommend it). But for those of us involved in ancillary ways, it takes a toll, both physical and emotional. I know this sounds awfully flip for a post ab out death and dying, but sometimes, humor is all one has to hold things together.

For the past couple of days I’ve been beginning to think about a prayer (or meditation, if you prefer) to be said before entering a space where someone is dying (or in hospice). So far, I’ve gotten this far:

Here I am, prepared to accompany ___________ on their final journey. As I spend time with him/her let me be there for him/her, not for myself. May I answer them in the ways that are best for him/her, not those that are easiest or most comfortable for me. May my presence bring us both peace.

As the task becomes harder, may I remain equal to the task. And when I am not, may I forgive myself, knowing that what I do is hard work, and impossible to do perfectly.

May the time I spend with __________ be as meaningful and enjoyable as it can be for both of us.

It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly what needs to be said. But it’s a start.

May the source of comfort grant peace to all those who seek it.

Shofarot: Hearing God, Being Heard by God

The third special section of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah is Shofarot (see the previous two entries for the two earlier sections, Machuyot and Zichronot). Shofarot, means, literally, Shofars, or rams horn trumpets. On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar as part of the service, the blasts sounding through the synagogue, wailing to the soul.

This section of the Amidah quotes two types of texts:

  • Accounts of shofar-like sounds accompanying divine revelation
  • Accounts of humanity using a shofar to call out to God.

What I love about this is that it is setting up the call of the shofar as the baby-talk between God and humanity. When we speak to babies, we coo at them with the same nonsense syllables they use to coo at us. It becomes a back and forth conversation, filled with nonsense syllables, which have no semantic significance, but have great meaning to both parties involved. Both the adult and the baby feel they are carrying on a conversation, though no intelligible words are spoken. The call of the shofar is the same.

The shofar calls back and forth, between humanity and God, speaking sounds but not words to one another, communicating without the constraints of language, transcending the limitations of different modes of being. We hear God’s shofar in thunder. God hears ours in the blasts of Rosh Hashanah. We coo to God, and God coos to us.

Zichronot: Remembering Good and Bad

After Malchuyot, the Rosh Hashanah Amidah continues with Zichronot (remembrance). It describes a God who remembers all that we have done, and judges.

Despite this, it is not the harsh “fire and brimstone” section you might expect, but rather, a balanced section. It notes that God remembers all of our misdeeds, but that God also remembers all of the good deeds, both our own and those of our ancestors. We are judged not just for our faults, but also for what we have done well. Perhaps even what our ancestors have done well.

While I am uncomfortable with any idea of God weighing our missteps and our good deeds, I am comfortable with the idea that we do this often. There are the sins in all of our pasts which we wonder whether we can make up for. And while I do not count on the deeds of my ancestors to make up for my mistakes, the idea of a God who remembers what we have forgotten, who remembers the good I have done which I have long ago forgotten, if I ever noticed to begin with, is comforting. It reminds me that I am too quick to discount the good I have done, while I am slow to forgive myself the wrongs I have committed.

I cannot judge myself fairly, nor would such a judgment matter. What matters is that I try to do good, and hope that good is propagated into the universe, so that it’s echoes continue, and are remembered by a God who remembers all.

Malchuyot: Celebrating Divine Sovereignty

During Rosh Hashanah, there are three major themes that make up the extra amidah, or the Mussaf amidah. These are:

  • Machuyot (Sovereignty)
  • Zichronot (Remembrance)
  • Shofarot (Trumpeting)

Each year, as I approach these, I find myself trying to figure out how to relate to them. They are the high point of the prayer service, in which we sound the shofar, but the prayers themselves don’t necessarily speak to me. Instead, I tend to focus more on the general themes. In this blog post, I’ll focus on Malchuyot (a bit more seriously than I did a few years back).

God as king is a troubling metaphor for us in the contemporary world. To begin with, it is no longer a particularly useful metaphor, in that we no longer have kings, in the sense of an absolute ruler with absolute authority over us and our lives, and who is also responsible for our welfare. Metaphors work because they relate something unfamiliar to something familiar. In this case, both halves of the metaphor are unfamiliar. So we need to work a little harder at understanding the concepts behind it.

The king is remote, not approachable, but makes decisions which impact our lives. Just as the universe, or luck, or fate, works in ways we don’t understand, can’t anticipate, and find ourselves reacting to, so too do we envision God (not necessarily as separate from the Universe, Luck or Fate). When we pray regarding the King, we are often praying for individual attention or notice, although it seems unlikely to us that we may receive it.

But the King is more than just ancient ruler. The King also stands for the ordering principles of the universe. The King is God of nature, gravity, and all the physical laws that make the universe and life possible. The King is the force that makes for a natural world.

The King is also the force we cry out to for mercy. The one who can grant pardon, no matter what we may have done. The King is the one who can forgive that which we, ourselves cannot forgive.

I pray to the King when I am at the end of my rope, and need strength and hope. I pray to the King when I wonder at the sunset, or the fact that gravity works, despite it’s seeming impossibility. I pray to the King when I need a structure beyond science for the universe and my life.

The King is both remote and immediate. The King is, perhaps, the most traditional understanding of God. And the King listens always, but doesn’t always respond.

Who Am I to Pray?

In the beginning of the communal amidah, there is a line inserted for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

On the basis of the wise ones and those with understanding, and on the teachings of those who understand their opinions, I open my mouth in prayer and supplication. . .Misod chachmim u’nevonim umilemed da’at mevini’im, eftechah fi b’tfillah uv’tachanunim. . .

In religious traditions, there is often a tension between the humility of the individual who prays and their presumption in asking for something from God. Thus we often have formulations that read something like, “God, I am nothing before you, but could you do me a favor and . . .” One of the elements I find particularly endearing about some prayers in Judaism is that they take this tension on explicitly, and define who we are, and by what merit we ask God to hear our prayers.

In this case, we are saying that it is not on our own merit that we believe we have anything to say, but because we have learned these words from those who came before, those who had true wisdom. But I think this goes even further: we pray these words not because we claim to understand them, but because those who have understood them tell us they have meaning. I may not yet understand them, but perhaps, in time, I will come to understand them, through repeated repetition, study, and prayer.

This is not to say that my own prayers, my own words, are inappropriate. This is to say that the old words have value within them, and over time, I must find that value, and find that meaning. Until then, I repeat the words in the hope that the meaning will reveal itself to me, and that God will understand what I might someday intend.

Light in LIfe’s Treasury

I am continuing my exploration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers today with a brief line which  follows the Barechu (the call to prayer) in the morning.

Eternal light is in the storehouse of life. “Light from the darkness!” said God, and it was so. Or olam b’otzar chayim, orot m’ofel, amar vayehi.

We are the storehouse of life, and the eternal light resides within each of us.

In the account of creation, we are taught that light was created the first day, but the sun was not created until the fourth. The eternal light, Or olam, was this first light of transcendence. It is knowledge and clarity, purity and joy. When we use light as a metaphor, it is this light that we speak of.

Each of us is a repository of life. We are where life is stored, and this eternal light rests inside each of us, waiting for us to manifest it with our actions. When we act justly, we bring this light into the world, answering God’s dictum, “Light from the darkness!” When we help another, we bring the “and it was so” into the present, an ongoing creation of light in darkness.

On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that God may have created the light, but it is up to us to dispense it from our treasury of life.