A Prayer for the Body: Take Two

Image: A footprint in the sand on the beach. (pixabay)

I just took an unpleasant little trip down memory lane, but with good news at the end of it. I’ve been dealing all summer with a minor foot problem, and avoiding the podiatrist. I knew I was avoiding him, rather as one might avoid the dentist. Today I finally got to the office, and as soon as I saw the big chair featured in podiatrists’ offices, all the memories came flooding back.

In March and June of 1985 I had surgery for bunions. The podiatrist-surgeon had an excellent reputation and the bunions had become a real barrier to a goal of mine: I wanted to run a marathon, but I couldn’t push off with the front part of either foot. So I went to this nice doc who said he could fix it, and I fell down a rabbit hole that would completely change my life.

I’ll spare you the details; the gist is that my mangled left foot is one of the reasons the rest of my body has troubles. I have stayed away from podiatrists’ chairs ever since my recovery from the final salvage surgery in 1988. I sat in that chair today, and I held Linda’s hand to keep memory at bay.

But here’s the lovely thing: today’s meeting with the doc was no big deal. My left foot, the mangled foot, had coped nicely with the splinter that had driven deep into it. My immune system swatted away any infection. The life force within me packaged up a long splinter that had gotten in there and had done such a good job sliding it back out that all the doc had to do was take a forceps and pull. My body works.

Back in rabbinical school, there was a prayer that used to make me angry and/or sad to say it as part of the daily prayers. It went:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

“Asher Yatzar,” Shacharit

It was the “stand before You” that annoyed me – my body was steadily losing its ability to stand without pain in those years, until I finally rewrote the prayer:

Thank God it all works! — No. —

Thank God enough works.
For all our science, and all our technology,
These bodies You have made in Your wisdom are wrapped in mystery: Rooms within rooms, openings and closings,
All work so wonderfully that we only notice when they don’t.
We are able to stand or sit before You, our Creator,
Because enough works today.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space,
Who heals our flesh and continues doing wonders.

Asher Yatzar, Ruth Adar, 2004

And I say that revised prayer today in gratitude, because the foot still has its problems, but the beautiful systems within me continued to function on other levels. And that was enough, praise God.

I know – so much fuss over a splinter! Ridiculous. But such is the power of bad memories. If there is some health matter you’ve been putting off out of dread I hope you will attend to it as soon as you can.

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Notes from mid-Elul

Image: The rabbi, hugging three poodles. (Linda Burnett)

This has been a week of odds and ends, but not a week for writing. Time to shake summer off and get into a more productive rhythm.

Elul is flying, Selichot is Saturday night. This year I seem to be doing my soul searching on a more visceral level: physical clues and dreams, things bubbling up through my body and brain. The exterior world is a mess and my innards seem to be housecleaning.

What to do? Keep working the process. Don’t let myself be too distracted by the things I cannot control. Elul and the High Holy Days are focused on that short list of things I do control, namely, my behavior.

How is Elul going for you?

Maimonides’ Advice for Social Media

Who knew? Reading this pasuk from Hilchot Deah, I got the feeling that Maimonides was not only a great philosopher but a prophet, because it’s great advice for social media:

The sages of yore said: “He who yields to anger is as if he worshiped idolatry”. 1See Nedarim, 22b. G. They also said: “Whosoever yields to anger, if he be a wise man his wisdom leaves him, and if he be a prophet his prophecy leaves him.”2 Pesahim, 66b. C. Verily the life of irritable persons is no life.3 Pesahim, 113a. C. They have, therefore, commanded to be afar from anger, so that one will train himself not to mind even the things which do cause irritation, for such is the good way. The conduct of the just is to take insults but not give insults, hear themselves flouted but make no reply, do their duty as a work of love, and bear affliction cheerfully.

Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, 2:3

Social media crawls with individuals who are angry and with others who get their kicks from making other people angry. The temptation is to get angry, as well, but that accomplishes nothing. The problem with that is that the angrier we are, the less in control of ourselves, and wisdom goes down the drain.

This does not mean that we have to be doormats. However, the “block” feature on most social media is a powerful remedy for those who are seeking to make us angry for fun. It is tempting to stick around and trade clever insults, but as the old saying goes, if you mud wrestle with a pig, all that happens is that you get dirty and the pig enjoys it.

Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; Reprove a wise man, and he will love you.

Proverbs 9:8

Let us save our words for people who will at least give them a chance. Screaming into the wind is a waste of everyone’s time.

What’s With the Skullcap?

Image: A table covered with kippot for sale.

You’ll never hear a knowledgeable Jew calling any of these hats “skullcaps.” That’s an English word with a European background: according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it’s “c. 1200, probably from Old Norse skalli ‘a bald head, skull,’ a general Scandinavian word.” Someone thought the little round caps look like the tops of skulls, I guess.

There is a long tradition in Judaism for covering one’s head. For men, it’s about respect: an acknowledgement that we are creatures made by God, not deities ourselves. Some Ashkenazi men cover their heads at all times, others just for prayer or study.

For women, it used to be about covering our hair, which was seen as a highly sexualized part of the body. That intent changed over time: now it is the Ashkenazi practice of using women’s hair covering as a sign that they are married, signaling a woman’s unavailability. Sephardic women may cover for prayer or studying Torah. There has been an effort by some rabbis in Israel to persuade Sephardic women to cover their hair all the time.

For me, as a modern Reform Jew, it’s about modesty, or tzniut (tznee-OOT.) I cover my head for teaching, learning, and prayer because it is a reminder that I am only one little person, not the universal spokesperson for the Holy One. If I become puffed up and impressed with myself, I am useless as a teacher of Torah. In some settings, as in a hospital, it is a signal that I’m a religious Jew and/or a rabbi, but not Orthodox.

These little hats and coverings have many names. The ones that look like a little bowl are called kippot (singular kipah) in Hebrew and yarmulke (YAHM-a-kah) in Yiddish. The ones that look like a pillbox hat may be Bucharian kipot, or they may be pillbox hats. I collect vintage pillbox hats to wear when I’m in the mood.

Women’s head coverings have other names. There are wigs called sheitels (SHAYtulls) which you may notice among observant Orthodox women. There are wigs called sheitels (SHAYtulls) which you may notice among observant Orthodox women. There are also head scarves called tichels (TIKH- els) in Yiddish and mitpachat (mit-PAH-khat) in Hebrew. Remember, for observant Ashkenazi women, it’s a privacy thing: if they are married, their hair is only visible to their husband and in public, they wear a covering of some kind. I have also met Jewish women who have adopted the sheitel because it is an expression of their Jewishness, married or not.

Some Haredi men wear a variety of hats, often over a kippah. That’s a whole article by itself, as is the “kippah code” of Israeli men. For more about that, read What different styles of head coverings say about Israeli Jewish men from Pew Research.

So what can you assume from seeing a Jew with a head or hair covering in public ? It’s an expression of their Jewish identity, and they may or may not see it as compulsory. Generally it’s a good idea not to assume much more – every Jew observes in their own way.

Teshuvah, With a Little Help

Image: Woman holds her head as she talks with another. (Serena Wong / Pixabay)

We talk a lot about making teshuvah in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah. An observant Jew will take stock of their life (cheshbon nefesh) and see what needs to change. They will look at their relationships, and see what needs mending and to whom they owe an apology. They may also hear apologies from others, and have to respond to those.

Maimonides teaches a standard for making teshuvah, that it is only complete when we are in the same situation and act rightly. The gossip, for instance, needs to walk away the next time people begin telling juicy stories (and the successive times after that, as well.)

In order to act rightly in a tempting situation, we need a plan. Without a plan, we are apt to fall into old ways of behavior, because that is easiest. The plan needs to be specific: “when X happens, I will do Y.”

This is a point at which a counselor, rabbi, or even a good friend can be helpful. We don’t always see our options (which is often how we got in trouble in the first place.) We may see one or two things we can do, but without suggestions from outside, we may not see the option that will allow us to make genuine change.

It can be embarrassing to say to someone, “I yell at my children too much,” or “I need help thinking of ways to stop gossiping” or “I haven’t been to the dentist in 10 years because I am afraid.” But if our inner response to something is “I just can’t help it” then it is high time to get help from outside.

If you are preparing for the New Year by searching your heart for the things that need to change, know that you don’t need to do this task alone – in fact, you may do a better job of it with a little help from a friend.

A classic on the subject!


The Torah on Crossdressing

Image: JoJo the toy poodle does not wear clothes, which solves the problem.

לֹא־יִהְיֶ֤ה כְלִי־גֶ֙בֶר֙ עַל־אִשָּׁ֔ה וְלֹא־יִלְבַּ֥שׁ גֶּ֖בֶר שִׂמְלַ֣ת אִשָּׁ֑ה כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ כָּל־עֹ֥שֵׂה אֵֽלֶּה׃ (פ)
A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD your God. — Deuteronomy 22

For the past few months, I have been accompanying a young woman as she goes through the grueling process of preparing for gender affirming surgery. There are still many months ahead of her, and I am committed to accompanying her through those as well.

I do not pretend to be anything but a support person and a learner. Most of what I have learned is a deep respect for those individuals who choose the life-affirming path of owning their proper gender, whatever medical modalities they choose or do not choose to employ. They begin in a painful, confusing situation. They have to figure it all out despite opposition that may be psychologically and/or physically violent.

So when I read this week’s Torah portion and the quotation above unrolled before me, I immediately thought of all the ways it has been used to hurt people dealing with gender dysphoria.

It’s one of those lines that seems so obvious we don’t look twice. “No crossdressing!”

Except — what if it is actually a commandment to respect the gender identity of others? If my young friend is certain she is a woman, then according to this verse, forcing her to wear men’s clothing is a to’evah — an abhorrent thing!

Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” Our first impressions of verses from Torah may be clouded by many elements, including our prejudices. May we continue to “turn it and turn it” until our understanding is in line with the main thrust of Torah, which calls for peace and wholeness for all!

In Memoriam

Image: A white rose at the 9/11 Memorial in NYC. ( Wallula / Pixabay)

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! – Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we will soon read as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must strive to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that individual stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.

This is an edited repost of an earlier message on this blog.