Legends of the Talmud: fantastical stories, in fantastic art
Deep winter

Gratitude for my body

I sat down this morning wanting to do some writing, and when I let my mind clear, what emerged was this subject. Even as I was writing this post, I had the sneaking feeling I had written something similar before -- but I intentionally didn't seek out that older post until I had finished drafting this one. It turns out that I've written almost this exact post before -- two years ago in deep midwinter, just like now. Apparently this is stuff I think about a lot, maybe especially at this time of year.


13058I don't manage to say 100 blessings every day. Actually, I'm not certain of that; it's not as though I'm keeping score, making a note on my phone every time I remember to bless. There may in fact be days when I organically offer a hundred moments of gratitude to God. But I suspect that most days my count is lower than that. Still, one blessing I offer every day is the asher yatzar. Here's how it goes:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being; You formed the human body with wisdom, and placed within it many openings and closings. It is known before Your throne of glory that if one of these were to be opened where it should be closed, or closed where it should be opened, we would not be able to stand before You and offer praise. Blessed are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh and worker of miracles!

I first became conscious of this blessing as a practice because it was printed on laminated posters which hung just outside the bathrooms at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York. The words were there as a reminder to us that in Jewish tradition, even the act of elimination can be sanctified with words of blessing. I'm pretty certain that when I first encountered it I was charmed by the fact that we have blessings for pretty much everything. But I know it didn't really hit home for me then.

The blessing made a whole new kind of sense to me once I landed in the hospital with that second stroke. It is known that if one of these were to be closed where it should be opened... if a blood clot, for instance, should travel to the brain and block the flow of blood where it is needed... I would be unable to stand before You, indeed. My own brushes with illness have brought this truth home for me in a new way. And although I am (thank God) healthy and hearty now, the blessing's truth remains.

The truth is, having a body which more or less works most of the time is a flat-out miracle. Most of us don't tend to think of it that way, because it's incredibly difficult to live in the world while also feeling genuine wonder at every single miracle which occurs. My heart is beating: that's amazing! Hey, it's still beating: amazing! My kidneys are filtering my blood without my conscious control: amazing! No one can live with that awareness all the time. But our lack of awareness doesn't negate the miracle.

When I became pregnant I started experiencing the blessing in yet another way. Because I was a stroke survivor, and pregnancy increases the risk of stroke, I needed to inject myself with blood thinner every day. I am one of those people who shies away from needles even at the safe distance of seeing them on tv, so I was anxious about having to begin every day with an injection. So I developed the practice of reciting the asher yatzar while administering the blood thinner each morning.

Pregnancy also offered me new opportunities to marvel at the things my body does without my conscious intervention. Not only does my heart continue to beat, not only do my organs continue to do all of the things they're meant to do, but somehow my body knew how to grow a human being. I certainly wasn't driving that bus. My body knew what it was doing without me needing to be in charge. My body knew how to grow and change in ways I couldn't possibly have imagined.

And then our son was born, and the injections ended, and my relationship with my body went through a rollercoaster of changes: wonder that I had grown a human being from component cells, amazement that my body could produce the nourishment he needed, and then exhaustion and postpartum depression which deadened me to the wonder of my body (and of anything else.) I think there was a period of time when I wasn't saying many blessings for anything at all, my body included.

These days I silently recite the blessing every morning while I'm doing the incredibly mundane task of moisturizing my skin. This is a kind of routine wintertime maintenance for me. Between the cold dry air outside and the heated air indoors my skin gets dry and itchy at this time of year. It's a minor affliction, and it can be averted with a little bit of lotion. I try to use the moisturizing time to cultivate gratitude for my body. And as soon as I reach for the lotion, the blessing pops into my head.

Along with the words comes a melody. I sing them silently to myself using the trope, the melody-system, for Song of Songs. In rabbinic school I learned to use that melody for the sheva brachot, the seven blessings at the heart of every Jewish wedding. (I think that's a beautiful tradition. It makes sense that we would sing wedding blessings using the melody-system designed for Tanakh's great love-text.) So if it's a melody I associate with wedding blessings, why am I humming it to myself?

Because one of those seven blessings begins with the same words as the asher yatzar blessing -- "Blessed are You Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who creates the human being..." The wedding blessing goes on from there in a different direction, but because I have sung those words so frequently to this melody, the melody and the words have become intertwined. So when I am reciting the asher yatzar blessing to myself in the morning, that's the melody which arises.

I love praying the asher yatzar blessing to this melody because it makes the prayer feel like a love song both to my body, flawed and imperfect as it is, and to the One Who creates me anew in every moment. Singing a love song to my body isn't always easy. I know I'm not alone in looking in the mirror and seeing everything I like least about this physical form. But this blessing reminds me to look beyond those things to the miracle which underlies them. My heart is beating: that's amazing!

I can't live in constant awareness of these miracles. But if saying the blessing every day offers me an opportunity to glimpse the wonder again for a moment, that feels like enough.



Sanctifying the body, 2005

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

Every body is a reflection of God, 2013

A daily love song to my body, 2013