A daily love song for the body
February 13, 2013
One of my wintertime rituals is rubbing lotion into my hands and forearms. I keep a little tube of lotion on each of my two desks, the one at home and the one at the synagogue. I don't know whether the dryness stems from living with radiators and fires during the wintertime, or from some natural lack of moisture in the local winter air, but one way or another, my skin is always dry in wintertime. Hand lotion feels like an incredible gift. I can actually see my thirsty skin coming back to life, like a wilted plant becoming vibrant again.
While I'm rubbing the lotion into my palms and the backs of my hands, I say the asher yatzar blessing, praising God Who creates the human body with wisdom. After I had my strokes, I developed a new relationship with the idea that if one of the body's many openings should be accidentally closed, it's no longer possible to stand before God and offer praise.
My relationship with the blessing changed again when I became pregnant and started giving myself daily injections of blood thinner; I recited the blessing every morning as the needle's plunger found its way home. And then I treated my expanding belly to some lotion, both to soothe the sting of the injection and because I couldn't help marveling as my physical form started to shift and change.
Today the blessing has become mundane again. I'm no longer worried about blood clots sneaking their way into my brain; I take my handful of pills every morning, and I trust that they're all doing their jobs and that my blood will continue to flow freely where it ought to be flowing. And I no longer have to steel myself to pinch a generous fold of flesh and guide a needle home. But the habit of reciting the blessing remains, a reminder that my body is a miracle -- that every body is a miracle, always.
Several years ago I learned how to sing the sheva brachot, the seven blessings which are central to every Jewish wedding ceremony. I learned to sing them from my teacher Hazzan Jack Kessler, who chants them according to the trope (the system of cantillation) used for the Song of Songs. It's a perfect match. I love singing the blessings which sanctify the heart of a wedding using this ancient ancestral melody which is linked with our tradition's greatest text about companionship and love.
One of those blessings begins ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו -- Blessed are You, Adonai, Sovereign of creation, Who creates humanity in Your image. The asher yatzar blessing begins with those same words, though instead of "in your image," the daily prayer says "with wisdom," and continues on from there. But because I have so frequently sung those opening words to this Shir haShirim melody, that's the melody I naturally hear in my head when I think of the words of the asher yatzar blessing.
And it reminds me to relate to my own body with love. To marvel at the wonder of having a body that works, and to treat my physical form with the love, kindness, and compassion I seek to bring to my marriage and to all of my relationships. Every time I grace my body with lotion, every time I recite the asher yatzar, is a chance to sing a love song to my body. Imperfect though it surely is, this body carries me through the day -- enables me to walk, to touch, to eat, to sleep, to sing -- grew our son from component cells. Yes, this body is worth celebrating. Always.