Friday, June 15, 2012

Blessings of Body and Soul (adapted from Yom Kippur 2011 sermon)



The following words are adapted from my Yizkor sermon on Yom Kippur 2011.  I am glad to say that since I wrote these words in September 2011, Rabbi Ronnie Cahana’s health has been gradually improving, and he is recovering his ability to speak.  We wish him a continued refuah shleimah.

I have a colleague who is a Conservative rabbi in the Montreal area named Rabbi Ronnie Cahana.  He is in his mid-50’s.  I have only met him a couple of times, but his poetry and writing are legendary.

Rabbi Cahana is attracting a fair amount of attention right now around the world - for either a very troubling reason, or a very inspiring reason, or both, depending on your perspective.  Sadly, Rabbi Cahana suffered a massive stroke in his brain stem this summer, and he has been hospitalized ever since.  He has been unable to talk, to move his limbs, or even to wave his hand.
But his situation is unusual and unique in that he apparently has absolutely no cognitive impairment.  This means that he has been able to communicate with his family, by blinking, and sometimes by mouthing words.  Through this process he has continued his writing and teaching Torah, thanks to the extraordinary dedication of his family, who sit with him patiently, for hours at a time, laboriously recording his teachings, one for each torah portion of the week, sending them to his community, and putting them on his web site (
www.rabbicahana.com).  He even blinked out a eulogy for a beloved relative when he was told of her death, and it was read at her funeral.

For some of us, this scenario may sound like the very definition of a worst nightmare - to be fully competent mind and spirit, trapped inside a broken body.  But this is emphatically not what Rabbi Cahana has said about his condition.  Visitors comment that they brace themselves for total heartbreak, but they leave the hospital inspired and comforted.

Blinking letter by letter, Rabbi Cahana communicated these words, among many other teachings, to be transmitted to his community and beyond:  he said: 
“Emotional paralysis is far worse than physical paralysis.....To live humanly is to believe in the pure and the profound. To live Jewishly… is to choose the blessing over the curse. I choose blessing and feel blessed.”

Rabbi Cahana’s teachings reflect that he is willing to face whatever God has in store for him,
though he believes strongly in the power of prayer and feels that other people’s prayers are helping him.  Somehow, his family manages to keep a life-affirming atmosphere in his room at the Montreal Neurological Institute - his wife Karen jokingly refers to him as the ‘Blinkischer Rebbe.”  And against all odds, his condition is very very slowly improving.
This story raises so many questions for me that I don’t even know where to start.  It raises psychological and spiritual questions: What prompts some people to respond to challenge the way that Rabbi Cahana has, and his family has, while many others might not be so persistent?
It raises ethical questions: How does one weigh the value of a life of someone who is terribly severely disabled?  It raises philosophical and theological questions:  What does it mean to have a healthy soul in a diseased body?    And why would such a challenging situation befall such a good person, apparently randomly?

As you suspected, I can’t answer these questions.  But when I heard his story, I found myself not only moved, but also  overwhelmed with my own gratitude for my functioning body, and also deeply admiring the love in his family that has permitted his wife and daughters to liberate his soul by liberating his thoughts, which otherwise would have been imprisoned in his body.

One of the most unusual Jewish prayers in the entire prayerbook is a prayer that is recited as part of the daily morning service.  It’s called Asher Yatzar, and it is the most outstanding passage in the prayerbook that deals with the body and health.  This prayer was written in the Talmudic era, at least 1800 years ago.  “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who created the human being with wisdom, and created in the human body various openings and closings, Such that if just one of them were to open or close, it would be impossible to stand before You.
Blessed are You, who heals all flesh and does wondrous deeds!”

Now prayer is one of the most unusual in the entire prayerbook, not because of its content, but rather because of the context for which its recitation is prescribed in the Talmud.   The commentary to our new Mahzor Lev Shalem says, “It is a berakhah to be recited after taking care of bodily functions.”    That is, of course, a euphemism that I probably don’t need to spell out for you.  This prayer expresses thanks for the wondrous construction of the body, that even its most mundane functions are miraculous if you should choose to contemplate them.

Some of you may be surprised that Jewish tradition prescribes a prayer for such an occasion.
But it’s really not so surprising.  Jewish spirituality specializes in making ordinary moments extraordinary - helping us see miracles each moment of every day, from the bite of an apple, to the wings on a fly, to the amazing capacity of a child to learn to walk and talk. If there’s a blessing for seeing a sunrise, and a blessing for eating a sandwich, and a blessing for hearing good news, and bad news, and a blessing for washing your hands, why shouldn’t there be a blessing to be recited “after taking care of bodily functions”?  It’s a typical Jewish effort to draw out the sparks of holiness from the most necessary and private moments of our lives -  to remember to regard the body as a gift, and to appreciate every moment that any part of it is in working order.

For many of us, this Yom Kippur, among our personal teshuvah goals is to take better care of our bodies in the coming year.  This is a Jewish imperative considering that Jewish tradition regards them not as our property, but as a long-term loan to us.

But thanking God for our bodies is not the end of the story.  Four thousands of years: Jewish tradition has asserted that we are our bodies, but we are more than our bodies.  In the daily prayerbook, immediately when we have finished thanking God for the body, we thank God for the soul.  That next prayer, Elohai Neshamah, reads, “God, the soul You gave me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me, You protect it within me -- though some day in the future You will take it back from me to restore it to me in time to come.”….

My colleague Rabbi Stuart Kelman was a friend of Debbie Friedman z”l, the remarkable Jewish musician, composer and educator who died much too young in January 2011.  When he spoke at her funeral, he told the following story about the body and the soul. 

Several years ago, Rabbi Kelman was the coordinator for the Bureau of Jewish Education for the San Francisco Bay area.    He said:  “I invited [Debbie] to come to the East Bay to lead a retreat for teachers, and I wanted her to teach music that would restore and refresh the souls of Jewish educators.”  But when invited, Debbie made another suggestion.  She indicated that she didn’t want to go just as a performer, just as teacher of music.  Rather, she wanted to teach about Jewish prayer alongside Rabbi Kelman, and music would simply be one of her teaching techniques, ““the instrument that allows everyone to stretch his or her spiritual muscles.”

Debbie and Rabbi Kelman started to teach about Jewish prayer together, in various venues around the Jewish world.  One year, at a national Jewish education conference, they were scheduled to teach a room of several hundred Jewish educators about the Birchot Ha-Shachar -- the blessings that are traditionally recited each morning, including the blessing for the body and the blessing for the soul that I have mentioned above.

According to Rabbi Kelman, “[Debbie] had already written [a melody to the paragraph] ‘Elohai Neshama’ - ‘the soul that You have given me, my God, is pure,’ and we looked at that paragraph’s companion in the prayerbook, ‘Asher Yatzar,’ about the natural functions fo the human body, and I asked her to compose a melody to this paragraph, so we could teach the whole thing as a unit.  Actually, I had asked her about six months before to do it, but....”  (At this point during the funeral, there was laughter in the room, as it was well known that punctuality was not Debbie’s strongest quality.)

“Finally, about an hour before we were to teach, I came into her room, handed her her guitar,
and said, ‘so what’s the melody for Asher Yatzar?’  Well, she had finally composed it.
We sang it a few times, sang it into the tape recorder, and went downstairs to teach this whole unit for 3 hours to 250 people.  I taught about Elohai Neshama [the blessing of the soul],
and she played her melody for the blessing of the soul. 

“Then I taught about Asher Yatzar [the blessing of the body].  I turned to her for the melody, and  -- suddenly - out came an entirely different melody.  ,  -- [not the one that Debbie had taught immediately before the class.]  We sang it a few times to become familiar with it, this mysterious new melody that apparently did not exist just a few minutes ago.  Then, to my surprise, she stopped everyone from singing it.  Again, I was a bit taken aback about what was going to take place.  She split the room in two, started on the left side, singing Elohai, then started the right side singing Asher Yatzar.”  Debbie had apparently, on the spot, composed a melody to Asher Yatzar, the blessing of the body, that could be sung beautifully, simultaneously, with the melody for Elohai Neshama, the blessing for the soul.  (You can hear these melodies together at http://media.urj.org/educate/blessings/friedman_elohai_asher_yatzar.mp3.)

So what was Debbie trying to say here?  Was she showing that, ideally, body and soul are in harmony?  I think it goes deeper than that.  Speaking musically, these two musical lines were not merely in harmony, but in counterpoint.  I think she was teaching us that, in her view, body and soul are in counterpoint -- two or more lines of music that are completely independent, that can exist on their own, but that can combine together, creating an artful pattern of dissonance and consonance, tension and release.  Sometimes the lines are in sync with each other, and out of sync with each other; sometimes one is primary, sometimes the other is primary.  But when it’s all over, you look at the sometimes rocky relationship between the two and hopefully you can say, “That was a piece of art.’

It may make a little more sense if you know that from her mid-30’s, the first time I met her,
Debbie Friedman faced serious and debilitating illness and chronic pain; this young superstar of the Jewish music world was being transported in a wheelchair or physically carried from place to place, though once she was up on stage, you wouldn’t have believed it, because of how totally full of life she was.  She certainly had reason to be frustrated or angry that her body had apparently been created very imperfectly.  And yet, at her funeral, Rabbi Kelman noted how extraordinary it was that “Debbie struggled so mightily with her body - [but she] had an immense and shining soul which allowed us to be grateful to God for both.”

The ancient Rabbi Alexandri is quoted in the Midrash as saying:  Most regular people prefer not to use broken utensils, and even find it to reflect a loss of dignity.  But God is different:  ha-kadosh baruch hu, kol klei tashmishav shevurin hen.  Every single one of the vessels that God uses to do God’s work is broken.  Each one of us is a broken vessel, but we are capable of doing divine work despite our brokenness.  During the coming year, may we achieve renewal and healing of both body and soul.