SEPTEMBER 23, 2015

In a few weeks I will turn the big “five-oh.”  Yep, that’s right – I’ll be turning 50, I’ll reach the half-century mark.  And you know what that means, right?  Time for a colonoscopy!

My colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, recently wrote on the ReformJudaism.org blog an entry which he entitled “What’s Jewish about Getting a Colonoscopy?”  He noted that

Most people cringe at the mention of this invasive procedure.  Most everybody seems uncomfortable discussing something even minimally connected to our nether region orifices… 

Yet our intestinal passageways are critical to the smooth functioning of our bodies.  We can’t enjoy a delicious meal, or a tasty evening of wine and cheese, without having a way to digest and remove the processed waste.  As we age, we need to be ever more cognizant of “the pipes and the plumbing.”

…It’s a mitzvah to go get your colonoscopy.  It’s short-term discomfort for long-term gain, and the discomfort we face in preparing beats the alternative if a polyp or cancer goes undetected. [July 29, 2015, www.reformjudaism.org/print/126211]

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a well-respected scholar of (amongst other things) medical ethics, and a theology professor at the American Jewish University, teaches that God

not only created us but literally owns our bodies throughout our lives and even in death.  It is as if we were renting an apartment:  we have fair use of the apartment during the time of its lease, but the owner can and usually does demand that we take reasonable care of the apartment and certainly that we not damage it.  So, too, God, according to the Jewish tradition, demands that we take care of ourselves.  This is not an option in the Jewish way of thinking of things; it is a duty we owe to God so that we can serve God in everything we do. [“Caring for Our Bodies in Life and in Death,” Parashat Ki Tetse 5775]

A little over a year ago, when she turned 49, Julie, with whom I have been friends since we both moved onto the same street at the beginning of seventh grade, determined to lose 50 pounds by the time she turned 50.  And she did!  She changed her eating habits and began to exercise.  She looks amazing and like a totally different person!

A little over two years ago, in May 2013 (according to my Runkeeper app!), I started walking.  Walking is supposed to be great exercise and since I’m not much of an athlete, it made sense to start here.  The idea was simply to get in shape (although I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds while I’m at it!).  For the first few months, I walked outdoors once a week with my walking partner; since then I have tried to not only do my outdoor walks, but also to walk indoors to my Leslie Sansone “Walk at Home” DVDs.  With the exception of the six months following my broken kneecap incident in February of last year, I have been walking several times a week since then.  Pushed by my walking partner, I have completed two 5k walks – one on December 31st and one this past April — and one 10k walk — which was just about a month ago.  I have reached goals I never even knew I had!

In our various prayer books for the High Holy Days, Shabbat, and week days, there is a prayer which is traditionally said in private, but which has made its way to the morning liturgy.  The English translation of this prayer is “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who fashioned humans with wisdom and created within [them] many openings and many cavities.  It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if but one of them were to be ruptured or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You.  Blessed are You, God, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

This prayer is known in Hebrew as “Asher Yatzar” and is first found on page 60b of the Talmudic tractate B’rakhot (Blessings).  This page of Talmud begins with the fourth-century Babylonian sage Abbaye teaching that one should say the words of this blessing after using the bathroom.

Our ancestors understood the importance of taking care of our physical bodies, even to the point of telling people to thank God after going to the bathroom!

Even before Talmudic times, our ancestors understood how important this was.  The great teacher Hillel, who lived in the first century B.C.E., one day took leave of his students.  They asked him, “Master, where are you going?”  He replied, “To do a pious deed.”  They asked, “What may that be?”  He replied, “To take a bath.”  They said, “Is that a pious deed?”  He replied, “Yes.  If, in the theaters and circuses, the images of the king must be kept clean by the person to whom they have been entrusted, how much more is it a duty of a person to care for the body, since we have been created in the divine image and likeness.” [Vayikra Rabbah, cited in “Some Jewish Quotes From Over the Centuries Related to Bodily Health,” compiled by Simkha Weintraub]

The Talmud teaches us that it is forbidden to live in a city that has no bathhouse. [Mishnah Kiddushin 4:12]  [And] In Tractate B’rakhot we learn that we are to drink plenty of water with our meals [40a].  The Alexandrian philosopher Philo, who lived between 20 B.C.E. and 40 C.E., noted that “The body is the soul’s house.  Shouldn’t we therefore take care of our house so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?” [cited in Weintraub]

In his seminal work, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides, the twelfth-century physician and commentator, wrote in depth about how to take care of one’s body:  from how much sleep to get every night, to what positions to sleep in; from what foods to eat, to what season of the year to eat them; from when to bathe, to when to have sexual relations. [Hilkhot De’ot Chapter Three]

Sh’mirat HaGuf, literally “guarding the body,” is a value which can be traced all the way back to the Torah.  In Deuteronomy 4, as Moses is speaking to the people before they enter the Land, he tells the people to “take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.” [v. 9]   Our Etz Hayim Torah commentary notes that “This verse has been used in contemporary times to declare smoking and unhealthy eating and drinking to be practices that violate the Torah.” [p. 1008]

Rabbi Dorff, whom I quoted earlier, teaches that we “have a fiduciary responsibility to our Creator to treat [our bodies] with respect and appreciation, caring for them…through living life in a way that promotes our physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual health.” [ibid.]

This new year is a good time to resolve to be Shomrei HaGuf (guardians of our bodies), to resolve to do what we can to protect this amazing gift. 

And so I conclude this morning with part of an alternative reading paired with the “Asher Yatzar” prayer in our new Mishkan HaNefesh prayer book:

[Dear God:]

You have taught us:
Guard yourselves well; take good care of your lives.

Your word calls to us:
Do no harm to yourself!  Do not weaken or exhaust yourself!

In gratitude for the gift of our bodies,
we pray for a year of renewed health and replenished strength.

May caring for our bodies become our daily practice.
May we be attentive to our need for proper food, sleep, and exercise…

Baruch Atah, Adonai, rofei chol basar u’mafli la’asot.
We praise You, Holy One, for wondrous acts of creation and healing.

As we all say:  Amen!