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Easton, PA 18042
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Thursday, 7:25 am
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Friday, 8:00 pm
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BAS Rabbi's Message

Message from Rabbi Daniel Stein

September, 2011

Some of you may recall that last year on Kol Nidre I made an appeal for mitzvot--I asked that, in addition to the traditional Kol Nidre pledge, members of our community think about one new mitzvah to incorporate into their lives for the coming year. I mentioned that I would be working on the mitzvah of shmirat ha-guf--respecting and caring for my body that our tradition regards as belonging to God. After a year of challenges, this summer I discovered an exercise program that worked for me, and felt like I was on the right track. Like most changes, I know that it will take time for it to become a full part of my life, but I am confident that I am on my way. So, when the new month of Elul began at the end of August, I started to think about what mitzvah I would focus on in the coming year.

As fate would have it, the beginning of Elul also brought a rather unwelcome temporary resident to the Stein household, a 4.5 mm obstructing kidney stone which our rabbinic friends kindly named Evan--Hebrew for stone, and, well, I’ve been laid up for a few days. And while I have spent a good deal of time thinking about perceptions and making sure to drink appropriate amounts of fluids, I have also thought a good deal about a particular prayer in our liturgy which seems especially appropriate to my situation. The Babylonian Talmud, in Brachot 60b, suggests the following ritual: “On entering a privy one should say: 'Be honoured, ye honoured and holy ones that minister to the Most High. Give honour to the God of Israel. Wait for me till I enter and do my needs, and return to you’…When he comes out he says: 'Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities.

It is fully known before the throne of Thy glory that if one of them should be [improperly] opened or one of them closed it would be impossible for a man to stand before Thee'. How does the blessing conclude? R. Papa said: 'Who healest all flesh and doest wonderfully'.”

For most of my life, I had little interest in this ritual--the idea that my religion commands prayer even at using the restroom struck me as comical. If I took any interest, it was only in the form of a kind curiosity, inspired by the writing of Yiddishist Michael Wex in Born to Kvetch. Wex writes: “People unfamiliar with traditional Judaism are often surprised to learn that observant Jews recite a blessing called asher yotser after going

to the toilet, but there isn’t a Yiddish speaker alive who can make do without the phrase asher yotser papir, the paper of ‘He Who has created,’ the usual Yiddish term for toilet paper.” (I encourage you to read the rest of Wex’s brilliant analysis; it is smart, witty, and compelling, but a tad too course for this column).

Until my recent, and thank God, relatively benign health scare, I seldom thought of this prayer, and only occasionally, if ever, recited it in my morning worship. But as I listened to my diagnosis, I thanked God that I was born at this time in history. My treatment involved medicines, x-rays, and expert care within in minutes of the problem; if my friend Evan does not exit voluntarily, plans are in place to hasten his departure. But even a century ago, before antibiotics, a stone like mine could have caused serious infection and even death. The words of the Talmud echoed in my ears, and I began to reevaluate the role of the asher yatzar prayer in my religious practice.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein of Albany suggests a few key points for understanding the prayer: if we return to the text from the Talmud, we see that it begins with a plea to “the holy ones.” These, according to Jewish lore, are the two angels that guard a person as they travel in life. Semetic religions believe that while God’s presence fills the world, holy things cannot share a space with the impure. It is for that reason that Moses removed his shoes at the burning bush, and why devout Muslims remove their shoes before prayer. Similarly, these accompanying angels must wait outside the “privy,” leaving humanity unprotected. This spiritual danger parallels the psychological fear expressed in the prayer upon exiting the restroom: Thank God I survived death, for even that trivial moment could, in fact, be one of great danger.

My experiences this month reminded me that even seemingly insignificant events can be ones of great importance. The asher yatzar prayer is one of many rituals in Judaism designed to help us uncover the deeper meaning of the events in our life, and, in that spirit, I will try to do a better job this year of incorporating it into my religious practice. As we approach the High Holidays, I hope that you, too, will think about a ritual or mitzvah that might be significant to you in the coming year. This practice, I think, can help to contribute to a year of meaning and growth.
 
Dena and I extend our best wishes for a sweet and fulfilling new year, and look forward to seeing many of you over the holidays.

L’shana tova,
Rabbi Daniel Stein