by Dr. Karen Wasserstein
What is our religious relationship with our bodies when they do not work as we expect?
Our bodies do not always work as they “should.” This may be something like a broken leg where people can see the injury from the outside, or fertility issues where we often struggle in private. Our bodies may not work for a short period of time or for long periods of time. We may have hope in medicines and procedures, or we may have run out of options and are struggling with this new reality.
I have always been drawn to the bracha of Asher Yatzar, which we say every time we go to the bathroom.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלקינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בו נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבודֶךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם או יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוד לְפָנֶיךָ אֲפִילוּ שָׁעָה אֶחָת: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ רופֵא כָל בָּשר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשות:
Praised are You, Lord our God King of the universe, who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings and cavities, hidden and known, before your honored throne. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist and to stand before You. Praised are You, Lord, healer of all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.
What is the meaning of the part of the bracha that says: שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם או יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוד לְפָנֶיךָ אֲפִילוּ שָׁעָה אֶחָת: Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist and to stand before You.
I have always found inspiration in the literal meaning of this line; we thank God for all the intricacies of our body, because if even one cavity or opening was blocked and didn’t work, it could be fatal and we would no longer be able to stand before Him.
But recently I have come to see it differently: what does it mean to say, “I cannot stand before You”? Is it about physically standing before God?
Or could it be a recognition of a psychological or spiritual state of mind? When we are faced with something not working physically in our bodies, it can be devastating. It is a struggle that can leave someone depleted emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We can become depressed or lost. We can feel that we cannot face God, not know what we would do if we stood before Him — or we feel angry enough to not want to stand before God, to turn away from Him.
Infertility is a time of struggle with our physical realities. How could this happen to me? My spouse? To us as a couple? The bracha tells us, that even in that situation, the moments we struggle privately or in which we are most uncomfortable, in those moments too we have a place standing before God, with the physical body that we have, and we believe that we were created “wisely,” בְּחָכְמָה.
Asher Yatzar comes to explain that reality to us, that all of these reactions are human, are reasonable. That it is ok to struggle to stand before God, that it is not always easy. But maybe God does not expect us to be anything but human — to have times when it is easy to stand before Him and times that it is not.
Read the bracha again, but instead of picturing a very physical opening or cavity of the body, picture our emotional and psychological ones.
The Bracha concludes.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ רופֵא כָל בָּשר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשות:
Praised are you, Lord, healer of all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.
Perhaps we are asking God to help us feel able to stand before him.
God gave us imperfect bodies, but we do not live alone. We live in communities where there are professionals who can help when we are in physical or psychological pain. There are teachers, advisors and Rabbis who can help teach us about the ways of God and ways to connect to God. We live in communities with social support and support groups, and we have ways to exercise our minds and bodies to be the best we can be, at any given time in our lives. Hopefully we can use our own resources and those available to us to recognize that God doesn’t need us to be whole without any physical issues to stand before Him — He just needs us to feel we can stand before Him in whatever state we are in.
Dr. Karen Wasserstein is a psychologist licensed in Maryland and Virginia who specializes in helping people with fertility issues. She provides counseling to individuals and couples who are trying to build their families, as well as consultations to those using third party reproduction. Dr. Wasserstein provides psychoeducation within the Jewish community about issues relating to fertility. Her hope is to help both lay members and professionals become more aware and sensitive to the needs and experiences of all community members.