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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת בראשית, תש״פ

Parshat B'reishit, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, October 26th, 2019

Our Sacred Bodies

My all-time favorite blessing in the Jewish tradition can be found on page 63 of Siddur Sim Shalom. For those of you who are Hebrew readers, let’s read the Hebrew together first. Now, I’ll share my translation in the English: Praised are You, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, fashioning the human with wisdom and creating within him openings (openings!) and holes (holes!). It is revealed and known before your throne of your glory that if one of them were to be incorrectly blocked, or if one of them were to be incorrectly opened, it would be impossible to exist and to stand before You. Praised are you, Adonai, healer of all flesh, and worker of wonders. This blessing is traditionally recited every single time after we use the restroom. Now,I’m assuming I’m not the only person in the room who has been sick enough that the first day of healing feels like a miracle. With a blessing like this, I can thank God for the body whose default, whose neutral position is one with such intricate workings that I am able to stand up here and sing on this bimah for hours at a time. I can walk my dogs and practice yoga, I can read books, and I can sleep, eat, and breathe. It’s miraculous!

We’ll hear in our parshah today that the first human being was created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and in the modern day, we don’t often think of that image as a physical one. But if we look throughout our text, we see God b’yad hazakah, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. When God gets angry in our Biblical text, vayihar af Adonai, God’s nostrils flare. When God creates humankind, God exhales breath into Adam’s nose. God walks around the Garden of Eden in the moments before God kicks the first humans out of the Garden. Even if our Torah’s use of body parts in God language is mainly poetic, such poetry shows how our physical form can be used to create and sustain. A mighty hand and outstretched arm can free a people from slavery, a burning nose can show a companion how one is really feeling, and a walk around the neighborhood can provide crucial insight. By being created in a physical body, with all of its wondrous complexities, we have been created with the Divine power to learn about and perpetuate the world around us. Within our Creation narrative, God tasks us with ruling over the land and its creatures, as well as with working that land and guarding it. We, humankind, can only take such action, can only live a life of mitzvot, in our physical bodies.

In this first Torah reading of the year, we learn about the importance and Godliness of this skin and bones; we’re reminded that we must do everything in our power to keep our bodies and the bodies of those in our community in proper working condition. Judaism has always been a tradition that encourages medical resources. In the case of Yom Kippur, for example, the Rabbis of the Talmud teach that a person who is ill must eat to save her life. Even if she doesn’t want to eat, and the doctors say that she should, she must eat. Similarly, the Rabbis tell the story of one who finds a pile of rocks on Shabbat. Normally, one may not pick up a pile of rocks on Shabbat if they haven’t been designated for use beforehand. However, if it seems like a person is lying under that pile, a person must start removing rocks to save the person underneath. The principle of saving a life, pikuach nefesh, overrides obligations to any other mitzvah. The only exceptions are if pikuach nefesh will lead to murder, idolatry, or illicit sex.

With today’s medical capabilities, pikuach nefesh stretches farther than one could have imagined as recently as when many of us in this room were born. When we die, we now have the ability to donate our organs to someone else whose life is in danger. I’ve been asked before in this synagogue - is organ donation kosher - and the answer is a resounding yes! We can still perform a respectful burial for a person who has donated their organs, especially for the sake of pikuah nefesh. Researchers, some of whom are a part of this congregation, are looking into how gene therapy might contribute to our healing processes. By using the facilities we have, - our brains, our hands, our eyes, and our ears - we are able to better the chances that humanity around us can successfully p’ru ur’vu, be fruitful and multiply. By investing our personal and societal resources into research and communal access to medical care, we are able to grasp that responsibility we have taken on to create and sustain upon our Divinely created planet.

By creating another being in God’s image, God opened the door to new, responsible creation. God gave us the physical bodies to act, to learn, and even to fix those bodies when something goes wrong. The 13th century Rabbi and doctor, Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, teaches the following: “The maintenance of the body in a healthy and sound condition is a God-chosen way, for, look, it is impossible that one should understand or know anything of the concerning Divine knowledge when he is sick. Therefore, it is necessary for a person to distance himself from things which destroy the body and accustom himself to things which are healthful and life-imparting” (Mishneh Torah: Human Dispositions 4:1). In a lengthy list of how to eat, drink, sleep, and, back to our introduction, use the restroom, Rambam teaches a thousand years of Jews the holy nature of taking care of the physical body. Today, we have endless opportunities to take care of the delicate, complex systems we live within. Along with medical help, we have exercise opportunities, books and magazines on every topic of health, supermarkets packed with all varieties of healthy food choices, and apps and products geared towards making sure we get a good night’s sleep. Today, let us remember that our bodies are sacred and that we have as much a responsibility as we do towards anything else to take care of those bodies originally fashioned from the Divine image.