Friday, March 11, 2011

Pooping and Praying

Recently, I was talking with some of our students about favorite prayers, and I mentioned that mine was probably “Asher Yetzar.” It's a prayer which is said as part of the morning ritual, and at one other time, which I'll mention later. Gates of Prayer, the prayer book with which most of us are most familiar, as a “translation” of it which I really don't like:

Blessed is our Eternal God, Creator of the universe, who has made our bodies with wisdom, combining veins, arteries, and vital organs into a finely balanced network. Wondrous Fashioner and Sustainer of life, Source of our health and our strength, we give You thanks and praise.

There's nothing wrong with that prayer, itself. It's actually quite lovely, I think. My problem with it is that it doesn't reflect the Hebrew. It's not really a translation, rather a different prayer, on a somewhat related theme. Here's the translation from the Reform movement's newest prayerbook, Mishkan Teflilah, which is much more faithful to the Hebrew:

Blessed are you*, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who formed the human body with skill, creating the body's many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before You. Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.

*Actually, Mishkan Tefillah has “Praise to You” here. But I really don't like translating baruch as “praise.” I'll give you my diatribe about that some other time.

It's a pretty yucky prayer. Pretty gory, I mean. Think about what our “pathways” and “openings” really are. Most of them aren't so pleasant. And, more to the point, if something which is supposed to be open gets stopped up, or if something which is supposed to be closed bursts open, all sorts of unpleasant, biological things are bound to follow.

And, much more importantly, you're probably going to die.

Well, not in our day and age. If the clogging/bursting isn't too bad, and you can get medical treatment, you'll probably make it. But, that definitely wasn't so for our ancestors. Either of those malfunctions would lead to a very unpleasant, very messy, and very painful death. The Talmud even mentions somewhere that of all the ways to die naturally, bowel troubles are probably the worst. I guess a lot of people really did suffer and die this way, back then*.

* Let's add this to the long list of reasons we should all be happy were alive today, not then.

So, if our body stopped working—if something clogs or bursts—Then what can't we do? Lots of things. I asked those students to list some of those things, and they quickly fired them off: watch TV, eat, do sports, and more. They quickly realized that the real answer is: all things, actually. If something clogs or bursts, that we can't do anything, because we're dead.

But, the genius of the prayer is that it skips over all of these relatively mundane activities, and jumps to one: standing before God. Praying. The most basically sacred act of human existence. In some ways, the ultimate act of humanity—trying to be with God. Trying to feel God's presence.

The things that we do in the bathroom are among the most base of all human activities. They're awfully yucky. We don't like to talk about them; we don't like to even think about them. But, without them, we couldn't do anything else, including the most exalted of all human activities, whatever you think those are. Without the gross stuff, we can't do the holy stuff. Which means that the gross stuff is actually holy, itself, because it enables holiness.

As I told the kids, and as I love to say, if you can't poop, then you can't pray. And that means that pooping is holy. In a way.

We tend to naturally divide the world into the sacred and the profane. But, on some level, it's a false distinction. Because the sacred and profane are inextricably mixed and inseparable. That which is profane is inherently sacred. We just don't always think of it that way. But, we can learn to.

Oh, the other place we say this prayer? After going to the bathroom. We walk out of the bathroom (traditionally, we don't say prayers and bathrooms) and remind ourselves that without that room, we couldn't walk into any other rooms, including the most sacred.

Give it a try—even if you don't want to use this prayer, or any other prayer. Next time you go to the bathroom, take a moment and be thankful. Think how incredibly lucky, how blessed, we are to be healthy, and thus to be alive. Think how, if we were born just a few centuries ago, our lives could be so different, and so utterly dependent on our biology. Give thanks for everything in our lives, even for poop.

Especially that.


Anonymous said...

I was so pleased to find this post! I'm a born Jew but was raised in a very non-observant home. In the last few years, I've tried to become more observant, and one of the things I discovered that I absolutely love about Judaism is that we're encouraged to thank G-d for just this thing! Our religion is so down to earth that it recognizes the most ordinary -- "base" as you put it -- activity as a gift from G-d while at the same time it's so spiritual that we try to emulate the angels during Kedusha. Our wondrous religion addresses everything that we are and do.

Anonymous said...

I am a Christian and, like many Christians, tend to see God in "spiritual" terms. Learning more about Judaism and learning about this prayer has helped ground my faith much more in this present, physical, world.

Thank you.