Thursday, January 14, 2010

VA’ERA 5770

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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The following excerpt is from an article entitled, “For Everything a Blessing”, by Dr. Kenneth Prager. It was printed in the Journal of American Medical Association1:

“Over the years, reciting the asher yatzar has become for me and opportunity to offer thanks not just for the proper functioning of my excretory organs, but for my overall good health. The text, after all, refers to catastrophic consequences of the rupture or obstruction of any bodily structure, not only those of the urinary or gastrointestinal tract. Could Abayei2, for example, have foreseen that "blockage" of the "cavity," or lumen of the coronary artery would lead to the commonest cause of death in industrialized countries some 16 centuries later?

“I have often wondered if other people also yearn for some way to express gratitude for their good health. Physicians especially, who are exposed daily to the ravages that illness can wreak, must sometimes feel the need to express thanks for being well and thus well-being. Perhaps a generic, nondenominational asher yatzar could be composed for those who want to verbalize their gratitude for being blessed with good health.

“There was one unforgettable patient whose story reinforced the truth and beauty of the asher yatzar for me forever. Josh was a 20-year-old student who sustained an unstable fracture of his third and fourth cervical vertebrae in a motor vehicle crash. He nearly died from his injury and required emergency intubation and ventilatory support. He was initially totally quadriplegic but for weak flexion of his right biceps.

“A long and difficult period of stabilization and rehabilitation followed. There were promising signs of neurological recovery over the first few months that came suddenly and unexpectedly: movement of a finger here, flexion of a toe there, return of sensation here, adduction of a muscle group there. With incredible courage, hard work, and an excellent physical therapist, Josh improved day by day. In time, and after what seemed like a miracle, he was able to walk slowly with a leg brace and a cane.

“But Josh continued to require intermittent catheterization. I know only too well the problems and perils this young man would face for the rest of his life because of a neurogenic bladder. The urologists were very pessimistic about his chances for not requiring catheterization. They had not seen this occur after a spinal cord injury of this severity.

“Then the impossible happened. I was there the day Josh no longer required a urinary catheter. I thought of Abayei's asher yatzar prayer. Pointing out that I could not imagine a more meaningful scenario for its recitation, I suggested to Josh, who was also a yeshiva graduate, that he say the prayer. He agreed. As he recited the ancient b’racha, tears welled in my eyes.

“…Josh is my son.”


It is often frustrating to arrange a meeting with a busy and important person. One of the most effective means is to learn the busy person’s routine and schedule, in order to figure out where/when he will be available for a few precious moments.

When G-d commanded Moshe to instruct Pharaoh to let the Jews go free, He informed Moshe of a well-kept secret about where he could ‘catch Pharaoh’. “Go to Pharaoh in the morning – behold! He goes out to the water – and you shall stand opposite him at the river’s bank, and the staff that was turned into the snake you shall take in your hand3.”

Rashi, quoting the Medrash, explains that Pharaoh went down to the Nile to fulfill his normal bodily functions. Because Pharaoh proclaimed himself to be a god he had to pretend that he had no bodily needs. Thus, each morning he would furtively head down to the Nile to ‘take care of his ungodliness’.

In Egypt, the serpent symbolized the authority and might of the Pharaoh4. That was part of the reason why G-d instructed Moshe to carry the staff which had previously been transformed into a snake in the presence of Pharaoh and his court, when he went to meet Pharaoh. At that prior meeting, after the Egyptians demonstrated that they too could transform a staff into a snake, the staff of Aharon swallowed up all of their staffs. The hidden message to Egypt was that the staff, which represented G-d’s Word, would ultimately decimate the serpent, which represented Egyptian authority.

The Nile River whose life giving waters sustained all of Egyptian agriculture and economy was also an Egyptian deity. Pharaoh claimed that he controlled the Nile which made him a god. In truth, while Pharaoh and the Nile did share a ‘relationship’, however, it was not a relationship of divinity, but Pharaoh in his most debased humanity.

Now as Moshe stood before a chagrined Pharaoh and held up the staff, the gods of Egypt were being exposed as mere forces of nature to be reckoned with.

Pharaoh’s decision to deify himself is perplexing. We can imagine that there were times during the day when it must have been a challenge for him to maintain his divine image, as there must have been occasions where the charade weighed heavily upon him (in more ways than one). Even if Pharaoh was not a god he would still have been respected as the totalitarian almighty ruler of the mightiest empire of the ancient world. Why did he feel the need to project himself as divine?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz zt’l explained that this is an example of the extremes people will go to for the sake of garnering honor and aggrandizement. Despite the fact that Pharaoh would have commanded incredible respect as a mighty ruler, his insatiable desire for glory compelled him to reach for an even higher level of admiration, as a deity. For that insignificant difference, Pharaoh deemed it worthwhile to suffer the pain and aggravation necessary to pretend to be a god.

The fact that Pharaoh’s charade involved obscuring his bodily needs is no coincidence. Our Sages teach us that our need and miraculous ability to release the waste inside of us should be an incredibly humbling experience. The lengthy blessing recited after one fulfills his bodily needs, helps us to tune in to the incredible process.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l5 notes that it behooves us to be aware of the miraculous endowment which G-d grants us in the form of the human body. When we contemplate the miraculous workings of the organs in our body, such as the trachea, esophagus, respiratory system, and circulatory system, and we realize that any sudden rupture, or blockage, would place us in a situation of mortal danger, we would be humbled by the healthy functioning of our organs.

The Mirrer Mashgiach, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz zt’l, would humorously quip that ideally every student should send a telegram to his parents after each time he goes to the bathroom, to tell them that thankfully all went well, and he is still healthy.

The verse in Iyov (19:26) states, “From my flesh I see G-d.” When one contemplates the workings of the body, he cannot help but be overwhelmed by the incredible genius of its architect and preserver.

The hubris of Pharaoh forced him to obscure the very function which should have helped him realize his humanity. Pharaoh was caught up in Freud’s most well-known defense mechanism; in the words of Mark Twain, “Denial aint just a river in Egypt.”

G-d promises that if we adhere to the laws and commandments of the Torah6, “All the diseases that I placed upon Egypt, I will not bring upon you, for I am G-d, your healer.” Adherence to the Torah with a sense of servitude is the antidote to the deification of Pharaoh, which ultimately led to his downfall as well as the destruction of Egypt.

If we pay heed to the miracles of our body and it fosters within us humility and subjugation to G-d, all the maladies of Egypt - which were retribution for the arrogance and conceit of Pharaoh and Egypt will not befall us, because we understand that it is only G-d who is our ultimate healer.

“Go to Pharaoh in the morning – behold! He goes out to the water”

“From my flesh I see G-d”

1 Kenneth Prager, M.D., F.A.C.P.; Professor of Clinical Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical care Medicine;
Prager K. "For everything a blessing." A Piece of My Mind column, JAMA. 1997;277:1589.

2 See Berachos 60b, where the gemarah mentions that Abayei was the author of the asher yatzar blessing recited after one has fulfilled his bodily functions

3 7:15

4 In Ancient Egypt, the serpent or “uraeus” was a symbol of the king’s authority. The famous hooded cobra that adorned the headdress of Pharaoh represented his kingship and, according to Egyptian thought, his implied dominion over the world.

5 Rav Schwab on Prayer; “Asher Yatzar”

6 Shemos 15:26


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