Rabbi Lisa Kingston
Yom Kippur Adult Service 5777
October 12, 2016
Our Bodies Ourselves: Finding Wholeness without Healing
In a classic episode of Seinfeld called The Movie, the four main characters are trying to meet up, buy tickets, save seats, and see a movie together. But interruptions cause the friends to miss each other outside of the theater. Each time one of the characters arrives at the movie theater, hoping to meet up with the others, they approach the box office attendant and ask if she has seen someone from their crew. And in order to do this they must describe their friends based on their looks. For those super fans, like me here, I'll let you try and guess who is who based on their descriptions: Have you seen . . .
"A short guy with glasses, looked like Humpty Dumpty with a melon head?" (George)
"A pretty woman, you know, kinda short, big wall of hair, face like a frying pan? (Elaine)
"A tall, lanky dufus with a bird face and hair like the bride of Frankenstein?" (Kramer)
“Like, a horse face, big teeth, and a pointed nose?" (Jerry)
These descriptions, certainly meant to be exaggerated, funny, and even cruel, may have been helpful in the comedy for helping the characters eventually find their friends. But diminishing these people down to just their physical traits illustrates something more to us about our relationship to our physicality. Our identities are inextricable from our bodies; or, as the pithy title of the famous book says, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Whether we like it or not, who we are is also what we look like, how we are shaped, the abilities we have, the injuries and illnesses we have endured, the scars we live with. Our bodies are part of who we are.
Jewish tradition inherently understands the importance of our bodies. Created by God, our bodies are a gift from God. In Genesis 2, God shapes the first human’s body from the earth, adama, forming the human, Adam, in perfection. Our perfect bodies are the reason some have interpreted our tradition to deny tattoos, piercings, or cosmetic surgery. Our perfect bodies have inspired the value of Shmirat HaGuf, taking care of our bodies—including eating moderately, sleeping well, bathing, and getting enough exercise. When we think of our relationship to our creator, we are reminded that our bodies are not ours to abuse.
To thank God for the gift of our bodies, we include the blessing Asher Yatzar in our morning liturgy. In this prayer, we marvel at how each person is crafted. We recite, “Blessed are you Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, with Divine Wisdom you have made our bodies, and its many pathways and openings into a finely balanced network. Were just one of them to fail we would lack the strength to stand before you. Baruch Atah Adonai, rofei chol basar umafli laasot: Blessed are you Adonai, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.”
The spiritual exercise of reciting Asher Yatzar in the morning makes us aware of ourselves. It encourages us to be grateful for our bodies, and reminds us of our connection to the divine via our physical form. But while daily nurturing of our bodies through prayer is a nice idea, finding the courage each day to thank God for our physical reality is much harder. It can be a challenge for us to say, “God, you designed my body perfectly; all of the parts work perfectly,” when from our experiences we know they don’t always. Whether a common cold, or a long-term illness, all of us have had challenges with our bodies. We have lost abilities and faculties as we age, we have broken bones and survived surgeries and recoveries. We have existed in bodies that do not match our genders, we have pains and aches that sometimes go away and sometimes linger forever. Each and every one of us have looked in the mirror noticing our own perceived physical flaws—our skin, noses, height, and thighs. We all have had to accept the limitations of our bodies, And yet tradition calls to us with Asher Yaztar. How can we praise God in gratitude of our bodies, when we don’t feel whole? Is there a way to feel whole when our bodies are in need of healing?
Following in the footsteps of Seinfeld, Jewish comedian Amy Schumer is not afraid to use her own looks, size, or weight as inspiration for her comedy. But when others comment or judge her based on her appearance, she’s the first to speak up that it isn’t funny. In her recent memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy writes about a time when a Men's Health magazine published an article that she had written. Although Amy had the byline, the picture that the magazine chose to include alongside the article was of a younger, and most notably, thinner model.
The editor sent Amy a subversive message. Although she was smart enough to be heard, her looks deemed her not worthy enough to be in front of the camera—of getting the credit for her hard work. Our physical bodies are connected to feelings of our own value and how we are to understand our place in the world. When we receive messages, from the media, from our workplaces, from our families, or even from our own conscience, that we don’t look a certain way, we can convince ourselves that we are not worthy of other things, like love, respect, careers, friendship, and more.
Because valuing ourselves is connected to so much more, Schumer fought back against that magazine editor, eventually getting her picture included alongside her article. Although the printing had been completed, a thumbnail image was posted with the online version of her article. It wasn’t a victory. After the whole ordeal, Amy reflected on the experience. “A few days later, I got out of the shower and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked blotchy and messy and not at all like those girls in the magazine, but I was still [fucking] beautiful. I'm a real woman who digests her meals, and breaks out, and has sweet little pockets of cellulite on her upper thighs that she's not apologizing for. Because guess what? We all have that [shit] because we're all human beings . . .I want to shout it from the [fucking] rooftop that you can't shame us or label us anymore.
Amy’s experience teaches us that wholeness doesn't come from losing or gaining a few pounds, or from smoothing wrinkles, or strengthening biceps. It comes from being able to say—thin, jiggly, or smooth, “I accept myself, exactly as I am.” Body acceptance is about saying yes to what others may perceive as flaws. It's about embracing our physical selves as part of who we are. God who creates our bodies in perfection, help us find perfection in our imperfect bodies. Help us claim our vulnerabilities as strength, help us to find wholeness without healing.
When Dr. Kate Granger was first diagnosed with an advanced, aggressive form of cancer, she first dealt with the situation by thinking of herself as her own patient. Kate knew the immediate physical side effects chemo could have and as a doctor, even understood the long term changes that could occur. But she was not prepared for the way her body would let her down. Kate writes in her blog, “Perhaps the most disabling of these [side effects] has been on my hands . . . I can barely feel the tips of my fingers anymore making even simple tasks more difficult. I was such a dexterous person before with lots of hobbies, but I struggle to play my flute or do my embroidery like I used to. I frequently burn my hands when cooking now too. I also struggle with procedures at work, making me feel inadequate . . . Unfortunately there is very little that can be done about it.”
What Kate didn’t, or couldn’t, imagine is how the physical side effects of her illness would affect her total self. She writes, “Living with [illness] hanging over me while still smiling and staying positive is incredibly difficult. I feel like I'm constantly struggling to push it to the back of my mind but never quite succeeding. The sad thing is that I can't remember what it was like not to have a terminal diagnosis.”
Our bodies and ourselves are one entity. We don’t always pay attention to the small things we are able to do thanks to our health, or vision, or hearing, or mobility. Driving a car, running to the supermarket, sitting in a movie theater, getting dressed—how can we stand before God and offer praise for perfection, when it is because of our bodies that we focus so much on our limitations? And yet, that is what we must do. Even if healing may never be in our cards, we can still find a way to feel whole.
For Kate, wholeness was attaining appreciation in the routine of life rather than the pressure of "making every moment count." Accepting the limitations caused by illness, she found ways to maintain a sense of normalcy by just cooking, cleaning, and watching reality TV. Although this didn’t offer Kate a cure from cancer, or even the opportunity to return to her embroidery, the routine is how she and her husband were able to keep their spirits manageable during treatment.
Kate also used her sense of humor to accept the invasion of illness into her body. When her mother bought her an expensive handbag as a gift, Kate was appalled at how much money she had spent. Her mom’s reply, “well you won’t be needing your inheritance now will you?!” Kate writes, “Having a good laugh always makes me feel better.”
God who creates our bodies in perfection, Kate honored the body of Your creation by accepting the limitations caused by illness. On her body remained the scars of treatment long after she discontinued chemotherapy; but Kate learned to work around them where she could, and accept that there are just some things she could not do anymore. Help us accept our own limitations, help us claim life despite illness, help us to find wholeness even in the absence of healing.
About one year ago my husband and I sat in the office of a pediatric neurologist awaiting to hear the results of an MRI scan for our unborn baby. We soon learned the news that the brain of the fetus did not develop correctly and that the best chance of having a viable baby would be to start over. I could hardly process the words as they came out of the doctor's mouth. I demanded an explanation. Had our genetic testing been mistaken? Was it those sips of wine? The tuna melts? No.
There was no explanation for this apparent fluke of nature. From conception to delivery, pregnancy is a process where we give up all control and must simply let our bodies take over. We have to trust that the perfect pathways of our physical bodies know what to do and work in organized symphony. But when that system broke down, the feelings that my own body had betrayed and failed me circled in my brain. It felt as if part of me were missing, that my body was an empty shell.
In grief, I turned to our tradition for comfort or guidance and I was met with Asher Yatzar, our blessing of thanks for our physical body. What a challenge, what a crisis of faith. How can I affirm my body is indeed perfect when it let me down so badly? Can I trust it will work again? All I could focus on was what I lacked—a healthy child; a healthy body; and what I had--loss and pain.
And so I avoided our morning liturgy. Instead, I got up every day and began taking my dog on a walk. I know this doesn’t seem like much, but even the act of getting out of bed every morning felt like a small accomplishment. And as I walked I felt the physicality of my body. I felt my legs becoming tighter and my breath easier. I felt my body building and forming. Porcini and I began walking up and down the steep hills of Noe Valley, pushing ourselves harder and higher. And over time I felt strong. I felt like my body, the one that had betrayed me months before, was still a miracle. It wasn’t perfect. It certainly wasn’t healed, but I could move through the world in ways that others could not and I was grateful. I still have so much health in me. Experiencing the contradiction of at once being let down by my physical body and being amazed at what it could still do led me back to our morning blessings. It led me to Asher Yatzar—astonishing in the complex system in which we exist. The prayer isn't a cure, but it's a small step forward. It's what I want to be able to avow.
Asher Yatzar taunts us with ideas of our bodies as flawless works of art that know instinctively how to function, how to find strength, and how to heal. But it also affirms the truth that when just one of our pathways were to wrongly open or close, it feels impossible to stand and offer praise to God. And that is precisely when we must do the hard work of finding wholeness whether or not we are healed. Our prayer leaves us wanting to declare that we are broken, hurting, and wanting, and despite that we can find the courage to say to God—we are our bodies and we are more than our bodies. And so when I heard a rewritten version of the prayer this summer at Camp Newman, I was grateful to hear words of praise that affirmed we are perfect, we are broken, and we are still whole.
I thank you for my life, body, and soul
Help me realize I am beautiful and whole
I'm perfect the way I am and a little broken too
I will live each day as a gift I give to you
Realizing that we are whole isn't about having health, it's about finding a way to accept ourselves—despite our illnesses, our imperfections, and our inabilities. It is about shifting our focus from what we are lacking in life, to what we are grateful for.
On Yom Kippur we deny the body—we forgo everything it needs in pursuit of our souls; no food, water, bathing, intimacy, or comfortable clothing. We purely do the work of teshuva, purification, resetting, whatever we need to do to soothe our spiritual selves. But in focusing only on the soul we can be mistaken in thinking that we can work on our insides without our outsides. And that's simply not true. On Yom Kippur we must start accepting where we are now and not where we wish we were or how we used to be. It's not about denying our bodies but about this beautiful opportunity to ignore our physical needs for just a moment and search into what really offers wholeness, what really can help us find peace and acceptance. And when we find it, we return to our physical existence with a new perspective on how we can keep a sense of wholeness, no matter our physical condition. We can just be. And hopefully take some of that feeling with us into the new year.
At the end of Yom Kippur the year starts anew. Where are you in this moment? It's not about your health, it’s not about your looks, it's not based on a clean scan, or a positive test. It's about you. And you loving you. Even when our bodies are broken, we are worthy of admission through those closing gates.
As I stand and preach this sermon I don't know when I'll have a child. I hope that if I do, I’ll discover even more miracles that my imperfect body may offer. But I don’t want to waste my time focusing on what I don’t have now, or what my body can’t achieve now. Because right now, today, on Yom Kippur I know that the gates are closing and I want to be on the other side—put this year behind me, start afresh, continue to heal and continue to find strength in myself that I didn’t know was there. I know we are never fully healed, but that we can still be whole. Baruch Atah Adonai, rofei chol basar umafli laasot, Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.
 Seinfeld, “The Movie” IMDB
 Mishkan Tefilah: My own interpretation of two translations
 Joel Lurie Grishaver. Stories We Pray: The Inner Work of Jewish Worship
 Amy Schumer, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo
The Guardian. Terminal Cancer: How to Live with Dying
 Dan Nichols, Asher Yatzar