There are various tracts along this highway delivering assorted messages from the body to the brain and back. One tract, for example, communicates sensations of pain, warmth, and itching, tickling and deep pressure from the body to the brain. Another tract conveys sensations of touch, vibration, light pressure, and the awareness of what positions your limbs, muscles and joints are in. Other tracts let the brain know that you are hungry, thirsty, tired, or lacking certain nutrients.
The brain, in turn, after receiving this sensory information, now develops a response and commands the muscles, glands and limbs of your body to act accordingly. Reaching for food, going to sleep, and all voluntary or involuntary acts of the body are controlled by the brain. Thus, any serious injury to the spinal cord may disrupt this communication, in essence disabling the body from functioning on its own. One can well understand, then, that the neck, located between the base of the skull and the rest of the body which protects the spinal cord, is a most crucial part of our anatomy.
This is something that we must pay great attention to when we arise in the morning. “When one sits up in bed, he recites the bracha of Mattir Assurim – Who releases the bound. When one stands up, he recites the bracha of Zokeif Kefufim – Who straightens the bent (Brachos 60b). Assurim indicates being tied down, unable to move. It’s too scary to contemplate what it would be like without the spinal cord and spinal column, which enable us to do this, but it would behoove us to think about this every time we recite these brachos.
Every year, when I learn the halachos of Asher Yotzar with my talmidim, I read them an emotional article titled “For Everything a Blessing” by Dr. Kenneth M. Prager in the May 1997 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. Here are excerpts of the article:
“As a child in elementary school, I used to find it amusing to see a sign posted outside the bathroom with the blessing of Asher Yotzar on it. It made sense that blessings were reserved for prayers, for holy days, and for food, but not for bodily functions that evoked smirks and giggles. It took me several decades to appreciate the wisdom of this blessing.
“In my second year of medical school, I first began to see how appropriate this blessing is. The study of Pathophysiology brought home to me the terrible consequences of even minor abrasions in the structure and function of the human body. How many things had to go just right for going to the bathroom to run smoothly? After years of not reciting the blessing, I started to say it once again…first out of the prayer book, but then, after enough repetition, I was able to say it by heart.
“One unforgettable patient reinforced the truth and beauty of Asher Yotzar for me forever. Josh was a 20-year-old student who sustained a serious injury to his spine in a motor vehicle accident and was almost totally paraplegic. A long and difficult period of rehabilitation followed. There were promising signs of improvement – movement of a finger here, a toe there, return of a sensation here, and a movement there.
“With incredible courage and hard work, and an excellent 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 could not go to the bathroom and needed intermittent catheterization. The urologists were pessimistic about his chances of not requiring catheterization for the rest of his life. They had never seen a recovery 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 the Asher Yotzar blessing. 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 this old-age blessing, tears welled up in my eyes.
“You see…Josh is my son.”
What beautiful words. They should inspire us to stop and think every time we recite the bracha, appreciating His infinite wisdom and His chassodim. We must not take for granted His making things go right with all of our bodily functions.
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Another Tisha B’Av is approaching. Another day of mourning over the churban. It is a very difficult day, not so much because of the discomfort of the fasting, but because we are living nearly two millennia after churban Bayis Sheini. So far away in time and worlds apart in closeness to Hashem. In an age when we enjoy comforts unheard of not so long ago, in places where we enjoy religious freedom, how are we to feel that we’re missing something?
On the other hand, an American bochur learning in yeshiva in pre-World War II Europe once went to the Chofetz Chaim for a bracha. The tzaddik, hearing that the bochur had traveled so far away from home to learn Torah, greeted him warmly. Then he asked him, “Tell me, in America do they mourn over the churban? Do they eagerly await Moshiach?” The bochur, not sure what to answer, uttered a nervous “Yyyesss.”
The Chofetz Chaim was very pleased to hear this. “Memeilah here in Eastern Europe, if people eagerly await the arrival of Moshiach, it’s not such a chiddush, because the daily living here is very tough. But in America, where life is much easier, the fact that Yidden stillawait the geulah is truly a zechus for Klal Yisroel.” Yes, it is truly a zechus, but how do we sincerely mourn over the churban and eagerly await the redemption when we don’t really have a picture of what we are missing?
Perhaps we must envision what it’s like to have a broken neck. Yes, in golus, Klal Yisroel is collectively suffering from a broken neck. How so?
Let us study a posuk in Chumash. When Yosef revealed his true identity to his brothers in Mitzrayim and he embraced his beloved brother Binyomin, it says, “And he fell on his brother Binyomin’s neck and he wept, and Binyomin wept upon his neck” (Bereishis 45:14). What were they crying about? Rashi quotes Chazal, who explain that Yosef cried about the two Botei Mikdosh that will be located in the portion of Binyomin in Eretz Yisroel and will eventually be destroyed, while Binyomin cried for Mishkan Shiloh, located in Yosef’s portion, which will be destroyed. Where did Chazal see that their weeping had anything to do with the destruction of the Botei Mikdosh?
In Shir Hashirim, where Hashem expresses His love for Klal Yisroel, He says, “Your neck is like an ivory tower…” (Shir Hashirim 7:5). Rashi explains that this refers to the Sanctuary and the Mizbei’ach which stand upright and tall, and the Chamber of Hewn Stone, where the Sanhedrin sat, a bastion of strength and a shield for our people. Why are these referred to as a neck? Because just as the neck is the connection between the brain and the rest of the body that houses the spinal cord, its highway of communication, so too, the Bais Hamikdosh was the connection between Heaven and earth.
When Yaakov Avinu slept on this holy place, he saw this connection in his dream. “A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward, and behold!Angels of Hashem were ascending and descending on it” (Bereishis 28:12). After he awoke, Yaakov said, “This is none other than the abode of Hashem and this is the gate of the heavens” (ibid 17). The angels going upward are created by our tefillos and deeds, while those descending are the malachim sent to help us.
The Bais Hamikdosh was the link to the brain in Heaven, which communicated with the body of Klal Yisroel on earth. Just as the body sends it signals to the brain when it is in need of food, sleep, or other matters, and the brain in turn commands the functions to occur to fulfill those requests, so too, in the Bais Hamikdosh, the avodah connected us to Hashem. Our needs, both physical and spiritual, were fulfilled with much more ease. The Shulchan in the Heichal was the source of bracha for our parnassah, and the Menorah was the source of chochmah. Our relationship with Hashem was a much deeper one.
This holy edifice was the wellspring of kedushah not only for Yerushalayim, but for all of Eretz Yisroel. The fruits of Eretz Yisroel were absorbed with kedushah of the Shechinah, and this helped us fend off the entreaties of the yeitzer hara to sin. Inundated with kedushah, enjoying bounties of parnassah, and with an abundance of chochmah, there was a natural state of happiness and much less depression, a malady all too common today. We had a direct line of communication with the Ribono Shel Olam via the Urim Vetumim and nevuah. We could receive answers from Heaven for all of our important questions, and when we sinned, we could bring sacrifices.
Imagine what it felt like to be an oleh regel and be present in Yerushalayim with millions of Yidden to be mekabel Pnei HaShechinah. When standing in the Azarah, the Yidden would be treated to a most amazing sight. The curtains of the Kodesh Hakodoshim would be rolled up and they could see the Keruvim embracing each other, a sign of Hashem’s love for His holy people, with an announcement stating, “See how beloved you are to Hashem” (Yoma 54a). This was amongst other miracles that transpired there. “Whoever did not witness the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah never witnessed a simcha in his life” (Sukkah 51a). Imagine how all of this strengthened the emunah of every Yid and how proud it made a Yid to be a member of the Am Hashem.
Because there was an air of kedushah all about, there was a negligible amount of spiritual disease. Today we face a painful problem of kids at risk. The world is so flooded with tumah, the air so poisoned with spiritual bacteria, that it is easy to become contaminated. If only we had the vaccine to protect our families. Yes, the Bais Hamikdosh was the neck housing the central nervous system, the connection between us and Hashem that kept us full of life and vitality. With its destruction, our neck was broken and we have become paralyzed.
“From the day the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, an iron wall separates us from our Father in Heaven” (Brachos 37b). “From the day the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, good counsel has become extinct, our thoughts confused,our hearts unclear, and we only go after what our eyes see” (Zohar Chodosh, Rus 88b). “From the day the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, the rains do not come from the treasure house of good” (Bava Basra 25b).
Yes, there are exercises we can do and therapy that we can undergo to keep some of that connection alive. “From the day the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, all Hashem possesses in this world are the four amos of halacha…limud haTorah” (Brachos 8a). “From that fateful day, the world stands only on the heat emanating from tinokos shel bais rabbon” (Medrash). “From that day, the gates of tefillah have been closed, but the gates of tears remain open” (Brachos 32b).
There are indeed means of connecting, but in this day and age they are difficult and we are missing so much. Our tears can still get us places. Let us focus on what we’ve lost, weep for our aveidah, and perhaps very soon it will all be returned to us with the coming of Moshiach.