Have you been in touch with your body lately? By the grace of Hashem, for most people, it functions normally without a hitch and they don’t give it even a fleeting thought. Every now and then, they may have an upset stomach because they have forgotten. They were sitting at a Kiddush and overindulged in the tasty food, having forgotten that their wives worked hard to prepare a sumptuous Shabbos meal. Then they come home and feast again. What one wouldn’t do for the sake of shalom bayis. Soon they are reminded of something else… That there are limits to the amounts of food one can ingest without feeling sick. But in a short period of time, the body recovers and allows them to be forgetful again.
Not paying attention to our bodies is not a good way to live. Understandably, eating properly, exercising regularly, and getting enough rest are essential for our health, quality of life, and longevity. Of course, everything is in the Hand of Hashem, but we must put forth hishtadlus, and the Torah commands us, “Venishmartem me’od lenafshoseichem – And you shall be greatly aware for your souls” (Devorim 14:15).
But there is another very important reason for being in touch with our physical structure, for the more we are aware of our anatomy, the more we can marvel at the genius of Hakadosh Boruch Hu in the way He created us and we can better appreciate His chassodim with us every moment of the day. The body is composed of various systems, each one a world unto itself. Each one is most complex in its own unique way. Because of their intricacies, there are so many things that could go wrong and cause pain. Yet, most people live through a day in good health totally oblivious to the miracles that are taking place inside their bodies.
The brocha of Asher Yotzar, thanking Hashem for fashioning man with wisdom, encompasses all of the wonders of the human body. Yet, just learning about the digestive system alone is so fascinating and mind-boggling that it should cause us to stand in one place for hours as we recite this brocha. The average American eats about 100,000 pounds of food in a lifetime or about 3.6 pounds a day. So it would behoove us to at least get a glimpse of what happens to this food. From the moment of ingestion all the way through the alimentary canal, from the tubes extending from the mouth to the stomach all the way to excretion, many amazing things are happening.
The mouth, the lips and the cheeks keep the food in position to be chewed properly. The saliva has numerous functions, wetting the mouth so that you can taste the food, lubricating it to let the food pass on through the throat, and chemically breaking down the starches so that they can be absorbed by the blood. The mere sight and smell of food elicits saliva from their glands so that they are ready and waiting for the incoming food.
Peristalsis is the constriction and relaxation of the muscles in the esophagus. The muscles relax to allow food to pass through and then constrict, creating a pressure that pushes the food onwards. There are mucus secretions along the way to make the ride smoother. The whole trip from the top of the esophagus to the stomach takes a mere 4 to 8 seconds. For proper digestion, the food cannot enter too quickly or too slowly. The perfect pace is controlled by the body.
Now the stomach goes into action as a churning, bubbling machine of digestion. Here the digestive juices break down the food and extract its nutrients, mixing them with chemicals. The stomach juice is strong acid capable of dissolving nails, yet the linings of a healthy stomach are able to withstand this powerful liquid. There is so much more to this voyage, including the absorption of nutrients throughout the small intestine and into the bloodstream. The liver synthesizes proteins and detoxifies its contents. The large intestine absorbs water from indigestible foods and eliminates the feces. There are the kidneys that purify the blood and so much more involving messages sent to the brain to stimulate various functions. When all is said and done, the body has extracted and absorbed the nutrients that are beneficial and filtered out the materials that are harmful. This is but a snippet of the wonders of the digestive system.
So many things can go wrong when something is not functioning properly. When the body absorbs too much water, it becomes constipated. Conversely, insufficient water absorption leads to diarrhea. When the stomach lining is worn down by the strong gastric juices, there are painful ulcers. Obstructions, inflammations, gout and kidney stones are just some of the disorders that can cause discomfort and sometimes excruciating pain. Yet, most of us don’t feel a thing and don’t stop for a moment to appreciate this and thank Hashem.
Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, the Ponovezher mashgiach, would concentrate on the brocha of Asher Yotzar, commenting: “Is this miracle any less amazing than Yetzias Mitzrayim? All of the parts of the body are preserved and remain functioning without the slightest change, not damaged or blocked up. Every machine breaks down from time to time, and if not cleaned and lubricated, it won’t work. Yet, the flesh of the body is cleansed, lubricated, regenerated, and continues to function.
Rav Yeruchem Levovitz, the Mirrer mashgiach, would say that if a person would learn and think about all that transpires from the moment the food enters his mouth until it leaves his system, he would feel like sending a telegram home saying, “Boruch Hashem, I made it. All is well with me.” Unfortunately, we don’t think about these daily miracles and squander a great opportunity to thank Hashem and get closer to Him.
Speaking of getting closer to Him, none of the possible malfunctions of our bodies are mentioned in Asher Yotzar. We do not say, “If one of them (many openings and cavities) were to be ruptured or one of them would be blocked, the following things would happen,” and then list all of the illnesses possible to suffer from. We merely say, “It would be impossible to survive.” This encompasses all of the maladies we are saved from on a daily basis when all things are going well: gallstones, pancreatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, diverticulitis, etc. None of the possible pain and suffering is mentioned openly. But there is one major difficulty that we do mention at the end of the brocha.
“It would be impossible to survive “and stand before you for even one moment.” What is this referring to? We would not be able to stand before Hashem in Torah and tefillah (Iyun Tefillah in the name of Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg), and this of course would be the greatest tragedy of all. Were our bodies not to be filtered and cleansed, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to daven and learn and get close to Hashem. We would be incapable of fulfilling our purpose in the briah, and this would be worse than all the physical pain and suffering of our body.
Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin once visited a widow who was bedridden with various ailments. She lived all alone in a hovel with no one to take care of her. While the rov spoke to her, giving her words of chizuk, she asked that he give her a brocha for a long life.
The rov was surprised at this request and asked her, “Why do you want arichas yomim? You are suffering so much from various ills and pains and you are all alone. What enjoyment do you have from living?”
“Rebbi, why don’t you understand?” she said. “Once a week, my sister comes from out of town to visit me. She washes me and changes my clothing and I have the wonderful opportunity of making a brocha and davening amidst cleanliness. Is this alone not enough to live for?”
More than all of the things that Asher Yotzar represents in appreciating Hashem, more than all of the physical comfort that we enjoy, is the realization that we have the most valuable treasure in our possession, the ability to stand before Him, to sing His praises and to daven that He continue to preserve our well-being, and to ask for all of our personal needs and those of our family members and for all of Klal Yisroel.
The next five sedros that we will lain all deal with the building of the Mishkon, the central place for the avodah. Then comes Sefer Vayikra, known as Toras Kohanim, the laws of the actual performance of the avodah. The fact that the Torah, which is usually frugal with its words, elaborates so much on every detail of the building of the sanctuary for the avodah and the actual sacrifices show you how paramount this is in our lives. Sadly, nowadays, in golus, we don’t have the Bais Hamikdosh, nor do we have the korbanos, but we do still have the avodah.
“To love Hashem, your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart” (Devorim 11:13). “What is the avodah that’s in the heart? This is tefillah” (Taanis 2a). Of course, for tefillah we must recite the words, but the true service of tefillah is to fully dedicate our hearts to Hashem amidst tefillah. To clear our minds of all distractions and to concentrate fully on the meaning of the words that we are saying. We must picture ourselves as if we are standing in front of the Melech Malchei Hamelochim and personally talking to Him.
As a talmid in the Slabodka Yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky would study every move of his rebbi, the Alter of Slabodka. He would sit near his rebbi davening and observe his avodah. One morning after Shacharis, the Alter told him, “Don’t think I am unaware that you are observing me. You’d be better off concentrating on your own davening than watching me.”
Rav Yaakov related that the Alter was the perfect example of one who davens from the depths of his heart to the extent that during his tefillah, one could see on him hispashtus hagashmiyus, a total removal of his physical being, as his neshamah bonded with Hashem. One time, during the Russian civil war, they were in Kremenchug and the forces of the White Army were showering the city with bombs. While the Alter was davening Shemoneh Esrei, an explosion shattered the skylight of the room. After the Alter concluded his tefillah, he noticed that the floor was littered with glass. He turned to Rav Yaakov and asked him, “Where did these shards come from?” (Lesitcha Elyon).
Yes, that is the level that one can reach when he realizes that he is standing before Hashem.
It seems like a hard madreigah to reach, but we have it in our genes. When Paroh and his army were pursuing the Bnei Yisroel after they left Mitzrayim, “they cried out to Hashem” (Shemos 14:10). Rashi quotes the Medrash, which says that they used the craft of the avos hakedoshim: tefillah.
Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoah, points out: What is a craft? When people are looking to earn a living to put bread on the table, they find a job. This is foremost on their minds and they constantly think about how to succeed. If they don’t have aspirations to flourish and are not meticulous with this responsibility, they will find out quickly that they can’t survive financially. Klal Yisroel has a craft, tefillah, and we must remember that if we don’t utilize this ability properly, then we compromise both our Olam Hazeh and our Olam Haba.
If we rush through our tefillos, not paying much attention to what we are saying then we are like a storekeeper who has no consideration for his customers. He opens and closes his store whenever he feels like it and doesn’t pay heed to his patrons’ needs. Sooner than later, he will find himself bankrupt. It is the same with our precious tefillah. We must involve ourselves in it, respect it properly, think about it beforehand, and daven with heart. Then we can be successful and have real hope that our tefillos will be answered.