I often joke my favorite room in my house is the bathroom. For the past few years, it has arguably been the room I spent the most waking hours, as I journeyed through potty training both of my kids. Just last week I entered a new milestone as I was teaching my five-year-old the blessing Asher Yatzar, which one can say after "going potty." As a trans person, I take particular joy in this blessing as it reclaims the daily stresses of navigating public bathrooms. And I am aware that for many of us these digestive functions can also be the source or symptom of tremendous suffering. There is something healing about the act of blessing the ins and outs of our many orifices - this vital function that marks and maintains our aliveness.
There is an amazing midrash on this week's parsha, for which the punchline is essentially "everyone poops" - even the most stubborn and hard-hearted of rulers. We read in parashat Vaera:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה כָּבֵ֖ד לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה מֵאֵ֖ן לְשַׁלַּ֥ח הָעָֽם׃
And the Holy One said to Moses, "Pharaoh is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go.
לֵ֣ךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֞ה בַּבֹּ֗קֶר הִנֵּה֙ יֹצֵ֣א הַמַּ֔יְמָה וְנִצַּבְתָּ֥ לִקְרָאת֖וֹ עַל־שְׂפַ֣ת הַיְאֹ֑ר וְהַמַּטֶּ֛ה אֲשֶׁר־נֶהְפַּ֥ךְ לְנָחָ֖שׁ תִּקַּ֥ח בְּיָדֶֽךָ׃
Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake (Ex. 7:14-15)."
About this moment, the midrash teaches:
"Look, he goes out to the water," to perform his bodily needs. For Pharaoh would like to think he was a god, claiming that he had no bodily needs; so he would rise early in the morning, and go out to the Nile to ease himself in secret (Midrash Tanchuma, Vaera 14; Exodus Rabbah 9:8)."
In the words of Avivah Zornberg, "Pharaoh constructs himself as a god, without needs...as if he neither eats nor eliminates matter. That cycle, depending on the vital traffic through the orifices of the body, is denied by one who claims to be above change, beyond the cycles of in and out, hunger and fullness...What Pharaoh denies is the unbearable lightness of being: the meaningless movement of fluids and solids that marks human life (Rapture, 100)."
But in truth, it is hardly meaningless. And so we bless our Source, "who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings and orifices." Lest we forget the daily miracles of our bodies. Even the most powerful of rulers (bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in their days and in our time) are but flesh and blood. They, too, are vulnerable, even if they choose to expend energy hiding their humanity so as to protect the facade of their omnipotence.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.