Let"s Get Physical . . . and Spiritual: Rabbi Dr. Jana L. DeBenedetti

March 13, 2012

When I saw that this chapter was called, “Guf” (which is pronounced like “goof” in the Hebrew), I was sure that it was going to discuss a mystical notion, which quite frankly, is (forgive the pun) “over my head.” I was glad to see that we are actually thinking about our bodies and how they are reflected in our faith – or how our faith is reflected in our bodies.  

In some ways it is very true to say that faith is expressed with our whole bodies. There is a choreography to prayer, for example. Every B’rachah (“blessing” in Hebrew) begins with the word “Baruch.” It can be translated as “Blessed” or “Praised.” Rabbi Chaim Stern (of blessed memory) used to teach that the verb is used when we do it to God, and when God does it to us – but it can’t really be the same action. He liked to say “Praised” when we are doing it to God, and “Blessed” when God is doing it to us. The same Hebrew root letters are used for the word, “Berech” which means “knee.” In many faiths we bend our knees as part of a physical way of showing humility before and praising God.
 
It is also true that every physical act can be acknowledged with a blessing, thanking and praising God that our bodies function the way they do. Traditionally every morning our prayers include everything from removing sleep from the eyes, to helping the blind to see; making firm our steps and even having our organs and systems working to appreciate successful bathroom experiences.

As we have already discussed, consideration of our bodies includes what kinds of foods we eat, and even what kinds of clothes we wear. We are taught to take care of our body, because it is a gift from God.
 
We are also taught: “Do not look at the container, rather look at what is in it.” There was a story about an ugly rabbi who was a brilliant man – so smart that the king consulted with him often to get advice. One day the king’s daughter asked the rabbi how God could put such a smart brain into such an ugly man. The rabbi said he did not know. He then asked the daughter if she would like to do something to help her father. The father was preparing a banquet for many dignitaries that night. He asked the girl if the father was planning to serve wine to the guests. The daughter said that she was sure he would. The rabbi said that it looked like the wine was going to be served in clay pitchers, and perhaps she could pick the finest, loveliest pitchers for the wine, so that the father could impress his guests. The daughter put the wine in silver pitchers. Unfortunately, when the guests drank the wine that was in the silver pitchers, it tasted terrible. The silver had reacted with the silver and the wine had spoiled. He explained to her that the loveliest vessel on the outside may not be the best way to store precious things. The focus should have been on the wine, and not the pitcher. Of course, a lovely ceramic pitcher could have been chosen to impress the guests and also be better for serving the wine. We can acknowledge what looks good too.
 
Although much of the chapter about Guf in Mudhouse Sabbath was trying to make a point about body image, I realized something else as a result of reading her discussions. I felt that there are lessons to be learned about finding spirituality in the physical. It seemed that “Guf” was a way of representing the physical aspect of the human experience. I realized that most often in the lessons from the Scriptural writings, people became aware of God’s spirit through physical experiences. At Sinai, God’s presence was so palpable that we could “see” the words. For example, as we are in a period when we are step by step “reliving” the sequence of events that led to freedom, as represented by Passover, I started to realize how many times God’s spirit was understood only because of physical things happening around us: the burning bush, plagues, parting seas, manna, water from a rock, pillar of smoke or fire – even the fact that we needed a Tabernacle with an Ark in the Holy of Holies – these were all ways that we, as physical beings could relate to the spiritual.
 
Acknowledging with awe the body that God has given us is another way for us to find God’s spirit. The spirit of God is in each of us. Often when we look for God we may try to find it in physical signs. Often the answer is within ourselves. We can learn to see our bodies as a spiritual gift and see our spirits as manifested in our bodies.

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