July 10, 2008
Week 243, Day 4
7 Tamuz 5768

ASHER YATSAR, Mishkan T'filah, p.195.
Cantor David Berger

As you might suspect, I love to sing.  I love to stretch my voice, feeling out the higher range and the lower range and everything in between.  Singing is like working out: you warm up before you start, you work to increase skill and ability over time, and you develop a deeper connection with the workings of your body that make the whole thing possible.  The foundation of both is breath.  The same breath that helps pull you through one more sit-up can also get you through one more measure of music.  In fact, whatever it is that we do depends on the intricate workings of our bodies, and we must express gratitude that any of this is even possible.

Debbie Friedman’s setting of Asher Yatzar is an opportunity to express that gratitude.  It can, she told me, be performed as a stand alone piece, but it was meant to be sung in combination with her Elohai N’shamah.  The two melodies are intertwined, giving thanks for both body and spirit.  Debbie is also quick to point out that immediately following the singing should be the blessing for Torah study “La’asok b’divrei Torah,” including the mind and intellect in our morning ritual. 

The melody itself extends over a large range, as if to test out the limits of the vocal instrument.  Most people’s best vocal moments are not usually early in the morning – so in Birchot Hashachar (the morning blessings) this sort of testing takes on a special significance.  We not only thank God in general for “n’kavim n’kavim chalulim chalulim;” (“systems of ducts and tubes”) but we also work to reestablish connections with parts of the body through the singing itself. 

Our inner connections are so fragile.  We work hard to stay healthy but there are no guarantees.  In one moment, our lives can change completely.  As the text of the prayer puts it: “She-im yipate’ach echad meihem…” “If one of these things [that should be closed] should open… ” it would be impossible to function as we did before.  We get a strange pain in our foot and just walking around becomes a challenge or we raise our voices to sing and nothing comes out.  Deep down we know that one small thing going wrong inside can make everything on the outside simply impossible.

I have spent a lot of time in hospital rooms visiting my congregants.  Sometimes these places of physical healing can do just the opposite to the spirit.  Lying in bed all day while people check your charts and work with machinery around you can be dehumanizing.  It is sometimes all too easy to forget that what makes us human is not just a beating heart.  What I love about Debbie Friedman’s setting of this asher yatzar prayer is that in pairing it with the Elohai n’shamah she has taught us an important lesson. Listen No matter what our physical condition, our spirit is there and it is pure.  You, God, created our physical bodies – and they are not always so perfect.  At the same time, You, God, created a soul for each one of us that remains in its pure pristine state – unalterable.  Whereas the body is subject to things that may open or close at random, the soul is newly cleansed every day.  It is so important to remind ourselves of this fact, especially when the physical body is having trouble and we feel like we’ve lost track of our soul.  It is still there – it is still pure.

Where Debbie’s setting of this prayer is simultaneously a vocal, spiritual and musical work out, some days you just want to notice that your body works.  The traditional nusach Listen for Shabbat morning makes simple recitation of the text the priority.  There is a special Torah in this also.  We can teach ourselves to be thankful for the amazing gifts of the ordinary and to find opportunities to just say a quick thank you. 

Whether you are preparing for a workout, needing some serious spiritual affirmation, or just reminding yourself that things seem to be working, take a minute, breathe, and notice all those inside things that keep you moving through your day.  Say (or sing) asher yatzar and say thank you. 

Cantor David Berger was invested by the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion in 2007.  He serves Congregation Beth Simchat Torah of New York, NY.        

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