Honoring the Pain We Carry

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

Two people share a glance in the bet midrash. The person on the left is seated, and the person on the right is standing and wearing fairy wings. The two seem to be in cheerful conversation together.

They say that aging is not for the faint of heart, and I can attest to that. With 63 in-the-body earth years safely tucked under my belt, I admit that the cumulative effect of gravity, radiation, nutrition, and the random luck of my unique genetic tendencies have come clattering down on my body. This week it was my back, which decided it was a good time to light up my sciatic nerve, randomly sending shocks of pain from my lumbar region to my knee caps. Whooooeeee!!!

Recently, in the midst of preparing a section of Mishnah Berachot for Mishnah Collective, I skittered off into midrashland and came upon one of my favorite rabbinic tales about Hillel the Elder. The Rabbis are discussing taking care of the poor and then shift gears with this anecdote from Vayikra Rabbah 34:3:

(דָּבָר אַחֵר, וְכִי יָמוּךְ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (משלי יא, יז): גֹּמֵל נַפְשׁוֹ אִישׁ חָסֶד, זֶה) הִלֵּל הַזָּקֵן, שֶׁבְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהָיָה נִפְטַר מִתַּלְמִידָיו הָיָה מְהַלֵּךְ וְהוֹלֵךְ עִמָּם, אָמְרוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידָיו רַבֵּנוּ לְהֵיכָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ אָמַר לָהֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת מִצְוָה, אָמְרוּ לוֹ וְכִי מַה מִּצְוָה זוֹ, אָמַר לָהֶן לִרְחֹץ בְּבֵית הַמֶּרְחָץ, אָמְרוּ לוֹ וְכִי זוֹ מִצְוָה הִיא, אָמַר לָהֶם, הֵן. מָה אִם אִיקוֹנִין שֶׁל מְלָכִים שֶׁמַּעֲמִידִים אוֹתָן בְּבָתֵּי טַרְטִיאוֹת וּבְבָתֵּי קִרְקָסִיאוֹת, מִי שֶׁנִּתְמַנֶּה עֲלֵיהֶם הוּא מוֹרְקָן וְשׁוֹטְפָן וְהֵן מַעֲלִין לוֹ מְזוֹנוֹת, וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁהוּא מִתְגַּדֵּל עִם גְּדוֹלֵי מַלְכוּת, אֲנִי שֶׁנִּבְרֵאתִי בְּצֶלֶם וּבִדְמוּת, דִּכְתִיב (בראשית ט, ו): כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם, עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה.

Here’s my very outside translation of the above:

…Hillel the Elder was once walking with his students when he suddenly bolted off in the other direction. “Rabbi, where are you going?” His students hollered. “To fulfill a mitzvah!!” he replied. “What mitzvah!?!” his surprised students asked. He informed them, “To bathe in the bath house!!” “Nu, this is a mitzvah???” they perplexedly parried. “Yes!!” And then he taught: “Think about it, the images and statues of kings, found in theaters and circuses, have well-compensated and highly esteemed stewards to scrub and keep them clean. Now, if it is so important to care for a marble statue of a human ruler, shouldn’t I, who was created in the Divine image–as it is written in Gen. 9:6, ‘For in the image of Itself, did G-d create humans’–care for myself even more so!?!

I love that story, but the first version I learned was a little different, and I like it even better (if anyone has a citation for this version, please share it!! I’ve searched and searched to no avail):  

Once Hillel was running to the outhouse. His students ask “Where are you going?!?”, and he says, “To do a mitzvah” “What mitzvah??” His students ask and here he clarifies that relieving oneself is a mitzvah because it keeps the body healthy.

Hillel recognizes that the way we care for our body is the way we care for both the Divine within and our fellow Divine siblings. While there is a fine line between self-absorption and sacred self-care, preoccupation with our physical plant, and keeping ourselves healthy, Hillel, with just a few words, ties all those threads together. He elevates peeing, pooping, and bathing to be mitzvot, holy obligations. And if that is true, how much more so for the other, more subtle, functions of our bodies that require our awareness?   

Earlier this week I sat down at my computer to scale the heap of work tottering on my desk. Lots of things, including this Hot Off the Shtender piece, were in my work queue, but within 15 minutes of typing, lightning bolts of fire were shooting out of my lumbar region. I pressed on until I was in so much pain I couldn’t really concentrate. I was upset. I had counted on that time to get through my pile of tasks, but my body was not on board with that mission. I called my acupuncturist and my long-lost brilliant masseuse, Datchy, and made appointments for the afternoon. I knew that physical relief was on its way but that also meant that the rest of my work day was kaput.

The acupuncture session was awesome, but ran a bit overtime. I had five minutes to drive the 20 minutes across town in rush hour to the massage. Even with my creative driving skills, I knew I was going to be at least 15 minutes late. Sitting in traffic for several minutes, frazzled, the stress of being late was rapidly undoing the positive effects of the just-finished treatment. So, I called my anchor, my rock and my redeemer, my harbor in the storm, Julie Batz, who fortunately is also my spouse, to report on the state of things. She said, “You just need to stay present for some self-care, hon. It will all be OK.” This is hilarious because Julie—who is very punctual and responsible and is ALWAYS prepped and ready days ahead of time for any of her obligations—was telling me to stay chill. All the while I’m thinking, “If I weren’t such a mess I would have already written the piece, finished my report, and sent out those announcements… I wish I were more put together… Why can’t I keep my priorities straight!?!…” yada yada mea culpa yada… Which was not really helping the situation….

I arrived only a smidge late to my massage appointment, but I was jangled and apologetic. I was warmly greeted by Datchy who said, “It’s OK. There’s time. Go get ready.” By which I knew she meant, “Go take a pee so we can get through this session without a bio break.” So, like Hillel, I headed off to the bathroom, where I sat my tushie down on the כִּסֵּא/throne and: there it was. I hadn’t seen Datchy since the pandemic began, and in the interim I had totally forgotten about the Thai Massage toilet Torah—a collage of loving, wonderful, healing, and slightly kitschy aphorisms that never fail to nudge me out of whatever funk I’m in. It always softens me up enough to receive some healing: 

“Never force anything. Give it your best shot and then let it be. If it’s meant to be, it will be.”

“You were born with the ability to change someone’s life. Don’t ever waste it.”

“Imagine that every person in the world is enlightened but you. They are all your teachers, each doing just the right things to help you learn perfect patience, perfect wisdom, and perfect compassion. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and attention.” 

And my total favorite:

“The Five Steps to Eternal Restroom Happiness:

Lock the door

Turn on the fan

Close the lid

Flush and hold the handle down for 5 seconds

Throw away any paper towels/tissues in the trash can.

Please check and make sure the restroom is at least as clean as when you found it. Thank you.”

All that love, acceptance, and care met me quietly from the tack board on the wall. And I melted down a little. I sat there, laughing, crying, and feeling gratitude for the abundant holiness that winks and nods, beckons and finds us, even when we are suffering, stressed, and struggling.  

Rabbi Akiva said that the ultimate mitzvah is found in “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” and of course, the subtext is you’ve gotta love yourself, expressly, in order to love your neighbor. The quick, pithy, and simple messages on that wall reminded me to let go a little, accept my own failure enough to course correct and to take care of the aging flesh that houses my spirit. They served as a reminder that listening to and caring for one’s body is a mitzvah. I offered a moment of silent thanks to all those quoted and a special appreciation to Uncle Hillel. I got up, washed my hands and face, and headed off to the massage table. An hour later, I felt miraculously restored.

As I headed home I found myself muttering a spontaneous prayer, which I offer to y’all:

May we find wisdom and humor in the most unexpected places and circumstances. May we tend to the demands of our bodies with the devotion of prayer. May we honor the pain we carry and release our resistance to healing. And may we be conduits of care, comfort, and compassion for ourselves, for each other, and for the whole mysterious world.

Read More