At least in our culture, children seem to naturally think that the human digestive system is funny. When our own children were little, we read them two books about how normal human digestion is. One was called The Gas We Pass, written by Japanese author Shinta Chō and the other was Everyone Poops by Tarō Gomi, also Japanese.
I’m not an expert on Japanese culture, but as parents, we applauded the books’ matter-of-fact approaches to flatulence and defecation.
There is a Jewish corollary to this attitude and it appears in a brief prayer commonly known as Asher Yatzar (“Who created”). The prayer is traditionally said each morning and every time one leaves the bathroom during the day.
Here is an English translation of the words to the Asher Yatzar prayer:
Blessed are You, HaShem, Our God, King of the universe, Who created the human with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if one of them were to be ruptured or one one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are You, HaShem, the healer of all flesh who acts wondrously.
Most people wouldn't automatically think of religion as having anything to say about something as mundane as the digestive system, let alone to bless God for it. Yet, with this short prayer, Judaism teaches us not to take anything for granted. And anyone who has ever had any form of digestive distress knows firsthand how crucial it is to have a working digestive system.
Last night, I was reading From Hollywood to the Holy Land
, the autobiography of Tzvi Fishman, once a Hollywood screenwriter, now a religious Jew living in Jerusalem. As a young adult, Fishman had a bout with colitis, which caused severe rectal bleeding, controlled only by massive doses of cortisone. He wrote about how, as he learned more about Judaism, the Asher Yatzar prayer made so much sense.
“Another blessing which I’ve adopted is ‘asher yatzar
,’ which, given my bout with colitis, has special meaning to me. How amazing that the Sages of old fashioned a blessing to be recited after going to the bathroom, thanking G-d that everything is working in the proper fashion. In truth, I’ve learned the hard way that good health isn’t something a person can take for granted! And how incredibly down to earth, emphasizing to me that G-d isn’t to be found be separating oneself from this world and becoming a recluse in a monastery, or in an ashram on top of some Himalayan mountaintop, but by seeing G-d’s presence in the smallest details of everyday life.” (p. 144)
Although making a blessing upon leaving the bathroom might seem bizarre on first hearing, Rabbi Lazer Brody wrote this
to remind us not to take the ability to go to the bathroom normally for granted. “Everytime we relieve ourselves, Hashem does a myriad of miracles in maintaining the body's health, casting away dangerous bacteria, microorganisms, and dead body cells in the bodily waste. Even more wondrous is that this heavy maintenance is done in a way that's extremely gratifying to the body.”
A person doesn’t need to be a Torah scholar, or even a garden variety Orthodox Jew, to express appreciation to the Creator of the world for the fact that their digestive system is functioning according to plan.
Just as the Japanese take a pragmatic approach to teaching their children about the fact that everyone poops, so the Jews take a pragmatic approach to thanking God for the ability to do so.