I had a new experience this week which moved me greatly. For reasons of discretion I won’t explain the circumstances, but the parents of a small baby asked me to be present at an operation on their child; it was important to them that a rabbi should be there. Realising that this would bring them comfort, I accepted and inwardly resolved that the squeamish side of me would not come to the fore.
Far from being eyed with suspicion, I was welcome by the surgeon with great warmth (‘I’m a Christian; we belong to the same family’) and shown how to change into that blue gear which I’d previously only seen at a comfortable distance. There was the whole world inside that theatre; we were black, white and Asian, Muslim, Christian and Jewish. A Scottish sister explained to me how to scrub my hands, while a nurse with an American accent told me where to stand. But unlike in geopolitics, everyone was united in a shared bond of tender skill, of extreme care and thoughtfulness in every word and movement. I watched how the implements were prepared, the wrapping which kept them sterile carefully peeled back but nothing inside touched except by the gloved hands of those most involved in the operation.
As the images from the tiny camera inserted in a keyhole procedure appeared on the screen the surgeon quietly explained exactly what we were seeing: the orifices, the surfaces, where in the body we were. So these were the wonders which lay hidden beneath the skin, living, breathing, allowing us to exist! I thought of the blessing said every morning after that first ritual of washing one’s hands: ‘Blessed are you God, sovereign of the world, who fashions human beings with wisdom and creates within them different apertures and vessels’: There they were before my eyes. ‘It is revealed and known before the throne of your glory that, were just one of them to be opened [which should be closed], or one of them to be closed [which should be open], we could not survive and stand before you even for a moment…’
For decades now I’ve said that blessing every morning, and other times in the day besides. It would be untrue to say that I simply gabbled it away while reaching for my clothes. Like many others, as I’ve got older I’ve thought about it more and more, experiencing the body less and less like an unbreakable tool I can mistreat at will, and more and more as it really is, the robust yet vulnerable bearer of this, my life, which I do not and never truly will understand. ‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb; I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it well’. (Psalm 139:13-14)
I am regularly aware too of that prayer for healing which ascends from tender, complex flesh: Let me not be crushed or cut or torn; may no hidden illness thwart my growth; let me live! Help me, God, to breath, to be, to see the sky, to hold a warm human hand!
I left the hospital humbled, struck by wonder before this fragile life, and before that remarkable coming together which I’d been privileged to witness of such sophisticated skill and such simple tenderness.