In the Beginning, There is the Body

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By Rabbi Kelilah Miller

Parshat Bereshit

Body image has been on my mind recently for many reasons.


As a Jewish community, we have just come through a major fast, and then a period of feasting in the sukkah; the intensity of attention to food at this time of year has many of us thinking about our needs, desires, anxieties, struggles and pleasures related to food and to our bodies.

We ask each other “How was your fast?” We may feel proud of our bodies’ ability to tolerate fasting or embarrassed that we were not able to fast this year (or any year). We debate how much dessert to eat or to serve in the sukkah. We may cook huge amounts of food to provide ourselves and our guests with a sense of bounty as we celebrate the harvest festival. Some of us may be struggling with the intensity of the presence of food and drink that can come with a long feast.

On a personal level, I am thinking about body image as I walk the post-childbirth journey of getting reacquainted with my own body, and trying to make friends with its new and evolving shape, while at the same time standing in awe of what the human body can do.

All of this is in the air. But what inspired me to write on the topic of body image for Parshat Bereshit is the Yom Kippur sermon given by my friend and colleague and the rabbi at Congregation Ohev Shalom, Rabbi Jeremy Gerber.

This Yom Kippur, Gerber courageously shared the truth of his own struggles with body image and eating, as a powerful illustration of the importance of naming our vulnerabilities and becoming more sensitive to the range of stories and experiences that exist in our communities.

It happens that Parshat Bereshit is the parshah that describes the miraculous creation of the human form — a form that is a shadow of a shadow of the image of God, imbued with divine breath (Genesis 1:27, 2:7).

We live in a consumer culture that encourages us, at every turn, to think of our bodies as another “thing” that we own, something that can and should be improved, renovated, overhauled and perfected. We believe that we are in total command of our bodies, or that we should be. To not be in control of this thing (this property) is to be lazy, crazy or worse.

But the reality is that none of us is in full control. We age, we lose or gain weight, we experience periods of health and illness. And when we come up against that reality, many of us feel shame or anger. And then we spend a lot of time, money and energy in an attempt to regain a kind of control that we never had.

What Bereshit can come to teach us is that the human form is not a thing that we own — it is, in some important way, a representation of the divine. It cannot be fixed into some static notion of human-made-and-marketed perfection (read: skinny, young, tall, able-bodied, white/light-skinned, hairless, symmetrical, etc.). Even if that image is briefly attained, it will pass. Rather, the perfection of the human body exists in its dynamic evolution, its diversity and its growing and changing interaction with creation.

We give honor to the blessed holy one when we give honor to the organic dynamism of the image of God that exists within each of us, when we act in partnership with our bodies (and with creation) and work toward compassionate acceptance of all that we are, all that we are not and all that we are becoming.

There is a poem by blogger and poet Hollie Holden that has been making the rounds online:

 

Today I asked my body what she needed,

Which is a big deal

Considering my journey of

Not Really Asking That Much.

I thought she might need more water.

Or protein.

Or greens.

Or yoga.

Or supplements.

Or movement.

But as I stood in the shower

Reflecting on her stretch marks,

Her roundness where I would like flatness,

Her softness where I would like firmness,

All those conditioned wishes

That form a bundle of

Never-Quite-Right-Ness,

She whispered very gently:

Could you just love me like this?

 

My prayer for us all is that, as we embark on a new Bereshit/beginning, we are each able to stand in meaningful partnership with the divine image in which we are each created, and that we can better know God through that work. 

Rabbi Kelilah Miller is the cantor and education director at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford and received her rabbinical training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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