You have heard several sermons in the past week with Shabbat and Shavuot. So instead of the usual sermon this morning, I’d like to study with you a verse from today’s Haftorah. Please turn to page 1181 in your Chumash. As I said before in my introduction to the Haftorah, it’s the story of the birth of Samson. The reason we read this story today is because the Torah reading contains the laws of a Nazir, a Nazirite, and Samson was a Nazir—perhaps the most famous.
The Haftorah describes events leading up to the birth of Samson. Let’s read beginning with verses 3-5 in Judges chapter 13:
An angel of Gd appear to the woman and said to her, “Behold now! You are barren and have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. And now, be careful not to drink wine or intoxicant, and not to eat anything prohibited [to a Nazirite]. For you shall conceive and give birth to a son; a razor shall not come upon his head for the lad shall be a Nazarite of Gd from the womb, and he will begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
The woman runs and tells her husband Manoach that something incredible just happened to her. Let’s read the next 2 verses—6 and 7:
The woman came and told her husband, “A man of Gd came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of an angel of Gd—very awesome! [It seems that this expression is thousands of years old.] I did not ask him where he was from and he did not tell me his name. He said to me, ‘Behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son; and now, do not drink wine or intoxicant, and do not eat anything prohibited [to a Nazirite], for the lad shall be a Nazirite of Gd from the womb until the day of his death.’”
Manoach is astonished. He doesn’t want to be left out of this angelic experience, so he prays to Gd and says (verse 13:8):
“Please, my Lrd, may the man of Gd whom You sent come now again to us and teach us what we should do to the lad who will be born.”
The angel does come back. He reappears for a 2nd time¼but not to Manoach. He comes back to his wife! Evidently, either this is an angel who likes to talk to women more than men, or she is on a higher spiritual level and more worthy. This time, however, she runs and gets her husband because she knows how much he wants to see the angel for himself. The husband asks the angel to please repeat the instructions¼and the angel does so.
Then, Manoach, feeling very grateful to this mysterious angel asks him in verse 15:
“Please let us detain you, and we shall prepare for you a kid of the goats.”
In other words, “Won’t you please let us make a meal for you?” And the angel replies in verse 16:
“If you detain me, I shall not eat from your food, but if you would bring up an elevation-offering, bring it up to Hashem.”
In other words, “Thank you, but no thank you. I don’t eat human food. If you wish to make an offering, make it to Gd, not to me.”
So Manoach makes a sacrifice to Gd. Now we have the 2 words that I want to study with you today at the end of verse 19:
Manoach took the kid of the goats and the; meal-offering and brought them up on the rock to Hashem; and [here are the 2 words] umafli laasot, he [the angel] performed a miracle as Manoach and his wife watched. [What was the miracle? Let’s read verse 20.] It happened that as the flame rose up from atop the altar toward the heavens, the angel of Hashem went up in the flame of the altar; Manoach and his wife were watching and they fell upon their faces to the ground.
Something wondrous, something miraculous, something beyond human understanding occurs. The angel goes up in the flames of the altar and disappears. When Manoach and his wife see it¼they stand there awestruck. They have been privileged to witness a miracle¼and they must have felt overwhelmed, frightened and so impressed. No wonder they were willing to do whatever the angel told them to after they saw him go up in smoke. Wouldn’t you?
Do you recognize those 2 Hebrew words: Umafli laasot, “he performed a miracle”? Where else do we find this phrase? Rabbi Jack Reimer points out that it’s the last 2 words in the prayer recited after one goes to the bathroom. It’s called the Asher Yatzar prayer. Let’s read it on page 14 of our Siddurim:
Baruch ata Hashem, Elokeynu, melech haolam, asher yatzar et haadam b’chochma, uvara vo n’kavim, n’kavim, chalulim, chalulim. Galui viyadua lifney chisey ch’vodecha, sh’im yipateyach echad meyhem, o yisateym echad meyhem, i-efshar l’hitkayem v’laamod l’fanecha. Baruch ata Hashem, rofey kol basar, UMAFLI LAASOT.
“Blessed are You, O Lrd our Gd, the Ruler of the universe, who has fashioned the human being with Wisdom. You have created within each person a whole network of veins and arteries. If any one of these that is meant to be open were to close, or if any one of these that is meant to be closed were to open, we could not live; we could not stand before You. Blessed are You, O Lrd, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously¼ [but more literally] who performs a miracle.”
Do you recognize that Hebrew phrase—umafli laasot? The very same phrase that’s used to describe the mysterious angel performing miracles is used to describe our ability to go to the bathroom, our ability to move our bowels.
Now, is there anything more ordinary, more mundane, than our bodily functions? Why on earth then is the very same phrase—umafli laasot—used to describe a miraculous act that was done once and only once by an angel and a routine act—a lower bodily function—that is done every day by human beings?
Rabbi Reimer says that this is the whole point. The reason that the very same phrase—umafli laasot—is used in both these places—and only in these 2 places—is to make the point that the normal, everyday, routine functioning of the human body—even or especially the lower bodily functions—is just as miraculous as the angel’s once-in-a-lifetime ascent to heaven.
Do you understand what this prayer says to us? Every body is a miracle. The fact that our eyes can see, that our ears can hear, that our bloodstream works, that we’re able to breathe, that our digestive systems works¼these are not to be taken for granted. They are all miraculous. Even though they happen every day—hopefully—they’re no less wondrous, no less astonishing, than the angel who was able to go up to heaven in flames.
Where is Gd? Some people find Gd in the workings of the cosmos. Some people find Gd in places like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. And whether we want to admit it publicly or not—and I suspect it happens to all of us at one time or another—we sometimes find Gd in the bathroom!
I think this Ashar Yatzar prayer is one of the most profound in all of Jewish liturgy. It’s posted on the mirror in the washing station outside the men’s room. May I suggest that you make a copy of it and carry it with you wherever you go and recite it throughout the day as the need arises to show your gratitude to Gd for the continued miraculous functioning your body.
I don’t know any other tradition that contains a blessing to be said after going to the bathroom. Let’s bless Gd for all the many wonders He does for us. May we learn to notice them, to pay attention to them—not only when they break down, but especially when they’re working well. And to this, let us all say, Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis