I must have passed it a thousand times. It just lay there in the hall, in between my bedroom and the room I spend most of my time in, the studio room. It was my porcelain pride, my ceramic sanctuary, my clay cloister, it was the brand new toilet I purchased a year and a half ago. My mother will probably say it’s been more like two years but that’s a debate for another time. I had high hopes for this sculpture that would be the centerpiece of my in-house, but having the lazy-bone gene and an inability to call plumbers left me with a constant reminder that I bought the new, one piece bowl for a really good reason.
I finally reached the point where I could no longer take the shame of having purchased such a beautifully made, wonderfully white unmentionable unused appliance for the room in which I spend a lot of time thinking, reading, and separating myself from the waste that is created by living and eating and drinking. I was determined to install it myself. What do I know, a Jew from Parsippany, New Jersey whose ancestors came from across the sea, from Brooklyn, about installing a toilet. I mean, how hard could it be? These were my thoughts as I went in with incredible confidence and resolve. I had also just consumed two large cups of coffee before I had turned off the water in my house and exorcised the old one. It wouldn’t be too long before I would really need to use my dusty bowl. I thought this would be a motivating factor, consuming vast quantities of a diuretic.
It was at the moment that I realized I had inadvertently done something that resulted in the pipes to suddenly burst with water streaming into my basement that my pride was reduced to a steady stream of falling and failing H2O. I called the plumber and miracle of miracles he was in and out of my house within two hours. The leak was fixed. The toilet was ready for use. It was a holy moment and it initiated my thoughts on the wonders of the bathroom.
Throughout my travels as a cantor I have come across many people in many different situations. Perhaps the most profound moments I have experienced were when I was forced to contemplate mortality and the functioning of our bodies, when someone is sick. I admit that this aspect of my calling is not easy for me. I have a hard time going for hospital visits because of a handful of my traumatic stays in some of the tristate region’s finest hospitals, but that’s a story for another day.
In my various visits, I have seen people in different states of illness, but the moment I have been most struck by, the thing that lingers in my mind is what one elderly man told me. Before I tell you what he said I must share a caveat. I can’t actually remember whether I heard this directly from a patient or this was something that a colleague shared with me. Of course it makes a better story if I heard it directly but that level of artistic license is a little too dishonest for my taste, and I would probably feel guilty about it. Anyway, this man expressed that the one thing that he wished, with all his various inconveniences for being in a hospital, was that he could go to the bathroom on his own.
A simple act, something we don’t think about and we certainly don’t talk about among acquaintances, but something that is easily taken for granted. The natural act of eliminating waste is such an important part of living that the Jewish tradition has a prayer that one is to say after they visit the porcelain portal. And this is why I love liturgy, because it addresses all aspects of human life; from the very holy to the very profane. It covers it all. Our prayer reminds us that if a vessel or opening of our bodies is blocked and not able to function properly, it would be impossible to exist and stand before our Creator. In a wonderful rabbinic wordplay the Hebrew refers to God’s “throne of glory” in that it would be impossible to stand before the “throne” if our bodies were not functioning properly. God’s throne parallels our earthly “throne.” Our actual toilet bowls are a metaphor for experiencing divinity in the world. Sounds crazy, no?
This is all to remind us that separating waste from the body is like the act of burning the dross off of gold. This is an act of purification, that reveals the sacred, and is not limited to the waste of the physical body. During most days we hear and see things that may not reach the level of holy, that are profane and un-extraordinary, or are just plain rude. Whether it is mindless entertainment, trolling tweets, or office gossip, our experiences produce spiritual waste as well. Just as we eliminate the waste that our physical bodies produce in order to operate properly, we must also eliminate the spiritual waste that our minds and emotions produce. This too is an act of purification that can reveal the sacred in ourselves.
So, as I rejoice in my new “john” I will hopefully use the time everyday, that I am engaged in eliminating waste, for separating myself from my negativity and those things in the world that disturb me. I hope to always be grateful for simple human acts that contribute greatly to the working mechanics of my body and the workings of my thoughts and feelings. And I hope that this act of separation leads me to be able to stand with integrity before the Creator’s Throne of Glory.