The After-Bathroom Blessing

If you’ve ever been “irregular,” you know what a blessing it can be when you finally “go.” What a relief it is. You may even thank God that if finally happened!

In Jewish tradition, there is actually a blessing that one is supposed to say every time one uses the toilet. The blessing, know by its short form Asher Yatzar in Hebrew, is recited by more observant Jews as another way of elevating and sanctifying even the most base and animal-like functions of daily life.

Here is the text of the blessing in Hebrew and English:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה, וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים .גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ, שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ אַפִלּוּ שָׁעָה אֶחָת. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת:”

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the universe, who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollow spaces. It is obvious and known before Your Seat of Honor that if even one of them would be opened, or if even one of them would be sealed, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You even for one hour. Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

This past Shabbat afternoon, I taught a lunch and learn at my congregation, Beth El – The Heights Synagogue, about the mind-body-spirit connection. I referred to this blessing because it is key to understanding the Jewish view of the human body. The blessing is quite biological in its content; there are openings in our bodies that need to stay open, and things that are closed that need to stay closed. Any of us who has ever had something that wouldn’t close (or heal properly) or had something that should be open that isn’t (constipation, for example), knows just how difficult and painful it can be. If it is not eventually resolved, the results can be quite serious.

What is central to the blessing is the idea that if things are not working properly it would be impossible to survive and stand before God. In other words, if we are not healthy we cannot do what it is that God expects of us: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, supporting the cause of the disadvantaged, pursuing justice, seeking peace, etc. We need our bodies to help make this world a better and more whole place. Our spirits and good thoughts alone won’t cut it; we need to get our hands dirty and put some elbow grease into it.

So it is that every time our body works successfully, an observant Jew thanks God that it is all working…because when it does, we can fulfill our mission in God’s creation.

It seems odd at first to say a blessing after using the bathroom, but upon further reflection, there is something meaningful about reminding ourselves on a (hopefully) “regular” basis to be thankful to God and to get busy with the work of creating a better world. Not only that, it compels us to take care of ourselves (eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, don’t smoke, etc.), so that we can best ensure that we will be able to stand before God and our fellow human beings.

One Year Later

time piece

It’s hard to believe, but an entire year has passed since I moved to Cleveland. What a year it has been.

After ten years of being together, Michele and I are finally in the same city and under the same roof. This could, of course, have gone badly, but it has been wonderful from day one. We have learned a lot from and about each other. I imagine this is a never-ending process.

It has been a year of pleasant surprises…and others less pleasant. We have had our share of health-related issues in the last 12 months, but thank God we are doing fine now. We have traveled to some pretty exciting places: Columbus, Omaha, Chicago and Alaska! Lots of exciting plans for the future. Both of us have had unexpected opportunities and disappointments professionally. Through it all, we have been at each others’ sides.

My good friend, Rev. Tim Ahrens, is somewhat of an expert on the topic of transitions. He recommended a book that taught me a lot; one of the main points was that there cannot be any beginning without an ending. I think in previous parts of my life, there were new phases of my life that I tried to begin without really having ended the previous one. Although there were some issues (emotionally and otherwise) that I needed to work through, I think that my time in Columbus really did come to an end and wasn’t followed by a period of lingering. I jumped right into my new life: a new city (Cleveland has WAY surpassed my expectations), a new home (one that my wife and I have created together), and new employment.

I am thoroughly enjoying my work at Beth El – The Heights Synagogue; it is a small, independent minyan in Cleveland Heights–traditional and egalitarian. The shule has an interesting history and is not without its challenges, but it is very rare to find a place that embodies the kind of “pitch in and get things done” attitude that you find at BE-THS. This is a place that does not necessarily NEED a rabbi; there are plenty of members (some of whom are rabbis) who know how to give a drash, read Torah, etc. It is a shule that WANTS a rabbi and I am fortunate to have become connected with a really wonderful bunch of people. Did I mention we like to sing?

Work at the JCC has been most interesting. Although I passed my ACE certification to become a personal trainer in May of 2018, I did not start as a trainer at the JCC until mid-August and then did not train a member one-on-one until October. It is one thing to pass the exam and quite another to be able to translate the knowledge into action. I made my share of mistakes (more to come, I’m sure), but I have not hurt anyone. On the contrary, I am gratified to see the progress that many of my clients are making–especially some of my older adults who are seeing increased strength, agility and confidence. I have worked on a few projects (the Weight Loss Challenge–my team won!) and have several more in process now. I really like my colleagues who make it fun to come to work. I have been told by veteran trainers that it takes two years to really learn the “business” and to build a full roster of clients; I am pleased with my progress but I know there is a lot more hard work to come.

My take-aways from this last year:

  1. It is true that you cannot start something new without ending the old thing. I am glad to have had the circumstances in place to make the transition the right way.
  2. Transitions are difficult, and it helps to be kind to yourself. I am tough on myself and I am impatient. I am in the process of re-inventing myself after 26 years in the same role. Rome will not be built in a day, so I should not beat myself up when I have a setback.
  3. Humility is a virtue. I went from working as a congregational rabbi–a field in which I excelled and had a lot of experience–to being a personal trainer–a field in which I a newbie. It is good to be reminded that I have a lot to learn.
  4. Through the tough times of transition, there is nothing like the love of family to get you through it all. My kids have been so supportive–each in their own way. My siblings in Michigan have stayed close as always. My wife’s family has made me feel at home; it is a real treat to have family so close by and to be able to watch nieces and a nephew grow up in the neighborhood. And, of course, how very fortunate I am to have an amazing partner by my side. My wife is everything and more than I could have ever hoped for. She reminds me every day that good things come to those who wait, and some times nice guys finish first.

Today I celebrate a major milestone. Tomorrow…back to work and learning and loving. Thanks to all of you for joining me on my Kosher Fitness journey.

A new feature: my “Thought for Shabbat”

Image result for yom haatzmaut

My weekly musings that I share each week with Beth El – The Heights Synagogue…and now with you too!

This Shabbat is the first of many that is not a “special” Shabbat.  The last two weeks were Passover, before that Shabbat Hagadol, and before that Hachodesh, Parah, etc. 

Nevertheless, this Shabbat is significant to us today because it falls between two important dates on the Hebrew calendar:  Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance) and Yom Hazikaron/Ha’atzma’ut (Israel Memorial Day and Independence Day—that are observed one day after the other).  Their proximity on the calendar is coincidental; it is just the way it worked out in modern times.  The 27th of Nissan was chosen by the Knesset in the early 1950s as the result of negotiations, putting it somewhere on the Jewish calendar between the day that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began and the day that the Nazis declared that the Ghetto had been completely liquidated.  Yom Ha’atzma’ut, of course, was set on the anniversary of the establishment of the state, with Yom Hazikaron set the day before.

It always seemed to me that it was more than a coincidence that these two observances are so close to each other.  Just as Yom Ha’atzma’ut follows Yom Hashoah, the establishment of the State of Israel followed the Holocaust.  This understanding is somewhat simplistic, though.

Modern Zionism had been working on creating a Jewish State beginning in the 19th Century.  Settlement and support of this venture began soon afterward and grew during the first part of the 20th Century.  Many historians believe that Israel would have come into being eventually, but that the Holocaust (and the resultant world sympathy for the Jews displaced as result) sped up the process.  

Each of these observances stands independently; one is not a result of the other even though they are somewhat connected.  This Shabbat as we stand between these two dates, let us reflect one of the worst episodes in our history…as well as one of the most glorious.  The path we follow on the calendar remind us of Passover’s message of redemption—even when it seems most unlikely.

Shabbat Shalom!

Who am I?

My name is Michael Ungar. I am an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and an ordained Rabbi.

I was born in Detroit in 1963 and grew up in Southfield (a suburb). I graduate from Kalamazoo College with a double-major in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Latin America Area Studies. I was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in 1992, where I also received an MA in Jewish Education, specializing in Holocaust Education.

I served as a congregational Rabbi from 1992 through 2018. When I moved to Cleveland in the summer of 2018 I became the spiritual leader at Beth El- The Heights Synagogue in Cleveland Heights; it is a small, independent, traditional egalitarian congregation with about 70 families. I also began working as a Personal Trainer at the Mandel Jewish Community Center; my clients range in age from 16 to 77.

On a personal note, I have five kids (blended family) ranging from 18 – 25, an amazing wife who supports my hopes and dreams, and a bichpoo named Belle.

I love to travel and have been all over the USA, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Israel, Egypt and the Caribbean. I speak English, Spanish and Hebrew fluently; I can get by in French, and know just enough Yiddish to get in (and out of) trouble.

Growing up, there was not a real emphasis on fitness in my family. I was typically chosen last for every team in elementary and middle school. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at age 12 and spent much of the next three decades trying to keep that under control.

In my late 30s I was given a 5-pack of personal training as a birthday gift. At my first meeting, the trainer said, “I’ll meet with you once a week, but you’ve got to get in here at least two times a week on top of that.” I did not want to disappoint this guy; after all, he could crush me! That was the beginning of my beginning to take my fitness more seriously.

I made use of the services of trainers on and off over the years, but pretty consistently once I moved to Columbus in 2002. Two trainers in particular, Todd Johnson and Carlie Snyder, inspired me to set audacious goals and work to achieve them. I competed in my first triathlon in 2011. I have competed in more 5Ks than I can count (and even won two of them in my 50s!), have completed 3 half-marathons and several obstacle course races.

After 26 years as a congregational Rabbi, I decided to focus on helping people in a different way as a Personal Trainer. I attended classes at the Ohio State University to prep for the ACE exam and passed on my first sitting–such naches! I am thrilled to be the Rabbi at BE-THS; I love the people and I love the davening. I am also thrilled to be a Personal Trainer at the Mandel JCC.

I hope to make contributions in both of these careers through this blog. I look forward to getting to know you, my readers, and allowing you to get to know me too!