Polio

Stand Tall

Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has straightened the bent over.
— Morning Blessings

We rarely get good news in the papers these days so when there is news to celebrate, it is often eclipsed by tragedy or tucked into a remote corner. This week we take note of a big piece of good news that’s worth a moment of reflection and appreciation. According to The New York Times, “...it has been one full year since polio was detected anywhere in Africa, a significant milestone in global health..."

Doctors and health experts are celebrating what they consider a fragile success. When the global polio eradication campaign began in 1988, 350,000 children worldwide had polio. Last year that number dropped to 359. We are on the brink of eradicating all polio across the globe - something unimaginable is just on our horizon. This kind of accomplishment, only capable with the intervention of modern medicine, is worth a blessing. And I think I’ve found the perfect one, culled from our daily morning blessings: “Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has straightened the bent over.”

Polio is an infectious disease that usually causes a weakening of the muscles in the legs but can also spread to the head, neck and elsewhere. It is an ancient illness and can and still does have a crippling effect when not treated. Although Dr. Jonas Salk revolutionized the polio equation in the 1950s with his vaccine,  the World Health Organization still declared it a public health emergency as late as 2014 because pockets of the poorest populations in Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan and other countries had still not overcome its reach. Now that Africa has been polio-free for a year, medical experts hope that additional pressures will be put on other countries to make polio a disease of the past.

Because of the crippling nature of the disease, a blessing on polio’s eradication might focus on the fact that God helps those bent over stand tall. The Talmud offers us a string of morning blessings that still appear in traditional prayerbooks today that travel with us through the process of waking up, from the moment we open our eyes and through the acts of getting out of bed, washing and dressing. Performed slowly, this choreography of rising can frame the entire day with a posture of gratitude, figuratively and literally. To me, one of the most touching of these blessings is “zokef kefufim,” - to straighten the bent over, in which the very Hebrew letters seem to mimic in its design the word’s meaning - especially the first letter of each word.

In Torah Yoga, Diane Bloomfield writes about the power of body and spirit in alignment regarding the spine: “Because your spine is your infinite spirit clothed in nerves, bones and muscles, every time you straighten and strengthen your spine, you are revealing more of your underlying infinite spirit.” As we age, Bloomfield writes, the spine often compresses without conscious work to keep it straight and aligned and the ease with which children bend down and straighten is compromised as we get older. Making this blessing is a way that we heighten our awareness of the spine as the defining anchor of our skeletal structure and spiritualize the experience of standing straight.

We find an inherent contradiction in the book of Ecclesiastes: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is missing cannot be recovered” (1:15). It seems as if that which is crooked will forever stay that way until we read later in the same book: “Consider what God has done: who can straighten what He has made crooked?” (7:3). Within human realms, it is near impossible to straighten that which is bent over, but when we invite God to partner with us, it seems there is nothing beyond our capacity to heal, as we read in Psalms, “The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down” (145:14).

We are fortunate that this blessing helps us capture and sanctify this moment in time when divine intervention and medical innovation have brought us to a historic accomplishment. But the blessing should not be reserved for medical cases alone. All of us have the power to lift up the fallen, to act in God’s image and pick up those who are bowed low in suffering. We may not all be physicians, but we all have the ability to heal. In honor of this milestone, let today be a day that you use your friendship and love to bring the gift of healing to someone in need.

Shabbat Shalom