“All My Bones Shall Say…”

Written by Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang — 10 August 2020

There is a children’s ‘action song’ which I expect you have heard:  ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’…

A television company once came to film part of a programme at the Day Nursery in my office building, and this song was the key element.  First they taught the song to the children and then they had to get them to perform it for the camera.

I watched the fun from my window, although by the 10th repetition I had had enough, and by the 50th I felt like throwing something at them.  But the children just loved it and didn’t seem bored.

The names for parts of our bodies are among the first words we learn in any language.  This is endlessly fascinating to toddlers, and I also wouldn’t mind betting that if any of you have a vocabulary of just a few dozen words in any language, some of them will be for body parts.

In Hebrew, even the most basic words can have extended and even abstract meanings too, and this is particularly true of ‘body language’.  Let me remind you of a few you have definitely heard before:

  • Rosh (head): As in English, this can also mean ‘leader’, and hence ‘beginning’, as in ‘Rosh Chodesh’ and ‘Rosh HaShanah’
  • You may not recognise the word Berech which means ‘knee’ but you certainly know some of the words using the same root: Baruch; HaMevorach; Beracha and so on – all associated with the idea perhaps of being on your knees – in awe, in gratitude, in supplication….
  • Rechem is the word for womb, and gives us the term ‘Rachamim’ which we tend to translate as ‘mercy’, but essentially means the irrational, protective love which a woman has for her unborn child.
  • Af (nose) – is used to describe anger, usually God’s anger. The actual expression used is that ‘God’s nose burned’  (or perhaps was ‘incensed’?)
  • Regel (leg or foot) –also becomes a journey made on foot, and hence those festivals marked by pilgrimage, and from that to the notion of a regular occurrence, a habit or routine…
  • Yad (hand) – in modern Hebrew suggests ‘support’, as in the names of charities like ‘Yad Sarah’ and ‘Yad LaBanim’, while in biblical Hebrew the word is used to connote power.

This week’s Torah portion Eikev mentions nearly all of these, literally or metaphorically.:  There are also references to heart, face, neck, eyes, foreskin, finger, belly, …

but there is also another part of the body ‘hiding’ in the actual name of the parasha:

Akeiv is the heel of the foot. It is in the name of Jacob, Yaakov, who was born grasping the heel of his twin brother Esau.  In our parasha, the word eikev appears twice, book-ending a number of passages about reward and punishment, and here it means ‘as a consequence’ .. (good things will come about as a consequence of obedience; the consequence of wrong behaviour will be bad…)

It is as if to say: With my heel I leave a footprint, a trace of myself, evidence that I have been here, an imprint…a result…

We may sometimes think that true matters of the spirit are on a different plane from the mundane business of our bodies.  Yet our liturgy has always included the phrase ‘kol atsmotai tomarna…’ (All my bones – or all my parts – shall praise God). [1] Learning to name our body parts starts when we are very young, but learning the full potential for their meaning can continue for life.  For me, one of the messages of this week’s parasha is that our body parts and body-related language are fundamental to ethical behaviour and to our religious concepts.…

As that song goes:

‘…Eyes and Ears and Mouth and Nose;  Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes…’

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Psalm 35:10 quoted in daily morning liturgy eg Forms of Prayer p203