Early each morning, the Jewish prayerbook prescribes a blessing for the wonders of the human body:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בו
…נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים
Blessed are You, O G-d, Ruling Spirit of the Universe, who has formed human beings with wisdom, creating us with countless holes and orifices.
שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם או יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם…
.וְלַעֲמוד לְפָנֶיךָ אֲפִילוּ שָׁעָה אֶחָת
.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' רופֵא כָל בָּשר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשות
If one of them should be open when it should be closed, or closed when it should be open, it would be impossible to exist or stand before You even for a single moment. Blessed are You, O G-d, Healer of All Flesh, who performs wonders.
That’s right, it’s the infamous Prayer for Going to the Bathroom, known as the Asher Yatzar. It’s a blessing of wonder and awe for our bodies that work as amazingly well as they do much of the time. It also indicates an awareness that when something malfunctions in these tiny valves, vessels, organs, and tissues, the whole system is impacted.
My teacher Professor Eugene Borowitz ז״ל used to say that he always considered the Asher Yatzar to be rather innocuous—and perhaps even an example of the Jewish overkill when it comes to saying blessings—until he developed a kidney stone. That’s when he realized that something no larger than a grain of salt could bring a healthy man to his knees, eyes tearing in pain. After that, he said, he finally understood this prayer, and its words became for him one of the most spiritually profound passages in the entire siddur.
For me, the problem is further up the body. The human ear is a miracle of delicacy and intricate sophistication. Sensations on the eardrum trigger vibrations on tiny bones in the middle ear (the malleus, incus, and stapes), which in turn stimulate the cochlea. The movement of the liquid in the cochlea sends signals to the auditory nerve, and the brain decodes these signals, providing hearing. I don’t think I can explain what happens in between each of those steps—why one signal sounds like an oboe and another like a fire alarm and yet another like my grandmother’s voice. Still, the whole marvelous system is sublime, and each of us carries this technology around in our head.
But years ago, an audiologist showed me an x-ray of the bones in my middle ear—and how they were gradually ossifying, and thus losing their sensitivity. They’re so small and located so far inside my head, the doctor explained, that I was not a candidate for surgery. My hearing was only going to get worse. It’s the family curse.
But on Thursday, I’m confronting the curse head-on. I’m headed to Massachusetts Eye & Ear for cochlear implant surgery.
The procedure takes place in two stages. On Thursday, they’ll implant a magnetic transmitter in my head, with the promise of setting off security detectors at airports for the rest of my life. A few weeks later, I’ll be fitted with an external processor (it looks like a hearing aid) that works in tandem with the implant. Effectively what happens is: these devices bypass my ear and send electronic signals directly to the brain, which the brain decodes as sounds. Hearing without using your ears. Unbelievable!
There is a long rehabilitation period. The surgeon, Dr. Felipe Santos, tells me that when the processor is switched on a few weeks after the implantation, I’ll notice an immediate impact (in my left ear—you only implant one ear at a time), but it will be far from perfect. Then, over a series of weeks and months, my brain will adapt to this new way of hearing, and it will get better and better.
It won’t be perfect, but perfection is a stupid standard to live by. It will be much improved, G-d willing, and will make me a lot more functional in classes, meetings (in Buber’s sense of the word), and generally, in life. It will mean an enormous difference to my family, whom my hearing loss impacts perpetually.
I’m anticipating the surgery with excitement and only the normal amount of trepidation and nervousness. I’m curious about voices and music will sound like when my left side is operational once again. They warn me that at first sounds will be “tinny” and “robotic” – I’m imagining the sounds of voices through a vocoder—as my brain learns how to hear all over again.
Despite all the reading and preparing that I’m doing, I’m not 100% sure what to expect—but I’m going to ride this like a roller coaster, and hold on tightly.
But a few things I do know. We live in an unbelievable, breathtaking time, when technology can restore a lost or damaged sense. And I know that I’m astoundingly fortunate and privileged—that this technology is not readily available to millions or billions of other people around the globe, and that the appropriate response to that is radical gratitude.
And I know one more thing: in a few days, when I say the Asher Yatzar, it’s going to have all sorts of nuances that I never knew were there.
It’s going to sound different.