Tradition & Innovation
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On Having a Breast Cyst Removed

By Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow

A few women gather and sit on the floor and sort lentils. Jewish women did this for centuries before us, tossing aside small stones and irregular beans. There is an aura of mourning but also of cleansing, separating the bad and unhealthy from the good. A rich and nourishing soup is made from the beans.

Family members and close friends come to join the ritual. It is a full moon, a time of harvesting and ripeness, of light and vision. The people form a circle and begin with prayers of healing and thanks. We read the midrash of Miriam and her healing well:

Miriam's well, the midrash says, moves from river to river and from well to well at the end of each Shabbat. This is the time to draw the miraculous water that was famous for providing healing for those who bathe in it. Let us imagine water all around our bodies, water that cleanses, heals, makes rough places smooth, relaxes stiff muscles and provides a soft womb in which to float.

We sing the song El Na Refa Na La by Geela Rayzel Raphael, or another healing song is chosen. The angel of healing, Rafael, is invoked and invited to stand by the woman who is healing:

We now call upon the angel Rafael, who stood alongside so many of our ancestors, guiding and protecting from harm, to stand with our sister, mother, daughter, friend ___________, and keep her in good health, and be with her in difficult times.

Everyone sits on the floor and eats the soup. We transition from mourning to reclaiming, emerging from the water of Miriam's Well. We read:

Black Stone Mother God
By Margaret Atwood

Black stone mother god

I chose from a lake's
edge, rests on the table
where I put her:
inert, all power
circled between thumb and finger

From one side, an eye,
a head, a breast, a buttock.
From the other
a black potato,
a knob of earth, a long plum, a plump
elbow. A river shaped her,
smoothed her with sand and battered
her against the shore, and she
resisted, she is still here.

Worship what
you like, what you want
to be like. Old mother,
I pray to what is
and what refuses.1

Round and sensuous fruits are now eaten. We reclaim the beauty and feel of the breasts, the body. We wash our hands with milk. We say:

After the meal, as in the Passover haggadah where the first washing of the hands is done without a blessing to provoke questions about why, we now wash at a curious time. Instead of water, we use milk, pouring it over our hands. We are reminded of the fruitfulness, the full ripeness of women's bodies.

A text has been chosen from the Bible or from a rabbinic source. The purpose of the discussion is to identify in the text the parts that are no longer healthy, the parts that have become hurtful. As we identify the hurtful parts, we tell stories of how they have hurt people, or the land. We cast them away in order to make the tradition more healthy.

(Some possible texts to use: the punishment of the rebellious child [Deut. 21:18-21], the forced marriage of a female enemy captive [Deut. 21:10-14], Hosea's depiction of Israel as an evil woman [Hos. 2:1-25].)

The last part of the ritual is a blessing that will be said by the woman each time she does a monthly breast exam in the future, which now the group says together:

Blessed are you, Source of life, Creator of the Universe, who gives us physical existence, unites our souls with our bodies, and guides us on our path.


1. "Black Stone Mother God," by Margaret Atwood, 1979. Used with the permission of the author.

Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow is Education Director of Spark: Partnership for Service. She co-founded The Bavli Yerushalmi Project, an Israeli-Diaspora dialogue and education initiative, and was a Project Coordinator for Ma'yan. She is currently developing curricular materials to promote service and volunteerism by Jews in America. This piece was first published in Ma'yan's Journey, Spring 2002, and is used with the author's permission.

Complete Ceremony