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The Great Mistake

October 19, 2009 | by Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Why did the Creator design such a vulnerable knee?

Some call it "God's mistake." No, I'm not referring to the ostrich or the mosquito. Nor even to politicians.

It's the knee.

"It is, without question, ill-suited for the jobs we ask it to do," says James M. Fox, M.D., director of the Center for the Disorders of the Knee in Van Nuys, California, and author of the book Save Your Knees. "It wasn't designed for football, soccer, automobile accidents, being a carpenter or plumber, or squatting and kneeling all day long. It was well designed originally, but there was no way to anticipate all the things we would end up asking it to do."

With all due respect to Dr. Fox, the Creator does not make mistakes, nor could He have failed to anticipate every possible form of activity when He designed the human being. Nevertheless, the preponderance of knee-related maladies forces us to wonder why, in designing the human knee, the Almighty chose to do it this way.

The Hebrew word for "knee" is berech. Curiously, it is spelled exactly the same as the word for "blessed" – baruch. The nature of biblical Hebrew is such that seemingly unrelated words often share a common grammatical root, alerting us that they are not as dissimilar as they might seem. To understand the common thread between berech and baruch, we must first investigate the essence of blessing.

Wellsprings of Prosperity

Possibly the most instructive example of Divine blessing appears in the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 4, where a poor widow beseeches the prophet Elisha to save her sons from being sold as slaves in payment of her debts.

"What do you have in the house?" asks the prophet.

"I have nothing but a small vial of oil," the widow replies.

Elisha instructs her to go to her neighbors and borrow all the pots, jugs, and buckets she can find. He then tells her to take her tiny container of oil and start to pour. The widow follows his instructions and, miraculously, enough oil pours forth from the vial to fill all the borrowed vessels. She takes the oil to the marketplace, sells it off to pay her debts, and lives out the rest of her life comfortably.

Why does the prophet's rescue of this widow require such a complicated process? Why couldn't Elisha have told her to simply go home and find a bag of gold on her dining room table or buried in her back yard?

From this incident we learn that the nature of blessing is increase. The Almighty does not bless us by giving us what we lack; He blesses us by expanding and increasing that which we already possess.

In Jewish prayers, the phrase that appears more than any other is, "Blessed are You, Lord, our God ..." By declaring that the Almighty is blessed, we affirm that God is the wellspring of all blessing. It is He Who created us and everything that is ours, and it is He Who increases or decreases that which we already have. With respect to wealth, wisdom, strength, and talent, we acknowledge our Creator as the source of all, recognizing that everything is given on credit in anticipation of our good deeds and subject to immediate forfeiture if we fail to use it responsibly.

Therefore, whenever we take pleasure in the material world, we articulate a blessing to God as an expression of gratitude, expressing as well our hope that we will continue to merit more of the same.

The Gift of Vulnerability

Nothing in the human condition symbolizes this aspect of our relationship with the Almighty more strikingly than the knee.

Human beings are naturally predisposed to believe that we are self-sufficient -- dependent on nothing other than ourselves and our own resources. We easily overlook or disregard our physical limitations, imagining that we are masters of our own fate and soldiers of our own fortune.

When we indulge in this kind of supreme arrogance, we isolate ourselves from human society, cutting ourselves off from other people and distancing ourselves from our Creator.

The counter-evolutionary design of the knee, by which the entire body rests upon so delicate a mechanism, provides a sobering counterweight to the hubris of the human ego. The human knee is ideally designed for one thing: to walk straight ahead, on even ground, at a moderate pace. But as soon as we speed up, slow down, turn, carry, or climb, we cause increased strain, placing ourselves at risk for injury and incapacity.

Similarly, in our pursuit of wealth, power and recognition, we dare not forget that a false step, a hasty turn, or an ill-conceived leap of overconfidence can deal a crippling blow in an instant. By relying solely upon our own resources, we place ourselves in danger of forfeiting all the blessings that have been given us.

However, when we recognize our own limitations, when we accept our dependency, acknowledge our vulnerability, and relax our reflexive egoism, then we come to appreciate that God's blessings carry with them responsibility, and that we must earn them over and over again. Healthy relationships cannot exist without vulnerability. Only when we recognize that we are not self-sufficient can we accept that we need God's involvement in our lives.

This universal truth applies equally to other people and to the Master of Creation. Only when we lower our psychological defenses and make ourselves vulnerable to others can we let them into our lives, loving them and allowing them to love us. And only by allowing others into our lives can we begin to develop the intimacy with the Divine that yields unimaginable strength, unsurpassed joy, and boundless blessing.

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