Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Walk Article-Bo




Rabbi David Walk



            A funny thing happened on my way to my granddaughter's Bat Mitzva in Cleveland, O., a bris broke out.  On the twelfth anniversary of the birth of my first grand-kid, Hallel Shira Weinstein, a grandson was born.  This demanded that the very young man's parents had to plan for a bris as well a Bat Mitzva, and were they ever up to the task!  So, my mind is on circumcisions this week, and it's a very good week for it.  This week we read about the final steps leading up to the departure from Egypt.  These steps include the designating of a lamb for the Pesach offering, the slaughter of that animal, the first Seder ceremony, and, of course, the deaths of all non-Jewish first borns residing in Egypt, the last a decided bummer for the general population.  Plus, all Jewish males must have a brit mila in order to partake in the Paschal lamb.  This means that this week's Torah reading records the largest mass circumcision in history, and a lot of very uncomfortable participants at that year's Seder.  Since no circumcisions took place in Egypt, every male had to be taken care of in these few days.  Why was brit mila a prerequisite for consuming the Paschal Lamb?  We must endeavor to find the conceptual connection between these two mitzvoth.


            First of all, we know that these two mitzvoth share a unique position in the world of mitzvot asei (positive commandments).  They are the only positive mitzvoth which carry a punishment for non-compliance.  And that punishment is amongst the most severe in the Jewish judicial system, namely karet.  Now we don't know exactly what karet is, because it's administered by heaven, but it's bad.  Opinions vary from early death to loss of one's portion in the World to Come, and there are numerous positions in between. The connection between these two practices is further reinforced by the ceremony performed at a Brit.  We read the following verse:  And when I passed by you and saw you rolling about in your blood, I said to you in your blood, Live! I said to you in your blood, Live! (Ezekiel 16:6).  The question, of course, generated by the repetition is: what are the two bloods which our Sages felt compelled to mention during the naming of a male baby?  And the traditional response is that they are the blood of the Paschal Lamb (which was painted on the doorposts at the first Passover and sprinkled on the Temple altar throughout history) and the blood of brit mila. Again, we want to know the connection between these two commandments.


            According to the Midrash, with the commandment to bring the Passover offering God told the Jewish people that pity would be granted to the nation and through both bloods forgiveness would be arranged (Shmot Rabbah).  But the most famous approach to this issue concerns the concept of covenant.  Many rabbinic authorities over the years have expressed the idea that there are two categories of covenant.  One is the national covenant like the entire nation standing at Mount Sinai or on the slopes overlooking Shechem.  This involves the people committing to a joint national history and destiny.  Whatever befalls the nation involves us all.  The other covenantal commitment is personal.  Individually we all pledge to perform the mitzvoth and lead a Torah-true life style.  We believe firmly in both obligations.  The Paschal Lamb represents the national pledge and brit mila epitomizes the personal responsibility.


            I'd like to present an alternate approach.  Last week we read God's reintroduction of the Divine Being to the Jewish nation.  In this difficult passage God tells Moshe that the Patriarchs knew the Deity by the name Eil Shadai, and never knew the four letter name of God which we never pronounce.  This is interesting, but on face value wrong.  The Tetragrammaton is mentioned many times during the lives of the Avot.  So, what does this enigmatic passage mean?  It seems that the different names represent different relationships with God, and even though the Name may have been known to them they never experienced that aspect of Divine relationship.  In this way, God is informing Moshe of a new type of relationship which is going to emerge from the redemption from Egypt


            What kinds of relationships do the two names represent?  The first name, Eil Shadai means God of sufficient power.  It is the name God uses to make promises.  When someone makes us a promise we want to feel that the promise has a chance of being fulfilled.  If I promised all my kindly readers that a check from me for a million dollars is in the mail.  I would hope that you'd all be a bit skeptical.  On the other when God appears as the Almighty One, we can believe in the power to deliver on any promise.  This is how God made promises during the covenantal treaties transacted with the Patriarchs.  Now, however, has arrived the time for God to make good on the first of those great promises from Genesis: You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions (15:13-14).  The deal was said by God acting in the role of Eil Shadai, but the fulfillment of the prophecy is accomplished by God as the Tetragrammaton.  Our Brit is the ceremony surrounding, God's next promise to Avraham.  'And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you (17:7).'


            Now we can understand the relationship between the two mitzvoth.  Brit mila is our performance at the time the promises are made, and the Paschal Lamb is the act at the time of the fulfillment of the promise.  One might say that Brit is passé and even obsolete.  But that's not true for two reasons.  First of all we will never forget the promises and connection between God and our ancestors.  But even more importantly promises are still being made.  Every birth of every Jew is a new promise of future greatness and future closeness to God.  We can't live thinking that all of the promises and all of the great deeds are in the past.  The Paschal Lamb is, therefore, the remembrance of the past, while Brit Mila remains the expectation for the future.  At every Brit we must believe that the best is yet to come, and, so, I felt at the Brit of my grandson, Shmuel Yosef.