Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            There's a small issue I want to deal with before I get going on this week's chosen topic.  Why do we fulfill mitzvoth?  The reason is that God commanded us to perform them at Mt. Sinai and during the forty years in the desert.  Probably most of you agree with me so far, but even though what I just said is true that's not the reason most people actually do mitzvoth.  Most people do mitzvoth because their parents or grandparents or mentors told them to.  For most of us our connection to mitzvoth is based on our connection to specific people rather than to the historical events of thousands years ago.  Let me get specific.  We don't keep the mitzvah of brit mila or circumcision because Avraham circumcised Yitzchak so many years ago or because our families have been doing it for so long, but because the third verse in this week's Torah reading tells us to.  This isn't so easy to accept because our relationship to religion is often more emotional than intellectual.  But this point is important. We don't know how the Patriarchs performed mitzvoth, but their behavior patterns are irrelevant to our Jewish legal system, because they preceded the covenant at Sinai. I wanted to make this point before I discuss the mitzvah of brit mila, because this mitzvah has so much emotional baggage to it.  No mitzvah provides the same visceral sense of continuity like the bris of a son or grandson.  It's an emotionally laden moment.  This makes intellectual analysis a bit harder.  But we'll try.

            I think the toughest question to ask is:  Why is the mitzvah of brit mila placed here?  Parshat Tazria talks about the impurity which child birth imposes upon the mother.  Later the parsha discusses the mysterious ailment called tzara'at, often translated, incorrectly, as leprosy.  Even though some of us find any sight of blood a bit upsetting, the beautiful bris ceremony doesn't seem quite at home with these other less appetizing topics.  One of the more sensitive souls I've ever encountered, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, OB"M, wrote about this on the website of Yeshivat Har Etziyon.  He is first concerned with the issue of why a woman who gives birth is ritually impure.  He explained, 'The Torah is coming to teach us that every natural process has some negative aspects, and those negative aspects cannot be ignored. Some people think that whatever is natural is good. The Torah goes out of its way, in a context where all is seemingly good, to emphasize this negative aspect.'

            Now he turns his attention to the specifics of circumcision.  Rav Amital quotes a famous Talmudic story about Rabbi Akiva and an evil Roman politician, Turnus Rufus.  The discussion is about natural things as opposed to processed items.  The Roman expects Rabbi Akiva to agree that the acts of God are superior to those of mankind.  But Rabbi Akiva doesn't take the bait. Rabbi Akiva insists that mankind is given a role to improve upon nature in many ways, like the making of bread and the mitzvah of circumcision.  Quoting the verse, 'God's word is refined (Psalms 18:31),' Rabbi Akiva explained that Jews are not expected to take everything in nature as being automatically good or perfect.  We understand that we must often act to 'improve upon' nature.  Although Jewish philosophers debate about whether or not circumcision 'improves' the baby, we must see ourselves as partnering with God and nature to produce the right spiritual result.

            Judaism was never intended to be a passive way of life.  We engage with humanity; we engage with nature.  Just as we 'improve' wheat by making it into bread or cake, so, too, we develop ourselves to learn, grow and progress to be more than we once were.  This process begins symbolically with circumcision, but continues throughout our lives.  In nature one generation of animals has finished its role when its DNA has been contributed to the nest generation.  Not so with humans.  We try to help and guide the next generation as long as we are able.   As Rabbi Amital expresses it, 'Judaism does not believe in taking the natural world as it is; we are meant to take the materials God gave us and develop them.'

            This effort to always improve and develop ourselves is basic to Jewish law and philosophy.  According to Rabbi Abraham Twerski it goes all the way back to the sixth day of Creation.  When God said, 'Let us make man,' everyone asks who the 'us' is.  Some say God consulted with the angels, others say it was the 'royal we,' But Rabbi Twerski explains that it means God and mankind.  We partner with God in nature trying to make the world a better, more habitable place.  However, our greatest collaboration is to develop superior human beings.  The Talmud reinforces this idea by saying that everyone really has three parents, the mother, the father, and God.

            We express this idea in the two blessings which are declared at the brit mila.  The first blessing is the birchat hamitzva over the act of the circumcision, and is recited by the person wielding the knife.  The second blessing 'to enter the covenant of Avraham our Patriarch' is recited by the father, representing the parents, and recognizes the responsibility to raise this infant within the principles of our faith.  But why specify Avraham?  Because he had the first bris?  Maybe.  I think that he taught us to give more to our children than just the bare necessities of life.  He handed over to us the keys to a successful spiritual life (some might prefer a BMW) by teaching us to join in his close relationship with God.  He became God's confidant.  We should strive for that role by always trying to figure out what God wants from us.

            So, technically our responsibility to perform mitzvoth stems from the epiphany at Sinai, but our devotion to that covenant was discovered by our Patriachs.  Therefore our loyalty to the tradition derives from that very first brit mila.  And, somehow, Avraham continues to guide the process.