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Parshat Tazria: The Eternal Covenant

“And on the eighth day the foreskin of his flesh shall be circumcised.” The verse comes from the opening lines of this week’s parsha and, as they say in the classics, the rest is history.

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Religion

RABBI YOSSY GOLDMAN

 

Rabbi Golman from Sydenham Highlands North Shul is also the chairman of the Raabinical Council of SA

 

“And on the eighth day the foreskin of his flesh shall be circumcised.” The verse comes from the opening lines of this week’s parsha and, as they say in the classics, the rest is history.

A bris is a covenant and through the millennia Jews have kept this mitzvah like no other and have thereby maintained their eternal covenant with G-d. There were times when giving one’s son a bris was punishable by death. Jewish parents still kept the covenant.

My wife’s grandfather, Reb Elchonon Shagalov, became a holy martyr for his faith because in Stalin’s Russia he dared to practise as a mohel, circumcising Jewish children in the town of Homil.

One day he was taken by the KGB and never seen again. His wife and children struggled valiantly and eventually made it to the Free World where they raised dedicated families of faithful Jews.

Today, so many young – and not so young – Jews throughout the Former Soviet Union, are embracing the covenant knowing full well that it would have been far easier at eight days old. And though we now hear voices from so-called enlightened quarters suggesting that circumcision is barbaric and an invasion of an infant’s human rights, it still remains the most widely practiced mitzvah in the world. And, please G-d, it will retain that distinction forever.

I have no intention of getting into the health debate. I am a rabbi not a doctor. There are enough medical experts who can prove the physiological benefits and certainly justify it even were there no compelling religious motivation. Nor do I intend waxing philosophical here on the underlying symbolisms of circumcision.

Simply speaking, from a traditional Jewish point of view this is the way we connect to G-d. It is an indelible, eternal connection between the Jew and His creator. The fact that it is performed on a newborn child who wasn’t asked his opinion, only emphasises the idea that the covenant is not limited by our finite rationale, but transcends the boundaries of human understanding.

Our bond with G-d is not something that can be explained rationally. Were that the case we would have long ago ceased to be. The continuing saga of Jewish survival defies logic. Logically we shouldn’t exist.

The bris symbolises that transcendence and the Jewish people’s never-wavering commitment to the covenant has always been reciprocated by the G-dly miracles that have delivered us time and again.

Some years ago my wife and I were leading a discussion group with young couples. At one point in the evening a young man poured cold water on my arguments by declaring himself an agnostic.

I asked him if he had any children. He said yes. I asked did he have a son. Again, he answered affirmatively. “Did you give your son a bris,” I asked. At which point he looked at me as if I had just arrived from another planet. “What kind of ridiculous question is that?” he demanded.

I explained that if you’re really not sure that there is a G-d out there, then why subject your child to unnecessary surgery? Without religious motivation it might very well be considered barbaric. Through his son’s bris he realised he wasn’t such an agnostic after all.

I am not a mohel but as a rabbi have attended hundreds of circumcision ceremonies. Personally, I find it very moving to see parents, including those who are not at all religiously observant, cry with emotion as they experience the continuing link of Jewish peoplehood being manifested in their very own family dynasty.

I guess most fathers would probably have trouble explaining why they gave their son a bris. But I imagine they’d have much more difficulty if they had to explain why they didn’t.

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Religion

In the brave steps of Abraham

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In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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Religion

My kind of hero

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The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.

That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.

Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!

Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.

Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.

His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.

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Religion

Learning to fall teaches us to fly

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“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”

Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.

This Rashi is problematic:

Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?

Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.

But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?

Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.

One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.

Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!

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