Friday, October 19, 2007

Lekh Lekha (Mitzvot)

For more teaching on this parasha, see the archives to this blog at November 2005.

The Covenant of the Flesh

The first two parshiyot of the Torah may in a sense be viewed as introductory, telling the story of humankind as a whole, and the origins of the basic parameters and paradoxes of the human condition. With Lekh lekha, we turn to the earliest history of what will become the covenant people of God: Abraham, the Patriarch. And with him, the mitzvah associated with his name: the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17). So much has been written about this mitzvah, it seems impossible to say anything new. (Two years ago, on the occasion of the birth of my first grandchild, I addressed one of the perennial questions asked by today's feminists: why can't little girls have a parallel covenantal ceremony? See HY VII: Shevat (Supplement); "Grandfatherly Reflections.") The three most striking facts about it are: a) that the sign of the covenant involves a permanent mark upon the Jew’s body; b) that this act is performed in early infancy; and c) that it involves specifically the sexual organ.

Why is it thus and not otherwise? There are voices in today’s world that object, saying: how can a parent take it upon himself to impose such a permanent “disfigurement” or “mutilation” upon the body of an innocent baby? And, if it is indeed to be a sign of a religious covenantal commitment, why can’t it wait until later, when it would represent a genuine, freely-taken choice of the person himself? (similar to the perennial argument that one should allow the offspring of religiously mixed marriages: “Let him make his own choice when he is 18”)

The answer is: that is precisely the point. The covenant of circumcision symbolizes the “thrown-ness,” the given nature of Jewish identity. In a very profound sense, Judaism is diametrically opposed to the individual-centered way of thinking that is almost axiomatic in contemporary Western society; it is based on the community, the group. As someone once said: “one is born a Jew, but one becomes a Christian.” (This fact is expressed in certain evangelical Protestant groups by the rejection of infant baptism in favor of doing so later, once the individual has reached maturity and freely choose to be "reborn in Christ.") Jewishness is not a matter of individual choice, but somehow a kind of fate or destiny, participation in a historical continuum, in principle a matter of birth. What more powerful way to symbolize this than by a indelible mark on the body, as early in life as possible? Indeed, while conversion is possible, giyyur itself involves a paradox: a kind of “rebirthing” into the covenantal community through immersion in the womb-like waters of the mikveh.

This idea is also expressed in the liturgy. In addition to the two (or three) blessings over the actual performance of the circumcision—the blessing over the mitzvah-act per se, recited by the mohel; and the blessing for “entering him into the covenant of Father Abraham” recited by the baby’s father; and, except in Diaspora Ashkenazic communities, Sheheheyanu; there is also a celebratory blessing and prayer recited over wine, during which the baby receives his name: Asher kidesh yedid mibeten. The first Jew circumcised in infancy was Isaac, who was “sanctified from the womb.” Each infant Jew somehow exemplifies and continues this idea.

* * * * *

"Bless us with Rain…”

From today on (7th Heshvan) until the eve of Pesah, those of us living in Eretz Yisrael add the prayer for rain in the ninth blessing of the weekday Amidah; in the Diaspora, for various reasons, partly arcane, this prayer is only added from December 4th. Ashkenazim merely add the two words ten tal u-matar to the “summertime” version; Sephardim recite an entire special text. I see no good reason why Ashkenazim cannot or should not say it as well, and I have personally adopted its recitation as part of my personal practice. I would like to share this text with my readers, for those unfamiliar with it. (The indented section is one that I believe suitable only for periods of drought):

ברך עלינו יי אלקינו את השנה הזאת ואת כל מיני תבואתה לטובה, ותן טל ומטר לברכה על פני האדמה, ורווה פני תבל, ושבע את העולם כולו מטובה, ומלא ידינו מברכותיך ומעושר מתנת ידיך. [שמור והצל שנה זו מכל דבר רע ומכל מיני משחית ומכל מיני פורענויות, ותן בה תקוה טובה ואחרית שלום. חוס ורחם עלינו ועל פירותינו ותבואתנו] וברכינו בגשמי ברכה נדבה ורצון, ותהא אחיריתה חיים ושלום ושובע וברכה כשנים הטובות, כי אל טוב ומטיב אתה ומברך השנים. ברוך אתה יי מברך השנים.
Bless, O Lord our God, this year and all varieties of its produce for goodness, and send dew and rain for blessing upon the soil, and satiate the face of the earth, and satisfy the entire world with its goodness, and fill our hands with Your blessings and the rich gifts of Your hands, [Guard and protect this year from every bad thing, and from all kinds of destruction and catastrophe. Give it hope and assure it a good end. Take pity and compassion upon us and upon our fruits and produce,] Bless us with rains of blessing and generosity and favor, and may its end be one of life and peace and fulness, abundance and blessing as in the good years, for You are good and do good and bless the years. Blessed are you, O Lord, who blesses the years.


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