The first mitzva
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 6, 1998
Late one night, Rabbi Haim Berlin, Rav of Moscow, was interrupted in his studies by loud knocking at the door. Moments later, an obviously distraught stranger was admitted to his study.
'Last week my wife gave birth to a baby boy,' the visitor began, 'and I want to enter him into the covenant of Abraham tomorrow."
Noting the confusion on Berlin's face as to why such a joyous occasion should be a cause of distress, the man continued: 'I make my living selling Christian icons. If my customers knew that I am Jewish, they would kill me for trading in their religious items. Therefore my son's brit must be kept absolutely secret."
Rather than endanger any of Moscow's mohalim, Berlin, disguised as a doctor, travelled the following morning to the man's home in a section of the city without Jews and performed the brit himself.
Several months later, Berlin was again interrupted in the middle of the night by the icon seller. 'You must have wondered why a Jew so far from his religion still wanted his son to have a brit,' he said to Berlin. Rabbi Berlin nodded, and the man went on, 'I was raised in a religious family, and for whatever reasons reached my present state. But I want my son to be able to choose to be a Jew, and I realized that without a brit, he could never return to the Jewish people."
Years later, after Berlin had settled in Jerusalem, his neighbors noticed that when he recited the Song of Songs on Friday night, he always cried at the final words of the verse, 'Behold you are beautiful my love; behold, you are beautiful my love; you have dove's eyes."
He explained by telling them the story of the icon seller. 'The dove represents the Jewish people,' Berlin said, 'as the Midrash says, `You [Israel] are beautiful before the sin; you are beautiful after the sin.' The dove, the Talmud tells us, will never stray further from its nest than she can see the way back. So too that Jew would not allow his son to go further from the Jewish people than he could see the way back.'
Now, thanks to an article in last Friday's Jerusalem Post Magazine, we know that there are 30 Jews in Israel no longer concerned with preserving a way back for their sons. (From the extensive coverage, one would have thought there were 30,000 such parents.) Though these parents' suit in the Supreme Court is the nominal excuse for the extensive coverage, little attention was paid to the legal implications.
No one is forcing these parents to circumcise their sons (though a good case could be made that they are forcing on their sons a cruel choice, later in life, between ostracism and a circumcision that will then be far more traumatic, painful, and dangerous).
Rather, it is these 30 who want to prevent millions of Jewish parents from bringing their children into the covenant of Abraham. Amazing how deeply totalitarian tendencies run among the most 'enlightened" elements of our society. And equally remarkable how natural they find it that the Supreme Court should be their instrument of social coercion.
The Supreme Court is being asked to sit as an unelected legislature to enact rules that would have no hope of passage in the Knesset. Only a Court that has completely lost any sense of the limits of its own power would have accepted the invitation to place itself in a clearly legislative role.
Brit mila was the first mitzva given to the descendants of Abraham, and the basis of all future covenants between God and the Jewish people.
'Every mitzva that [the Jewish people] accepted with joy, they continue to celebrate with joy,' says the Talmud. 'Every mitzva for which [the Jewish people] have been willing to sacrifice their lives, has always remained with them."
Brit mila is the Talmud's paradigm for both statements. For 4,000 years Jews have performed the mitzva with joy, even though it frequently cost them their lives at the hands of their oppressors. Yet the Magazine - reflecting the modern obsession with sex - managed to reduce the mitzva to a smirky discussion of whether foreskins increase or decrease pleasure.
A story from Yaffa Eliach's Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust captures what this mitzva has meant to Jews through the ages:
On a work detail one day in the Janowska Camp, the Bluzhever Rebbe found himself confronted by a woman who suddenly appeared before him like an apparition. 'Jews, have mercy on me and give me a knife,' she begged.
Thinking that she intended to commit suicide, the Rebbe told her, 'Why are you in such a hurry to get to the World of Truth? What difference can one day make?"
The commotion drew the attention of the Nazi guard, who ran over swinging his rubber truncheon. In the Nazi's breast pocket was a knife, which the woman spotted and demanded from him. Taken aback by her fierce tone, the German handed her the knife.
The woman then bent down and lifted a bundle of rags from the ground, which she unwrapped to reveal an infant on a snow white pillow. Raising the pillow, she pronounced the words, 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us by Your commandments and commanded us concerning mila." With a steady hand, she circumcised her infant son.
Looking up at Heaven, the mother cried out, 'God of the universe, You have given me a healthy child. I am returning to you a whole, kosher Jew." She then returned the blood stained knife to the Nazi, and handed him her baby still on his white pillow.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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