Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah-Tazria

This week’s Torah portion introduces us to the command of circumcision on the 8th day of a boy’s life. Watching my son’s circumcision was a most trying experience. A friend, who was present for the event, asked me, “Doesn’t that hurt an eight-day-old child?” I don’t remember, but I do know that I did not walk or talk for a year after mine.

Seriously, watching the ritual brought all sorts of questions to mind. Yes, properly done, there is some form of anesthesia, and it is sterile. The child (as the doctors and mohels explain) is more discomforted by being restrained than the actual procedure. I am willing to accept this as true, and will understand that not to restrain a child could lead to disastrous results. But, why do we circumcise? Why on the 8th day?

The first question is easy to answer though the “easy” answer will be different in each generation. Medical opinions are all over the place, as to whether or not it is healthier, cleaner, better for sexual relations, etc. than not circumcising. Each age witnesses major disagreements over this, but for now, circumcision is in, and the “nay-sayers” are dissidents. It is so much the cultural norm today that I had to sign a ton of papers not to have my son circumcised in the hospital, to allow for the 8th-day ritual.

This debate exists even within the Jewish world. Many would argue that the practice is and always will be a must (but for health concerns for the child). “God said so.” Circumcision is, according to this point of view, the final act of perfecting the body, and God reserved that for us to do, as God’s partners. Others will say that it is simply a sign of a unique covenant with God. Since it is no longer a “unique” covenantal sign, sages across generations have also argued to abolish the practice. Deuteronomy (10:16) and the Prophet Jeremiah (4:4) tell us, “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” See, everyone has an easy answer.

I am far more curious about the reason for mandating the event on the 8th day. By now you know my penchant for reading Torah as an allegory. Numbers have meaning beyond their numerical value. “40” (days, months, years) means a long time. “7” is the completion of a cycle. Regarding actual gematria, “18” equals life, since the numerical value of the two letters in the word “CHAI” equal 18. (For the record, there is really no “ch” in Hebrew, not as in the word “chief:” the transliterated “CH” is a guttural that is more like the “ch” in Bach).

The letter “chet” (see above) equals 8. As a covenantal ceremony, spiritual life begins on the 8th day. Ok, so I think of words that begin with the letter “chet.” Chai (life): a new life begins on this day. Having completed the first-week cycle of living outside the womb, one begins to grow a Nefesh (spirit), and each day brings new growth, behaviors, excitements, and challenges. Chesed (grace): each day we learn to love more and engage people in new ways. The guide for this engagement is grace; the ability to love and accept without judgment. Babies poop, cry, awake at all hours, and yet, they excite us to no end. Chotaer(branch): the lineage of the family continues, adds a new branch because of this young man. His path will set the tone for the future of the entire family name. Chotem (signature): As he grows, he will leave his imprint on every relationship in which he engages. Each of these words is a prayer; a prayer of hope for this child’s future. For me, the most important of these prayers forms in an acronym; not even a real word. ChaZaL is an acronym for sages of blessed memory (Chamchamim Zichronam Livracha). While we insist that our children forge a new future, we also know that doing so without any awareness of the treasures (and challenges) of the past is futile, at best, and destructive at worst. We want our children to have a relationship with yesterday so that they bring all that is holy with them into the future, and understand what challenges to leave in the past.

Rav Kook taught, ‘The old must be made new, and the new must be made holy.” Whatever one decides on the role of the physical circumcision, the idea of praying for the future on this intentional day is, in my opinion, absolute. So, tonight, we begin the end of a week. Saturday night, at Havadallah, we begin anew, the 8th day. Shabbat is a day to prepare for renewal, the first steps into the next week, no differently than a young boy’s first steps into a new cycle, are times for holy engagement. Shed the callousness and complacency from your hearts, and as this Shabbat ends, let’s join in changing the world. Shabbat Shalom.