By Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum, Hebrew Academy of Cleveland
In the Midrash, Chazal cite the pasuk in Tehillim 139, “Back and front You have fashioned me.” They explain that “back” refers to the first day of Creation. If a person so merits, he is told “You came before the entire Creation.” If he is not worthy, however, he is told “Even a gnat preceded you; even a snail/worm preceded you.” The Midrash is addressing the placement of the laws of tumah, ritual impurity. It is referring to the laws of the tumah which emanates from human contact with dead animals. Just as humans followed animals in the order of creation, so too, the laws relating to humans follow those of animals. Man must always remember his direction in life: from where he has originated and to where he will one day go. The commentators explain that Hashem intentionally created the animals prior to man, so that everything would be prepared for his arrival. If he makes use of his spiritual dimension to rise above his animal instincts, he is lauded. If he defers to his base tendencies, he is reminded that even the lowly animals preceded him. His arrogance in sin is unfounded, because even the lowest creation preceded him. We must, however, endeavor to understand why Chazal chose these two insignificant creatures for their analogy. What is the purpose of this seemingly redundant text?
Horav Baruch Shimon Schneerson, Shlita, Rosh Yeshivas Tshebin, explains that these two creatures distinguish themselves from all others. In the Talmud Gittin, 56b, Chazal refer to the gnat as a “briah kalah,” tiny creature, because it has an orifice for taking in, but no orifice for excreting. It cannot relieve itself of its waste material. Thus, it is comprised completely of waste! This is in contrast to all of the other creatures that have the ability to separate their nourishment from their waste and to discharge their excrement. The snail has another interesting characteristic. When it relieves itself, it disintegrates. In other words, both of these creatures lack the ability to distinguish the good from the bad, the nourishment from the waste.
Man’s purpose on this earth is just that: to delineate between good and evil and to bring about a tikun, improvement, for the good that is expunged from the bad. Chazal are conveying to us man’s focus in life. If he has not been able to purify himself, to purge the good of the evil, to improve his G-d given qualities, then he is worse than the gnat and the snail who are also unable to rid themselves of waste. They, at least, have one attribute over man: they preceded him in the order of creation.
Speak to Bnei Yisrael, saying: when a woman conceives and gives birth to a male. (12:2)
In the Talmud Niddah 30b, Chazal relate that a child is taught the entire Torah while it is in its mother’s womb. As a baby is about to be born, an angel slaps him on the mouth, causing him to forget all the Torah it has learned. Upon studying this Chazal, we are confronted with two questions. First, why does the child study Torah as a fetus? Would it not be more appropriate to study Torah in the Olam Ha’neshamos, world of the souls, before the soul is separated from its Heavenly abode and placed into the body of the unborn child? Second, why does the angel cause the child to lose its Torah knowledge? If he is not going to retain the knowledge, why should he study it at all?
Horav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, zl, explains that while the neshamah is “situated” in the eternal world it is indeed exposed to immense spiritual knowledge. It is certainly privy to the greatest reservoir of spiritual wisdom. Yet, it lacks the “perception” regarding those mitzvos that relate to the body, to the material aspect of human life. This lack of perception prevents the neshamah from fully grasping the meaning of mitzvos involving the physical dimension. When the soul is already within the body of a fetus, although it is not yet born and exposed to the reality of human existence, it is more capable of comprehending this aspect of mitzvah performance. While he immediately forgets this “lesson” when he enters the world, it has already been engraved in his soul. When this infant grows up and studies Torah with great toil and dedication, the knowledge that he has absorbed before birth will be activated. The “klipos”, outer spiritual “shells,” that have concealed this knowledge will disintegrate. In other words, a person’s essence is Torah; his neshamah has assimilated the pre-birth lessons into his essential character. As he studies Torah with greater depth and passion, he discovers the innate Torah within himself.
We now understand Chazal’s comment in the Talmud Moed Katan 25b, regarding the pasuk in Bereishis 5:1, “This is the account of the descendants of Adam.” The Torah seems to compare man to a sefer, book. This leads Chazal to remark, “Man is a living Sefer Torah. Thus, one who is present during yetzias neshamah, as a person takes his last living breath, must tear kria, rend his garment.” This is to be compared to a Sefer Torah that has been burned. Are Chazal comparing every person to a Sefer Torah? Perhaps this appellation applies to the few, unique Torah scholars of each generation. To make such a broad statement demands an explanation. Accepting the above thesis, we can understand the Sefer Torah aspect of each individual. His neshamah is so suffused with Torah, it literally becomes a Sefer Torah. Each individual must attempt to remove the outer layer that conceals his true essence. For some it might be simple, while for others it may be more difficult. We all, however, hold the Torah within our spiritual psyche.
On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (12:3)
The mitzvah of milah takes precedence over other mitzvos. The child is circumcised on Shabbos if that is the eighth day. This infant’s induction into the Covenant of Avraham Avinu adds one more Jew to champion the dominant role that Shabbos plays in our lives. Chazal go so far as to say that if a tzaraas, plague, is found at the foreskin, the mitzvah takes place, even if it means removing the tzaraas – which is ordinarily prohibited. Chazal feel that the therapeutic effect of milah will even eliminate negaim from our bodies. How are we to understand this? What really is milah’s significance, and what message does it convey?
Hashem appeared to Avraham in the Plains of Mamre, because it was Mamre, one of Avraham’s three friends, who advised him to follow Hashem’s command and undergo milah. When Avraham took counsel with his three friends, Anar, Eshkol, and Mamre, Anar said, “You are one hundred years old. Why would you want to cause unnecessary pain for yourself?” Eshkol said, “Why would you want to call unnecessary attention to yourself in the presence of all your enemies?” Mamre said, “The G-d who saved you from the fiery oven, who sustained you in time of hunger, who rescued you in battle with the kings, instructs you to perform this commandment. How can you refuse Him?”
Avraham Avinu became a Jew through the act of milah. One should not think that he needed the support of his friends before he would listen to Hashem. Avraham was simply sensing for public reaction. The act of milah was the greatest act of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem’s Name. He did what was demanded of him, because to be a Jew means: to muster the courage to sanctify Hashem’s Name; to realize the demands of Jewish living in public; to forego public approval. To paraphrase Horav Shlomo Breuer, zl: “To invite the scorn and curse which are the frequent lot of the Jew in public life is an important aspect of being a Jew.”
Avraham disregarded Anar’s advice, “Why change when you are so old, having established habits and a way of life?” Avraham could not live in the past; he needed to go forward and grow, even if there was limited time left. He was also very unimpressed with Eshkol’s fear, “What will everybody say?” This cowardly attitude has plagued so many of our co-religionists who are afraid of public observance, because of what “others” might think. Only Mamre approved of Avraham’s plan to dedicate himself and his household to Hashem, oblivious to the criticism caused by his public statement.
This is the essence of Bris Milah. It accompanies the Jew at every juncture of his life, demanding that every thought, every move, every decision, be guided and governed by Divine Will. Thus, he realizes his constant proximity to the Almighty. This intimate bond dedicates its bearer to Shabbos, to a profound understanding of the creation of the world by the Almighty and to its implications. It also develops his social life in the framework of love and justice towards his fellowman. Hatred, evil talk, slander, social abuse are foreign to one who functions in such close proximity with the Creator. The evil that spawns negaim are social ills that are truly neutralized by the message of bris milah.
On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (12:3) In the specific Bircas Ha’mazon, grace after meals, which one recites following the festive meal accompanying a Bris Milah, there is a prayer consisting of six “Ho Rachamans,” “the Compassionate One.” The first Ho Rachaman is a prayer on behalf of the parents, “The Compassionate One! May He bless the father and mother of the child, and may they merit to raise him, to educate him, and to make him wise, from the eighth day onward may his blood be pleasing; and may Hashem, his G-d, be with him.” This prayer is directed primarily towards the father of the child. Why then do we recite the phrase at the end, “from the eighth day onward may his blood be pleasing”? This applies to the “rach ha’nimol,” infant who was circumcised, not the father. Why is this inserted in the prayer for the father?
The Belzer Rebbe, Rav Yehoshua, zl, responds, citing an exposition from his father the Sar Shalom of Belz. He explains the pesukim in Bereishis 17:7, in which Hashem says to Avraham Avinu, “And as for you, you shall keep My covenant – you and your offspring throughout their generations” in the following manner: The mitzvah of milah is unique in that it is the only mitzvah that a Jew performs on his own body while he has as yet no cognitive ability to have the proper intentions for Hashem. Hence, at the time it is being performed, the mitzvah of milah is not really executed b’shleimus, with perfection. Something is missing: the infant’s acquiescence, his cognizance and agreement to fulfill this mitzvah with all his heart. When this infant grows up and himself ushers his own child into the covenant of Avraham Avinu, he clearly indicates that the Bris Milah that happened to him many years before was carried out b’tachlis ha’sheleimus, with ultimate perfection.
This is the meaning of Hashem’s comment to Avraham, “And as for you, you shall keep My covenant:” Since you are an adult in complete control of your faculties, you have the knowledge and intention to perform the mitzvah of milah with sheleimus. “You and your offspring:” If you want to be certain that your offspring will fulfill this mitzvah with the same degree of perfection on the eighth day — when they as yet have no ability to think and comprehend what is occurring — then it must be performed “l’dorosom,” throughout the generations. They must be sure to perform the mitzvah of milah on their offspring, thereby indicating their own accord with this mitzvah. When a father performs the mitzvah on his son, he completes and perfects the mitzvah that was performed on him when he was an infant.
We now understand the text of the “Ho Rachaman.” “From the eighth day onward, may his blood be pleasing” is a reference to the father’s blood that flowed during his Bris Milah many years previously. Now, as he circumcises his son of his own freewill, he completes and perfects his own Bris Milah.
If a person will have in the skin of his flesh a s’eis, or a sapachas, or a baheres, and it will become a tzaraas affliction on the skin of his flesh. (13:2)
Our Chazal view negaim, plagues, as Hashem’s punishment primarily for the sins of the tongue, lashon hora, and generally for seven cardinal sins which pertain to our social life. The very organs of the human body which Hashem has given to us in order to serve Him: to practice modesty and truth; to perform good deeds and justice; to spread kindness, truth and peace, have become the bearer of the opposite of these virtues. Hashem indicates His displeasure with this person, dismissing him from participation in the Mikdash until the individual has realized the folly of his deeds, until he has achieved a sense of true self-judgement. Anyone on whose person or clothing appears a plague, is receiving a Heavenly sign that his social behavior has invoked Hashem’s indignation. No longer is he accepted in Hashem’s spiritual social circle. He has engendered strife and discord among people. He does not belong in a community which he is trying to undermine.
The negaim convey a message – one that should be heeded – immediately. One law, however, seems to be inconsistent with our thesis. According to halachah, even a tinok ben yom echad, child from the first day of his life, can be affected by a plague with all of its consequences. Certainly the concept of negaim — with their early warning system — does not apply to an infant. What could an infant have done that would incur such grave punishment? Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains that children who have not reached an age of sufficient maturity to be called to account for their social shortcomings are certainly not punished on their own accord. Children, however, as a result of their immature dependence, are most likely to mimic their parents’ character. These youngsters are the tender shoots that would and should grow upon the foundation of their parents’ actions. In other words, what occurs to the children should serve as a warning to the parents. It is a more piercing and poignant admonition. A nega on the forehead of an innocent child is the most terrifying warning to parents. It glares at them, silently screaming, “Look at what you have done to me!”
Parents are compelled to examine their lifestyle, to consider what picture of life their social behavior will refer to their child. People might ignore the warning signs that strike them, their homes, their clothes. They cannot turn away, however, from the pain and disfigurement of their child. To paraphrase Horav Hirsch, “For your child’s sake, better yourself; for the sake of your children, become good!” We are accountable for the social imperfections that cling to our children. There is no more effective warning than a terrible nega that disfigures an innocent child. How can we awaken parents to realize and accept the responsibilities of parenthood?
While these words are stated in regard to tzaraas, they are equally true in regard to all parental behavior. We have a moral responsibility to organize our behavior in the realization that we do not live in a vacuum. We do not live only for ourselves. Our actions plant seeds in the minds and psyches of our closest and most intimate students – our children. Yes, they are the young shoots that grow into the vibrant leaders of tomorrow – if we give them the opportunity. The way we act will be reflected in the lives of our children. Let us see to it that we follow Hashem’s script.