15- The Gift of Childhood
In this episode we continue our discussion about Jewish lifecycles with a spotlight on the Bris Millah.
Hey everybody, I'm Menachem Lehrfield. Welcome back to Zero Percent. We're in the middle of talking about how we see the growth mindsets and the way Judaism marks lifecycle events. So the first stop on our Jewish lifecycle journey is probably the bris milah or the brit milah. This is the oldest Jewish ritual dating all the way back to our patriarch, Abraham, Abraham Avinu, and in the words of the mohel from the famous Seinfeld episode.
This is a bris, a sacred ancient ceremony, symbolizing the covenant between God and Abraham, or something.
Today, I want to talk about that something. What is the bris and why do we do it? If man was meant to be circumcised, wouldn't God just make us that way? Why create us in a way that we need this procedure done in order to fix what seems like God's mistake? We know that He can make a creature without requiring circumcision, he made women.
I just got back maybe two weeks ago from the bris of my nephew and my brother-in-law was telling me that a few weeks before the baby was born, my niece, the older sister of the baby who had the bris, didn't know if the baby was going to be a boy or a girl. She said to her father, she said to my brother-in-law, "Are we going to have a bris when the baby's born?" So my brother-in-law said, "Well, it depends. If it's a boy, then we'll have a bris. If it's a girl, then we won't."
She looked at him, stunned and said, "Well, why won't you have a bris for a girl?" And he began going through a complicated anatomy lesson for a seven year old, which I think went way over her head and freaked her out just a little bit. Leaving the anatomy aside, why don't girls need a bris? Why would God have created us in a way that boys do need a bris but girls don't?
The Talmud records dialogue between the evil Roman general Turnus Rufus and the great sage Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva by the way, was eventually killed brutally by the Romans for teaching and studying the Torah, we'll probably get to that story in a future episode. But here he comes to Rabbi Akiva and he asks him, "Whose deeds are more beautiful, God's or man's?"
He was obviously expecting that Rabbi Akiva, who's a rabbi and a God-fearing Jew, would say, "Obviously what God does is better than what man does." To which he was trying to catch Rabbi Akiva in a trap and say, "Well, if God's actions are greater than man's, so then why wouldn't you leave baby boys the way they are, the way God made them? Why would you change them?" Which reminds me of a line from Duante Culpepper. He was explaining to somebody why he smokes weed. And again, this is not in any way an endorsement of doing drugs or drinking alcohol, but someone asked him why he smokes weed. And he said, "Well, it's quite simple, man made booze, God made weed. Who do you trust?" One would think that if God made it, it must be perfect.
So the evil Roman general, asked Rabbi Akiva, "Whose deeds are better, whose deeds are more beautiful, God's or Man's?" Rabbi Akiva obviously understood where Turnus Rufus was going with this and in response, he brought him bread, rolls of bread, and he brought him some stalk of wheat. He said to him, "The stalks of wheat are the work of God. But these baked rolls, this bread, this is the work of people. Aren't the rolls better than the wheat?" As if to say, "Well, obviously God made the wheat, but God didn't make the wheat for us to eat plain wheat." He made the wheat, but he also gave us the intellect and the ability to take that wheat and transform it into delicious bread. I don't know about you, but there is nothing I would rather eat than to delicious, warm bread. I've never really tried chewing on raw wheat.
The ritual of circumcision represents the idea and the awareness that God made the world perfectly imperfect. He didn't create a perfect world. Even better, he created an imperfect world and he allowed mankind to partner with him in perfecting that world. And so, God creates at least some of us, the males among us, imperfect. He makes us in a way that we are not physically perfect, we're not complete, so that we can work to perfect ourselves.
We work to perfect our physical bodies that are created imperfect, but on a deeper level, we work to perfect ourselves. We don't strive to leave this world the way we came in. We were created imperfect in an imperfect world and our job is to work hard to perfect ourselves and to perfect the world and make it a better place.
We do believe that women who are given the ability to create life themselves are more in God's image than men are and because they are on a higher spiritual level, they come into the world more physically perfect, just like they are more spiritually perfect as well. But the concept of the bris milah, the concept of working and striving to perfect ourselves is true both with men and women, all of us are created in a way that we are perfectly imperfect so that we can work drive to perfect ourselves.
Throughout the entire creation dialogue, every step of the way, every day of creation, the verse says, "[Hebrew 00:05:55] and God saw that it was good." Which is really strange, what's going on? Is God patting himself in the back and saying, "Ooh, I had a great day at work today. Look, I did a great job." We're talking about God over here. He doesn't need to pat himself on the back. He doesn't need to say, "Oh, look what a great job I did." That's first of all.
Second of all, really? "And God saw all that he did, and it was good." Have you seen the manatee? Have you seen the platypus? What does this mean, "And God saw that it was good?" And why is the very first time we find the expression, [Hebrew 00:06:31], that something is not good, with the creation of man? Why by the creation of man do we find for the very first time, [Hebrew 00:06:41], it's not good?
So to understand this, let's take a detour and travel to the garden of Eden. God says to Adam and Eve essentially, "You can eat from all the trees of the garden, just not this one tree." Where does he put that tree? Right in the middle of the garden. I don't know about you, but if I don't want my kids to play with something, I'm not going to stick it in the middle of the living room and say, "Don't play with this." If I put it in the middle of the living room, it's going to get broken. If God didn't want them to eat from that tree, why not put it somewhere else? Why not put in a completely different place? God puts it in the middle of the garden and He gives them the commandment not to eat from it, to remind Adam and Eve that they were guests in the garden. They were not the creators of the world. They were not in charge, they were just guests.
Only the creator can choose if something is [Hebrew 00:07:50] or not [Hebrew 00:07:51]. The word [Hebrew 00:07:52] doesn't really mean good, it means it's finished. It's good in its current state. So when God looks at creation, there are three options. Something that is [Hebrew 00:08:04] is good the way it is. On the flip side, we have something that is [Hebrew 00:08:09], something that is bad. In the middle, we have something that is [Hebrew 00:08:15], doesn't mean it's not good. [Hebrew 00:08:19] means it's not good yet.
When an artist is painting on a canvas, they get to a point where the art is perfect the way it is. One more brushstroke and you're ruining it. When the art is [Hebrew 00:08:37], when it's good, it goes in the wall, it gets framed. If the artwork is [Hebrew 00:08:43], it's bad, that means there's no way it's going to reach the purpose for which it was created. There's no way this is ever going to look like it's supposed to look and the response is it gets destroyed. The art gets ripped up and thrown in the garbage.
In fact, the very first time we find the word [Hebrew 00:09:01], bad, used in the Torah as by the flood. When something is [Hebrew 00:09:07] it needs to be destroyed, needs to get rid of, but then we have something in the middle and that's [Hebrew 00:09:14], means it's not good yet, it means it needs improvement.
When Adam and Eve eat from the tree, what they really wanted to do is they wanted to be the decider of good and evil. They wanted to choose what is [Hebrew 00:09:33], what is good? And what is [Hebrew 00:09:35], what is bad? And God says, "You are the created." The piece of art on the canvas can never make that determination. Only the creator, only the artist can make that determination. You see, as human beings, God says, "You are rationalizing beings." And what that means is you confuse [Hebrew 00:09:55] and [Hebrew 00:09:57]. You confuse good and bad because instead of defining good by that which is actually good, you define good by what you desire, what you want.
So, I look at ice cream and I say, "That is good." And I look at broccoli and I say, "That's bad." That's not true, that's not reality. When as a human being, I say that ice cream is good. I don't mean it's actually good. What I mean is I like it, I desire it. It makes me feel good, it tastes good. But that's not good. The human being is always capable of saying that if I want something, I convince myself that it is the right thing.
Hitler believed that by killing all the Jews in the world, he was doing the world a favor. He was doing good. Every single atrocity that's ever been committed in all of world history was done by people who believed that they were doing good. But as a human being, we can never be the true determiner of good and bad. Only the creator, only God himself can determine what is [Hebrew 00:11:05], what is [Hebrew 00:11:06] and what is [Hebrew 00:11:07], and in creating mankind, we are the only being in all of creation where God says [Hebrew 00:11:14], man is not good yet. The power of yet. I'm creating you perfectly imperfect. I'm creating you in a way that you're not a finished product and we are never a finished product.
We constantly have the ability to grow, to change, to work, and all of that is done through effort. That is the overarching theme of the bris milah, the circumcision, the idea that we are born imperfect so that we have the ability to perfect ourselves. Now let's watch as this baby grows up and starts going through childhood and adolescence. My daughter, Reeva is ... she just turned one and she's standing on her own and she's beginning to take one step and then fall. All of us who are able to walk and have been walking our entire lives, take for granted what a difficult process that really is and how that process works. A child begins walking, holding onto their parents' hands and as they hold their parents' hands, they begin to trust their parent and they know that their parent is there and taking care of them and protecting them. And then all of a sudden, somewhere in that process, the parent lets go and what happens? The child falls and she hurts herself.
If you didn't know any better, you would say, "That is such a cruel thing. Why would you intentionally let your child fall?" But those of us who have children understand that by letting my child fall, I'm giving them the greatest gift of all. I'm giving them the gift of independence. I'm allowing them to fall so that they can get up and do it themselves. And it doesn't stop when they're a newborn baby, it doesn't stop when they're one and they begin to walk. I remember trying to teach my children how to ride their bike and my daughter [Atara 00:13:19] would never let me let go of the bike. I would hold onto the back, I would run behind her and then the entire time as she's pedaling, she says, "Don't let go. You're not going to let go, right? You're not going to let ... you're not going to let ... you're not going to let go. You're not going to let go." And honestly, it's a very difficult thing to let go. But if you don't let go, they never learn how to ride.
I said to Atara, I said, "You're going to want to go ride your bike with your sister and your brother. And you're going to want to go ride with your friends and I'm not going to be able to hold onto the back of the bike and run behind it every single time you go bike riding. If I don't let go, you'll never learn how to do it." Thankfully, now she's an excellent bike rider and I have let go. But as our children get older, it becomes even more difficult to let go. But that's what childhood is all about. It's about allowing our children to make the mistakes on their own.
Childhood is really a remarkable stage of life. Children believe they can be and do anything. They watch a movie and whoever the main character is, that is exactly what they're going to do with the rest of their lives. It doesn't make a difference how absurd or unrealistic it is. They think they're going to be an astronaut, and a scientist, and a superhero, and a fire truck. And the fact that the fire truck is an inanimate object that they can't actually ... doesn't matter. A child believes that they can do anything and everything and even though we know there's no way they're ever going to be able to do that, as a parent, as an educator, we would never tell that to a child because childhood is such an important part of life. It's a stage where children truly believe that they can be and do anything and what that does, is it gives a child the ability to explore the world and learn what they're good at.
I don't know about you, I have five children and watching some of the things that they do, it's absolutely ridiculous. And this scene plays out in our home on a daily basis. The kids will come up with some sort of plan to take a mattress and a laundry basket and shoot it down the stairs with their baby brother inside of it. Sometimes it works out fine and they have a great time and sometimes they're crying and hurt. You look at some of their plans and you say to yourself, "What were you thinking? Did you not realize you were going to get hurt? Did you not realize that was a really stupid idea?" And the truth is oftentimes they didn't realize it because that is childhood. Childhood, if we survive it, is one of the greatest gifts that we're given, because we have no sense of fear, because we have no sense that we might actually fail, that we might actually fall. You know what happens? We try things.
We try things that we never would have otherwise and sometimes we succeed at those things and sometimes we fail. Even in the things that we fail, we learn, what are the things that I'm good at? What are the things that I enjoy doing? If it wasn't for childhood, we would never figure this out. But that excitement, that sense of invincibility is not real. It's an artificial gift that's given to us to allow us to access our potential, to allow us to realize what it is we're meant to spend our life doing, but then comes adulthood and being an adult is an awareness that, you know what? I'm not going to do all those things. And that's okay. A midlife crisis comes when I approach life as a child, even though I'm an adult and I say, "I have this whole long list of all these things I decided I was going to do with my life and I haven't done any of them yet, and I'm running a out of time." But an adult says, "You know what? That was a list compiled by a five year old."
I know someone who said, "I've always wanted to be a doctor since I was two years old." I remember thinking how ridiculous that is, you're basing your life on the decision of a two year old. An adult has the ability to, "I know what I'm meant to be doing. I know what I'm good at. I know what I enjoy and what brings me pleasure and I know how to use those things to make the world a better place." An adult has the ability to look at themselves in the mirror and ask, "What am I meant to be doing?" Not what do I want to do? Not what looks good and what looks fun, but what is it that I was put on this Earth to do?