Monday, April 8, 2013

Be a vessel and a vehicle / Tazria-Metzora

There is a terrible flood. With the waters rapidly rising, Sam goes out onto his porch and sees that the street is covered with nearly two feet of water. A neighbor comes by in a canoe. “Get in, Sam,” he says. “I’ll take you to safety.” “No thanks,” Sam replies. “God is compassionate. God will rescue me.” Some hours later, the waters have nearly submerged the first floor of his house, so Sam climbs to the second story and leans out a window. Rescuers in a powerboat come by and say, “Get in.” “No thanks,” Sam says, “God is compassionate. God will rescue me.” Some hours pass and now Sam climbs onto his roof to escape the rising waters. A helicopter spots him and lowers a rope with a harness. The pilot yells down, “Put this on. We’ll take you to safety.” “No thanks,” Sam says once again, “God is compassionate. God will rescue me.”

If you’ve heard this joke, you know the ending. If you haven’t, you’ll hear it in a bit.  But first, here’s how Parshat Tazria begins. As you read these verses, what questions pop into your mind?

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman brings forth seed [i.e. gives birth] and bears a male child, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual flow. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (Leviticus 12:1-2)

I can imagine a host of questions about impurity and childbirth, but curiously the hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, in his Torah commentary Kedushat Levi asks a completely different and unexpected question: Why is a baby boy circumcised on the eighth day? He knows perfectly well that God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:9-12), but why the eighth day and not the seventh or ninth day?

The reason Levi Yitzhak asks this question comes straight from Torah:

You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days… (Genesis 17:11-12)

 God commanded Jewish men to circumcise themselves — which Abraham did — but then ordained that baby boys be circumcised on the eighth day. No eight-day-old baby can circumcise himself, or even arrange for someone else to do it for him.  Kedushat Levi tells us:

We have learned in the Zohar (II, 13) that God created the various universes in order that he be perceived by his creatures as rachum v’chanun (compassionate and gracious). On occasion, God’s compassion is awakened by acts performed by the Jewish people…

Tractate Yebamot in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) enumerates what these acts are. They are the prayers of the righteous (in particular the matriarchs) who entreat God for a child.

What we learn from this is that although God initiates compassion and grace, God prefers human input, that is, when people demonstrate their belief in God by praying to him for their needs.

For Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, the image of the woman giving birth, opening herself up, opening her womb (rechem) is the image of a human being in need opening him or herself up to God as a recipient for God’s compassion (rachmanut, from the same root as rechem) and grace. This need, in turn, inspires God to be compassionate and gracious. Human compassion sparks divine compassion. Levi Yitzhak is explicit:

The overall message… is that when God’s compassion is awakened through action by human beings, it is strengthened immeasurably.

How often does it happen that when we ask someone, “How are you?” they respond with “I’m okay” or “I’m surviving” or “It could be worse” — and we then nod and move on? How often does it happen that someone describes a difficulty in his or her life and we reply, “I’m sorry — I hope things get better for you,” and then we move in another direction? Are we listening? Are we responding? Are we awakening the divine compassion? But perhaps you’re thinking: shouldn’t God be awakening compassion in me?

The divine flow of compassion is always available; we can tap into it at any time. 

 However the expression of divine compassion comes not by magic, but through us when we respond to the person before us who is need of compassion; it is we who channel it, we who make it real in the world. God’s compassion requires a vessel to deliver it to those who need it. We are to be those vessels, those agents of delivery — God’s UPS, USPS, FedEx. How important it is to listen and recognize when someone needs a listening ear and compassion; our response awakens the divine compassion within ourselves so that we respond.

  There were two neighbors who contended with one another every day. The woman would open her front door each and every morning and exclaim, Barukh ha-Shem! Blessed is God!” Her next-door neighbor would yell at her, “There is no God!” Every morning, “Barukh ha-Shem! Blessed is God!” “There is no God!” This went on day after day, week after week. After many months, the poor woman ran out of money and could no longer buy groceries for herself. One morning, she opened her door to find a large bag on her doorstep bulging with groceries. In amazement and gratitude, she picked up the bag and said, “Barukh ha-Shem! Blessed is God!” Her neighbor yelled out, “There is no God! I brought you those groceries.” The woman smiled at him – for the first time – and said, “Thank God for you!”

Returning to Kedushat Levi, we might ask: Why then is an infant circumcised on the eighth day, before there is any possibility of his fulfilling the mitzvah himself? Levi Yitzhak here reads our verse (above) this way: “when the woman [who here represents all human beings in need of compassion] brings forth seed [which Levi Yitzhak understands to mean the desire to arouse heavenly compassion] she will give birth [that is, awaken divine compassion].” Here Levi Yitzhak brings a midrash (Tanchuma, Tazria 5) in which R. Akiba claims that human creative deeds are more impressive than God’s actions. God creates life, but a human must cut the umbilical cord for a baby to live. What is more, a boy’s foreskin is removed not because God’s creation is lacking in some way, but because human action is so important. And finally, why the eighth day? This is the earliest physically safe time to perform the operation without endangering the child’s life. Levi Yitzhak tells us:

By performing this commandment at the correct time, the father or mohel becomes the instrument that opens the gates to God’s compassion in the celestial realm.

Another channel for compassion to flow between heaven and earth is opened at the earliest possible moment by a human act of compassion.

Kabbalists like Rabbi Levi Yitzhak see the verse in its entirety as an allegory for a higher truth beyond the pshat (contextual meaning). We cannot wait for God to pop into our lives and directly dole out compassion. Compassion flows from God, but we are the delivery vehicles and, when we treat others with compassion, we strengthen the divine flow of compassion. Given that one act of compassion usually begets or inspires another, this makes perfect sense. We call it “paying it forward.” That’s how the world works, how it’s supposed to work.

We left Sam on his roof waiting for God to swoop in and rescue him. Well, he died in the flood and went to heaven. When he stood before God’s throne he said, “God, I counted on your compassion to save me. Why didn’t you save me?” God replied, “Sam, first I sent you a canoe, then I sent you a powerboat, then I sent you a helicopter. What more do you want me to do?”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

  1. I loved your dvar. Thank you so much. I recently discovered your podcast and listened to it in the car this morning on the way to yoga. The teacher happened to be concentrating on opening our pelvis area and I found myself meditating on your teaching and Rabbi Yizthaks words of rechem, opening ourselves to God's compassion. Thank you.
    Rabbi Tziona Szajman