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August 4, 2014 By:
Choosing Life in a Time of War
Adversity is not new to our people.
We watch as Israel defends itself yet another time against yet another enemy. Even as war brings its horror and disrupts the norm of daily life, babies are being born and mohels are assisting parents in fulfilling the commandment of brit milah.
I think back to my training and to how it felt to be an integral part of the fabric of the State of Israel during more peaceful times. Just before I entered cantorial school I was offered an opportunity to supplement my education with an apprenticeship to Yosef Halperin, z”l, a fourth generation mohel in Jerusalem. Without giving much thought to the magnitude of my decision — how it would impact on my life or whether I was even suited to pursue this specialized field — I accepted the offer.
Thirty-eight years later, my mind flows easily back to those days when I followed my teacher from bris to bris, absorbing not only his technical skill and textual knowledge but also the art of engaging families and connecting them to the mitzvah of brit milah.
By keeping those experiences in my head and in my heart, I am able to find a balance today that helps me overcome sadness and fear as life is lost on both sides. I use the sacred, the joy, the mitzvah and the simcha to guide me, knowing that were I in Israel, I would need to draw on these same resources to do my work.
History tells us that the mitzvah of brit milah has been upheld with almost total adherence for thousands of years. Only once did the Jewish people purposefully abstain and that was during the 40 years when they were wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. The Talmud explains that the extreme climate of the desert and the uncertainty of the march presented unfavorable conditions for a newborn, newly circumcised infant.
While there have been hostile rulers throughout history who prohibited brit milah, there are countless instances where the Jewish people defied their orders and carried out the commandment — during Greek and Roman rule, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust. And during the late '70s and '80s as Jews arrived from the former Soviet Union, one of the first requests from the fathers was that they and their sons be circumcised.
With every brit I perform, I join the family in creating a spiritual bridge to the generations that have come before us. We connect to Abraham, the first Jew to perform the commandment; to Elijah the Prophet, Angel of the Covenant; to the child who awaits initiation into the Jewish community; and, ultimately, to God. Although not everyone present understands the words of the liturgy, we all understand the joy as past, present and future converge in the moment.
Four years ago, a 16-year-old Israeli boy named Ofir came to live with me and my wife in Philadelphia. We had met his family during a trip to Israel and invited him to experience what American life was like. In the short period of two weeks, he became mishpachah, and we invited him to return the following summer. During his stays, he went to tennis camp, toured the area, sampled Philly cheesesteaks and visited the shore, the zoo and New York City.
Today he is a proud soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, a paratrooper in an elite unit. We worry for his safety and that of his friends. In a recent email, Shay, his father, wrote: "When I was a child my parents said, 'When you are 18, there will be peace.' When my oldest, Hadar, was born, I said the same. Eight years later when Ofir was born, I said the same. Sadly, I think it will go on and on …"
I pray that Shay will be wrong, but I am certain that no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves, new Jews will come into this world, bringing with them the possibility of fulfilling our hopes and prayers and dreams for peace.
In Dvarim, 30:19, God lays out our choices: "I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you that I have set before you life and death, the blessings and the curses; therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live."
Let us all choose life.
Cantor Mark E. Kushner is a certified mohel who lives in Center City.