Reluctant Mitzvah

A Rabbi Struggles With Her Son’s Circumcision

By Rabbi Deborah Wechsler

Published May 27, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.
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The combination of meat and cheese always sounded delicious to me. It still does. If kashrut were not a guiding principle in my life, it would make good gastronomical sense to put a nice piece of cheese on that burger I just put on the grill. But I have been kosher about as long as I can remember, so there is no reluctance on my part when my burger is garnished with avocado instead of Swiss. It is a mitzvah I embrace while knowing full well that others choose another path. Other mitzvahs have been more difficult for me to embrace.

On the eighth day after my daughter was born, my mother and I took her for a walk outside. “Thank God she is a girl,” I said, wiping away the tears. “I don’t know how people who have boys manage a bris so soon.” My mother, who is also the mother of my three younger brothers, said, “You have to, so you just do it.”

Fast-forward 23 months, to the birth of my second child, a big, fat baby boy. After almost two years of parenting a girl, I had to learn the new “hardware” of a boy and I had to bring him into the covenant of Abraham. Or at least let my husband do it, since traditionally it was his responsibility.

There are certain mitzvahs that we do all the time and that become almost second nature. Kashrut is a daily mitzvah, the Sabbath a weekly one. Even putting up a mezuza is more than a once or twice in a lifetime mitzvah. But there are other mitzvahs that, even though they have the same status as all the other 612, feel different simply because of their infrequency. Twice I have had the great privilege of writing a letter in a Torah scroll as it was being completed. Overwhelmed with emotion, I do not expect to experience this mitzvah many more times in my life. Bringing my son into the covenant of circumcision was another. So far, it has been a singular mitzvah for me, and at the age of 38, it may be the only time I get to do this particular one.

My sister-in-law Elissa and I commiserated the night before the bris, focusing on the strange gender dynamics at work in this ritual: “You take care of this baby for nine months, watching everything you eat and drink so no harm comes to him. Then you give birth to him and spend a week feeding him, loving him, protecting him. And then on the eighth day, you hand him over to the men to chop him up into pieces.” A slight exaggeration, no doubt, but not totally unfair.

The eighth day arrived. I am a pulpit rabbi, and I expected more people than our house could comfortably fit, so the bris was held at the synagogue. Driving to the synagogue the morning of the bris, I was both nauseated and elated. It was my husband and I and our newborn son in the car. “Isn’t this amazing?” I said. “How powerful does it feel to be doing what every Jewish parent has done before us until the beginning of time?!” Maybe I will feel this again at the b’nei mitzvah of my children, but until now, that moment was the most palpably that I have felt my place in the chain of Jewish tradition.

A crier, I wept my way through the service and circumcision. The intensity of emotion was no doubt partly brought on by the primal physicality of the ritual as well as the power of that ritual in transmitting Jewishness to the next generation. My son had a Hebrew name and the permanent mark of the covenant that he will, God willing, carry with him for the next 120 years.

After the bris, other mothers emerged to share their experience at their sons’ brises. One woman at the synagogue, a mother of five sons, said that every single one was horrible and her sister always hid in the basement. Another said, with a sad smile, “No one tells you how terrible it is.” I had entered this reluctant sisterhood of committed Jewish women who brought their sons into the covenant.

Now, with his bris a distant memory for both of us, my son and I have settled into a loving relationship where I hope I am able to show him the joy and blessings of living a Jewish life. Reluctance has never since been a problem in bringing mitzvahs into his young life. It was a great privilege to bring a son to be circumcised into the covenant of Abraham, and I thank God for enabling me to do that mitzvah. But the greater privilege has been the blessing that we were given on that Monday morning in synagogue — of raising our son with an eye toward teaching him Torah, learning how to live in relationships with other people and being a person accustomed to doing acts of loving kindness.

Deborah Wechsler is a rabbi at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore.


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