A Matter Of Life And Death
The tiny bundle of pink flesh, with the tightly clenched fists and eyes,
emits a lusty cry, and suddenly, all faces are wreathed in smiles. The
child is alive! It is the moment of greatest wonder, the revelation of the
marvelous miracle of life.
What are the consequences of this momentous, life-affirming event? Let us
look into this week’s portion. “When a woman conceives and gives birth to
a male child . . . she shall remain in a state of impurity for seven days.
And on the eighth day you shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin.”
These laws present a most perplexing anomaly.
Generally, we find the state of ritual impurity associated with the
cessation or absence of life. Contact with a dead body, for instance,
results in a state of impurity. But the moment of birth, the creation of a
new life in the world, is the exact opposite condition. Why then does it
cause a state of impurity?
Furthermore, immediately after informing us of the state of impurity
deriving from the birth of a male child, the Torah tells that the child
must be circumcised on the eighth day. Why? After all, this commandment
has been established long before. In fact, it is the very first
commandment in the entire Torah, given to Abraham back in Parashas Lech
Lecha. Why then does the Torah find it necessary to remind us of it here?
In order to answer these puzzling questions, let us consider for a moment
the birth of a child from a different perspective. Every person is a
hybrid - a combination of the physical body and the spiritual neshamah.
The physical body only has life in this world, a life that begins at
conception, becomes viable birth and ceases at death. The neshamah,
however, is eternal, a denizen of the spiritual world, a spark of the
divine, without beginning, without end. Miraculously, Hashem combines
these two totally incompatible elements into one creature called a human
How has this arrangement affected the neshamah? Has its condition improved
or deteriorated? Has its life force been impaired or enhanced by this
marriage made in Heaven?
The Sages tell us that the neshamah is taken from Hashem’s Heavenly
Throne, that it is sent down to this world in a state of total purity,
that as long as it is still within the womb it continues to enjoy the
unrestrained radiance of the Divine Presence, that it continues to
experience the entire Torah with perfect clarity, that it can observe the
entire world from end to end with unrestricted vision.
At the moment of birth, however, everything suddenly changes. The
neshamah’s vision becomes clouded and obscured by its physical envelope,
its awareness of its origins is dulled and submerged, it knowledge of the
Torah is forgotten. It is flung into a dirty, contaminated world and
expected to fend for itself, to grope through the spiritual darkness of
the physical world and find its way back home. The purpose of this abysmal
plunge is clearly to allow the neshamah to create islands of holiness in
this world under the most adverse conditions and thereby reach levels of
holiness it could not attain in its pristine state. But for the moment at
least, the neshamah has undergone a precipitous fall and a sharp decline
in its spiritual vitality. This decline in its vitality, in its
transcendent spiritual life force, which take place at the moment of
birth, triggers a state of ritual impurity, the condition associated with
the absence or loss of life.
But how is the neshamah to overcome the debilitating condition imposed?
How is it to rise above the contamination of the physical world and find
its way back to the Eternal Source of all neshamos?
To answer this question, the Torah reminds us once again that on the
eighth day we are to circumcise the foreskin of the child. The removal of
the foreskin, the “blockage,” from the organ of continuity demonstrates
the striving to remove the physical barriers and blockages that separate
the neshamah from Hashem. It demonstrates that our life’s journey, from
its very beginning, is directed at overcoming the physical restriction to
our innate spirituality and drawing ever closer to Hashem.
In our own lives, we sometimes need to take a step back and ask ourselves
if we are allowing our neshamah to breathe or if we are burying it under
an avalanche of physicality. After all, the only true, eternal,
indestructible life we possess is the spiritual life of our neshamah. And
if we concentrate on removing the physical “blockages” that restrict its
spiritual consciousness and perception, we will be rewarded with a surge
of spiritual vitality that will invigorate and enrich our entire lives.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.