WHAT A DIFFERENCE!
As more wood and coals were added, the flame grew and danced more lively than ever. The company was having their annual barbecue, and the grills were now ready to start cooking.
As more wood and coals were added, the flame grew and danced more lively than ever. The company was having their annual barbecue, and the grills were now ready to start cooking. As some employees conversed and met each other's families, a few dedicated workers labored to produce the hot dogs and hamburgers that would later become the focus of the evening. It was always easy to tell who had been by the grills, because their clothes carried the aroma of the barbecue wherever they would go. Those who cooked the food, and even those who just stood nearby, carried this pleasant odor. The grill was the source of this good smell, but anyone who came near benefited from its delectable aroma.
Towards the end of this week's Torah portion, Hashem gives Abraham the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision). Before this mitzvah is performed, a Jew is considered physically imperfect. Only after the foreskin is removed, is the body perfected. In reality, the foreskin is comprised of two layers. The Beis HaLevi, one of the most brilliant Talmudists of the 19th century, explains that the removal of the first layer corrects the physical imperfection, while the removal of the second layer raises the person to a holier level.
The Sefer HaChinuch, a classic 13th century encyclopedic work explaining the mitzvot, comments that one of the reasons why Hashem gave us this mitzvah was to physically differentiate us from the other nations. Just as we are spiritually different from them, Hashem wanted us to also have a permanent, physical differentiation. Through this differentiation from the nations, we become closer to, and holier before Hashem.
The Beis HaLevi further explains that an attempt to minimize this difference contributed to our slavery in Egypt. After Joseph died, the Jewish people understood that the time for their prophesied slavery had come. Therefore, they tried to think of what could lighten the Egyptian's servitude and hatred of them. They concluded that physical differences help fuel hatred. Before receiving the Torah, the only command of brit milah was upon the removal of the first layer of the foreskin. The Jews had a tradition from Abraham to also remove the second layer, but that was not yet a commandment. They, with the exception of the tribe of Levi, therefore decided to forego this tradition. They would be fulfilling the letter of the law by removing the fist layer, but would now be more physically similar to the Egyptians. Hopefully, this would reduce the Egyptian's hatred toward them.
However, this plan foiled. The Jewish people remained different from the Egyptians because they still removed the first layer of the foreskin. But, by not removing the second layer, they had taken themselves one step further away from Hashem. They no longer attained that extra level of holiness. So now, instead of clinging to Hashem while standing different from the Egyptians, they stood a step away from both Hashem and the Egyptians. Without this closeness to Hashem, the Jews did not benefit from His Divine protection, and the Egyptian's were able to enslave the Jewish people with their hatred. We only thrive because of our relationship with Hashem. Even if that makes us different than the other nations, that difference is the source of our Divine relationship. While we may think that assimilation would reduce outside hatred, it really harms us because we are disarming ourselves of Hashem's protection.
This week's Torah portion opens as Hashem tells Abraham to go from his "land, relatives, and father's house" to travel to the land that Hashem will show him. The Bartenura, a classic commentary on the Mishnah, explains that the reason why Hashem specifically listed these three categories was because these are the places that a person learns from most. People pick up practices from the examples they see everyday. In Abraham's case, his household and homeland were steeped in idolatry, and set a very poor example. Even though Abraham despised his society and denounced their polytheistic practices, the poor environment could have a subtle, negative influence on him. Therefore, Hashem told him to leave these places and move to where he could grow unhindered. For this reason, the commentators explain (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:13) that a good neighbor is better than a good friend. A friend's example can be learned from, but only when he is around. A neighbor is always there, and his actions can constantly be seen and gleaned from.
Just as a barbecue leaves its scent on all those who come near, so do people leave their impression on those with whom they come in contact. The environment and social groups in which we place ourselves are very important. We develop in our actions and ideologies from the environments that we are in. We therefore want to place ourselves in the company of the righteous and of those learned in Torah. By being near them and witnessing their deeds, we are positively influenced. We will walk away inspired and uplifted, like the person who carries with him the pleasant smell of the barbecue.
Unfortunately, we live in a time without the Beit Hamikdash (holy Temple), dispersed throughout the non-Jewish world. Many of the morals and ideals of society do not conform with Torah values, so we feel out of place living differently. The mitzvah of brit milah teaches us that there are times when we, as Jews, are supposed to be different. We live now as the culmination of thousands of years of Jewish heritage and tradition. This heritage is unique and special to us and we must carry it on, even though it will sometimes cause our actions and ideals to differ from those of our non-Jewish neighbors. By doing this, we will be closer to and more holy before Hashem.
Also, as we realize our need to be unique, we must also recognize how our society's morals and standards are not necessarily the same as our own. As such, just as Abraham's society could negatively influence him, so can ours leave us with impressions that are contrary to our Torah values. What we can do to combat this is to cleave to the Torah and those who represent it. This way, we will be countering the negative influences of society with the strong, positive, and protective influence of the Torah. By recognizing and appreciating our differences and placing ourselves in the proper atmosphere to preserve those differences, may we grow unhindered to higher levels of holiness and a fuller performance of Hashem's mitzvot.
Mendel Starkman, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.
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