Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein
This country has seen a great deal of change over the past 50 years. It used to be that America was known as the great melting pot society - a land in which all distinctions just dissipated and thousands of years of traditions were swept away and supplanted with the new "American" dream.
Torah from Dixie staff writer Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein gave the following remarks recently at an upsherin, the ceremonial cutting of a child's hair at the age of three.
This country has seen a great deal of change over the past 50 years. It used to be that America was known as the great melting pot society - a land in which all distinctions just dissipated and thousands of years of traditions were swept away and supplanted with the new "American" dream. The philosophy was that unity as a people did not come from recognizing our differences and exploiting our cultural diversity, but from homogenous blending of all cultures into one, indistinguishable mishmash. I remember growing up, neighbors of ours had a big poster of a smiling African-American child munching on a salami on rye sandwich with the caption, "You don't have to be Jewish to eat rye bread."
All of this has changed. There is a new spirit of freedom, not only of rights, but one that is bold enough to recognize the uniqueness of the individual cultures that makes up every corner of our country. Kwaanza is celebrated instead of Christmas in some circles, Menorahs are lit alongside Christmas trees, Spanish is the primary language spoken in South Florida and appears on all signs and packaging, etc.
As novel as this concept may seem, it is actually very old. The Jewish belief of monotheism, considered by many to be the single greatest gift to humanity of all time, was the first expression of this idea. Prior to the arrival of Abraham, the world was pantheistic, attributing different phenomena to different gods. It was reasoned that these disparate forces had to be the products of multiple gods because it was illogical to think that the power that controlled rain could also command fire and heat. Then along came Abraham who taught Mankind that the universe was too precise, every force interlocked with another with such uncanny perfection that it could only be the working of a single G-d. In essence, he taught that the sign of the oneness of G-d was evidenced by the extreme differences of His creation.
What does any of this have to do with today's celebration? Good question. In actuality, there is no commandment, per se, regarding delaying a child's first haircut until he is three. Unlike other lifecycle events such as circumcision, Bar Mitzvah, and marriage, one can find no laws in the Jewish codes that address this concept; it is purely what is known as a minhag or custom. However, the Jewish people never adopt something that doesn't have a good reason for it, so there must be a special message for us in this ceremony.
Although we tend to trivialize our outer appearances with statements such as "don't judge a book by its cover," the truth is that our external accessories have a profound impact on our internal state of mind. The whole concept of power ties and executive suits is rooted in this idea as well. "The clothes make the man," the saying goes.
For the first three years of this child's life we have allowed his hair to grow wild. He is like a beast in a certain sense, pure untamed matter waiting for a form to be imprinted upon him. Now, at this age, the age when toilet training is in high gear and the child begins to learn about their inner source of control - that they must adapt to certain behaviors in order to fit into society - we remove this wildness from him. It is another step towards manhood as he is taught that there is a world around him that he must be sensitive to and must interact with.
But we do not merely shear off his unshapely form and let him "figure out" for himself how to adapt, we supplant it with a special new look, a Jewish look. The long hair is replaced with payot, sidelocks; the mane becomes a resting place for a yarmulke. This is not a trivial matter. We do not want our children to discover from the streets how to dress, following the latest trend or fad; we want to give them a strong start by connecting them to a proud heritage that traces itself back almost 4,000 years. We want to add to the world culture, we want to continue the legacy of Abraham by teaching the oneness of G-d and we do it by expressing our uniqueness and our differentness from all other nations. To blend into the rest of society is to forsake this lesson, and to perpetuate that failed experiment known as the melting pot.
This then is the first concrete step toward manhood which will culminate with the Bar Mitzvah, when the Jewish child accepts full responsibility for his actions and acknowledges his awesome mission and challenge as a member of Hashem's chosen nation.
Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a Torah educator in Miami Beach.
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