Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Tazria
To dedicate this lesson

The Source of Jewish Strength

"What is the source of Jewish strength? Let us be clear that we're not talking about military prowess, strong abilities in various fields, charisma, or even the strength to endure difficulties. Jewish power is of a totally different nature. It has a bit of all the above, but it also has an extra element, something wondrous and different – even bordering on a craziness..."


Rabbi Yechezkel Frenkel

Adar II 29 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

The word "narrative" that's been circulating over the past few years in various circles has various meanings: It's a story, or a saga, or possibly just background, for whatever history that a particular people or an ethnic group wishes to identify with. But it's a word that also has a great weakness, in that it is a bit too flexible and manipulative. That is, it can be used to promote whatever that ethnic group wishes to promote about itself.

For instance, what happens when a particular people has no narrative? They get someone to make it up for them! Consider the Palestinian "people:" It has no land? It adopts a history that says they've been here, in the Land of Israel, from time immemorial! It has no founding milestone event? Let's offer them a holocaust-type event, just with a different name: Naqba. In English, it means "catastrophe," though in truth it refers to "the founding of the State of Israel." With this event, they also get a free add-on: justification for their decades-long terrorist war against Israel, i.e., against the survivors and refugees of the real Shoah.

But let's forget our enemies for a moment. What is the Jewish People's narrative? What is our story? When does it start?

Some will date it from the beginning of modern Zionism, about 150 years ago. Others will go further back, to the Aliyah of the students of the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon. Still others will say it begins with the Shoah, which they view as the ultimate justification for our national existence. On the other hand, others will go all the way back three millennia, to the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, and view this as the true beginning of Jewish Nationhood.

But the truth is that one who truly seeks the secret and explanation for Jewish existence among the gentiles as a sheep among seventy wolves, will find it in the second verse of this week's Torah portion. There we learn that when a boy is born, he is to be circumcised on his eighth day of life. The significance of this mitzvah (commandment) of Brit Milah is that it marks us with a sign of subjugation to, and acquisition by, Hashem. It is the sign of being part of the ultimate national self-sacrifice to G-d's eternal word.

This is way beyond what today is considered a "narrative." This covenant, dynamic and alive, commemorated with joy across the globe and throughout the millennia, is victorious! It holds our people together. Among its many aspects is the pain it induces, not only of the infant, but also of his parents, and especially his mother. Together with her teeth-clenching and tears at the helpless crying of her baby, she also experiences heart-felt joy and pride at the presence of yet another precious Jew, innocent and kosher, as part of our national existence.

What is the source of Jewish strength? Let us be clear that we're not talking about military prowess, strong abilities in various fields, charisma, or even the strength to endure difficulties. Jewish power is of a totally different nature. It has a bit of all the above, but it also has an extra element, something wondrous and different – even bordering on a craziness. It is something so strange, something so intense and foreign to the human mind that the classic Jewish image in anti-Semitic literature was long the son of the devil, a demon, something other-worldly, indestructible, and incomprehensible. This is not surprising, of course, because the gentile mind cannot absorb the truth of Jewish nationhood. It cannot understand Brit Milah because gentiles are not commanded to perform it; it's not for them. Gentiles are of This World, while Jews are focused on the World to Come as well.    

The Junction Between Israel and the Nations

The Maharal of Prague explains that Brit Milah is located at the intersection between nature and Divine, and between Israel and the other nations. In Chapter 19 of Tiferet Yisrael, he writes that physical nature is that which divided between G-d and His creations – until Avraham Avinu came along and was connected to Hashem, who chose him. This meant the beginning of the end of the detachment between G-d and man; G-d commanded Avraham and his descendants to remove the foreskin, that which divides and separates. The Brit Milah is the connecting covenant between Hashem and ourselves, because through it He extricated us from nature. This is why G-d commanded us to remove the foreskin on the eighth day, following the seven days of nature [7 represents nature].

To do a "mini-Akeidah" [as in the Akeidah, Abraham's Binding of Isaac on the altar] when the baby is only a week old is something that the gentile mind simply cannot grasp. It appears to them detached - and from their standpoint, they are right. The Jewish ability to connect Heaven and Earth, to live Divinity in a material world, to sanctify life without being dragged along or defiled by it – these are uncommon strengths, because they are in fact beyond normal reality. Parents who give over their offspring to circumcision in order to connect with Divinity, thereby show that they are beyond what gentiles consider normal. This is what makes us the am segulah, a treasured, unique nation.

This dedication is thus engraved in the heart of an eight-day old baby – and from here, it's no big deal to understand the strength of the treasured figures in our history, in the Jewish "narrative." These include Chana and her seven sons, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, and the Jews in Massada, Worms, Mainz, under the Spanish Inquisition, and in many other places and times. They also include the girls in Morocco and Yemen who preferred death rather than living as Muslims, and the thousands of men, women and children who have been the targets of rock attacks, firebombs, shootings and worse for over 30 years – and yet their communities in Judea and Samaria are bursting at the seams as more Jews seek to live there.

Yes, it's "crazy" and paranormal – because it's Divine. The very concept of Brit, covenant, means that G-d bestows His strengths upon us: in our conscious state, via Torah study; in our soul, via acts of kindness and Torah goodness; and even on our very flesh and essence. We are dedicated to His will, and therefore we are nourished from His strengths.

Our covenant with G-d is also expressed via the Land of Israel. His promise to give us this Land is not merely a real estate transaction, but rather an expression of its eternal holiness. The Maharal connects between these two covenants by saying this: "Lest one think that the Land is earthly and its covenant lacks the Divine element, we thank G-d in the Grace After Meals for both Brit Milah and Torah – because it is from the Land that we merit both of these elements… Why does Brit Milah precede Torah in the Grace After Meals? Because it is physically in our bodies, thus that it connects us more absolutely with G-d…" (Netivot Olam, Netiv HaAvodah, 18)

The Divine covenant sealed on our bodies is that which hoists true Jewish pride in the face of all those "who seek to destroy us in each generation" (based on the Passover Haggadah). Unfortunately, in our generation, we must face those even within our nation who have shed the values represented by the Brit Milah - but we will overcome them as well, with a victory that is strong but loving, sharp but embracing. It will be an eternal and connecting victory that will bring upon us all a spirit of Repentance and Return to G-d, to His goodness, and to His Land, the Land of Holiness, the Land of the Covenant.

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