I remember very well standing over my beautiful, perfect, eight-day-old son with a knife in my hand.
It was his brit milah, the day of his induction into the covenant between the Jewish people and God through the rite of circumcision. Typically, this procedure is performed by a trained mohel (ritual circumciser). In the traditional ceremony, the father officially cedes his obligation to circumcise his own son to the mohel, who performs the ritual on the father’s behalf.
But not me.
I was determined to undertake this primal act of faith and belonging myself, not turn it over to a stranger. And so the mohel set the clamps for me, handed me the scalpel, and stood aside warily, ready to step back in if I faltered. But I wasn’t going to–even though what I was about to do seemed crazy, how could I really let a stranger do this to my son?
The image flashed into my mind unbidden of Abraham on Mt. Moriah, knife held out over his helpless son, Isaac, whom the Torah tells us he loved so dearly. I imagined Abraham’s heartbreak at what God had commanded him to do. All a parent wants is to protect his or her children, keep them safe from any and all harm. And here Abraham was being called upon to sacrifice Isaac–the ultimate betrayal of the parental imperative to safeguard and shield from danger.
But desire though we might, we cannot fully protect our children. They will grow up, they will leave home, they will make their own choices, they will live their own lives. They will encounter, please God, great joy and fulfillment, but they will also inevitably come to know a measure of sadness, loss, and heartbreak for these too are a part of the life that God gives us.
Any parent whose preschooler has been hurt by the words of a classmate knows just how limited we are in our ability to protect our children from forces beyond our control. We can’t stay endlessly in the classroom waiting to pounce on the offending five-year-old, we can’t control every interaction our children might ever have with anyone–and yet it hurts so much to do nothing. Being a parent means confronting the limits of our ability to protect the ones we love the most. Life cuts; we cannot avoid this basic fact of what it means to be human.
But I realized as I stood with the knife in my hand that the first cut my son would receive in his life, the first of many wounds–physical, emotional, spiritual–he will inevitably experience, could be made in love. Could connect him to a story greater than himself or any of us, to a framework of sacred meaning, and to a people that was cut far too many times in hate.
We cannot protect our children from injury; but we can shape the ways in which they experience the hurt that life sends their way by providing them with a solid foundation of love and trust from which to respond and recover, and with a community that will carry them through the difficult places. The first cut our son would receive in his life would be made with the deepest sense of love and gratitude, would be a prayer that we all draw one step closer to redemption.
I recited the blessing and welcomed our son into the covenant.