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Carrying On a Legacy

As I reflect on the bris of Yosef Chaim this past week, I cannot help but appreciate the timing and the context of such a special occasion. I have served as a mohel for many years and performed many brisin, but this one felt a little different, a little bigger. I didn’t fully understand, however, until I turned my attention to this week’s parsha.

In Lech Lecha, we read about Avraham entering into a covenant with Hashem and building the foundation upon which our entire community exists. As Rav Soloveitchik writes, “With circumcision, another mission was assigned to Abraham: the formation and education of a covenantal community, a community that would be close to G-d and would follow a new way of life, an enigmatic modus existentiae, a special relationship to G-d. Abraham was burdened with a double mission: to civilize and teach the universal community, and at the same time to create a new community by teaching one boy, Isaac.” (Abraham’s Journey, p. 158)

Through bris milah, Avraham crafted a legacy out of sacrifice (see ibid p. 166) and commitment that ultimately resulted in the flourishing of his family and community. This success is not simply a matter of history, but something that unfolds before us every single day. What a unique privilege it is, as a mohel, to personally witness the transmission of our legacy over and over again.

You see, Yosef Chaim was brought into briso shel avraham avinu on the knees of his great-grandfather, Mr. Yehuda Reich. Mr. Reich, a Holocaust survivor about whom many people have read, managed to survive and transmit his legacy to three generations of his family following the horrors of the Shoah. Surrounded by his children and grandchildren, Mr. Reich, in the tradition of our forefather Avraham, ensured that the next generation will bear his commitment to our people.

I witnessed the same thing when I traveled to a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri to a lavish bris in a private home. Nothing was spared in the arrangements and catering of the event as many gathered together for the bris of the young couple’s long awaited first born. So you could imagine the look on the mother’s face when the father of the newborn came out wearing a bowling shirt. She kept whispering to him to go change but instead he waved her off and gave me the signal that they were ready to begin. We only understood his intentions when he explained that the shirt was the only article of clothing he had from his father after whom he was naming the boy. Not surprisingly, the moments leading up to his son’s bris caused him to reflect on his family legacy and fully embrace the moment to carry forward the memory of his father and instill in his son, like our forefather Avraham did, the values for which he stood.

The truth is, I feel the enormity of these moments every time I organize my instruments and prepare to perform a bris. I travel with my great-grandfather’s (and namesake) Izmal and gain inspiration from his legacy, which started with him as a mohel and chazan in the town of Tiktin (Tykocin) and ended with the founding of three generations of our family on these shores. I carry with me the legacy of Rev. Noah Wolff, my wife’s grandfather, and the 30,000 brisin he performed throughout the midwest over the past 60 years. Both represent to me a profound commitment to the covenantal community and to raising each new generation of our people in accordance with briso shel Avraham Avinu.

And I carry this message with me every day as I facilitate the learning and development of young bnei Torah in the halls of TABC. After all, the initial expression of Avhraham’s commitment to this bris was in the way he raised Yitzchak to fulfill it. I can’t help but approach education in a similar way, informed by the experiences of watching families bring their sons into our covenantal community. The subsequent years of yeshiva study are but a fulfillment of a parent’s commitment to transmit their legacy. We educators are their agents in carrying out this sacred mission.

So what is the legacy we are crafting for our children? How do we instill the values we hold so dear and for which we have sacrificed so much throughout our history? The opportunity to serve as a mohel challenges me to confront these questions on a regular basis. It is precisely at that moment before the bris that mothers and fathers come face to face with these questions too- about the parents they want to be and the values they wish to instill in their children. At that moment, just as Mr. Reich is steadying himself to support his great-grandson, time stops. I can’t help but pause, as an arm bearing a number holds this new baby close and rich legacies converge to bring another baby boy into briso shel Avraham Avinu.

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