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Beloved Children

by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Parshas Tazre'a

Purifying Our Children

And on the eighth day shall the flesh of his foreskin be circumcised.
(VAYIKRA 12:3)

The following story was related by Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern, the mashgi'ach of Yeshivas Kaminetz in Jerusalem, who heard it in his youth from Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, zt"l, during a Torah lecture.

Once the Chofetz Chaim and another great rabbi went for a long trip of several days to take care of an important matter involving a mitzvah. Upon their arrival at a certain place, they immediately looked for an inn where they could rest from their long journey and have a meal.

After they had found an inn where the proprietress was a G-d-fearing woman, and her level of kashrus satisfied their strict standards, the Chofetz Chaim and the other great rabbi sat down and ate the meal that was served them.

During the course of the meal, the proprietress came in and asked them if the food was satisfactory. The Chofetz Chaim answered immediately that the food was excellent. But the great rabbi answered, "Yes, the food in general is quite good, although it lacks a bit of salt."

After hearing what they had to say, she left the room. As soon as she left, the Chofetz Chaim grabbed his beard with one hand and his head with the other and began to moan, saying, "Oy vey! My entire life I have been careful not to speak lashon hara and not to hear it, and now I have transgressed by listening to and accepting lashon hara. I am sorry that I came on this trip with you; there certainly was no mitzvah in my traveling with you."

When the rabbi saw how upset the Chofetz Chaim was, he was afraid and astonished. But he also wondered, "Why is he so excited and troubled?"

He asked the Chofetz Chaim, "What did I say wrong? Where was the lashon hara in what I said?"

The Chofetz Chaim answered him, "Was there not lashon hara in your saying that the food lacked salt? She certainly did not cook the meal herself, but rather the cook was a woman she had hired. This woman is a widow, and immediately after the proprietress heard your complaints about the lack of salt, she went into the kitchen and complained to the poor cook, saying, 'Why did you not put enough salt in the food?' The cook answered of course that she had indeed put in enough salt.

"Then," continued the Chofetz Chaim, "the proprietress began to shout at the cook, saying, 'The rabbis who are my guests and are eating the food you cooked told me that there was not enough salt. How can you say otherwise?'

"So continued the argument, with the cook insisting that there was enough salt in the food, and the proprietress accusing her of lying, since the rabbi had told her that the food lacked salt.

"Then the cook said, 'But I am certain that I put salt in the food.'

"When the proprietress heard that, she said, 'If you have such chutzpah to accuse the rabbi of being a liar, then you are fired. I don't want you to work here as a cook any more.'"

The great rabbi listened to the Chofetz Chaim attentively, and his astonishment grew from moment to moment, witnessing the great imagination of the Chofetz Chaim. Where did he come up with such a story? How could the Chofetz Chaim build towers in the air from one small comment he had made? He finally spoke up, saying, "Rabbi Yisrael Meir, you are exaggerating!"

The Chofetz Chaim answered him, "If you wish to verify whether I am right or not, let's go into the kitchen and we shall see what is going on in there."

Together they went into the kitchen, and found the two women excited and angry, with tears in their eyes, following a long argument in which the proprietress had fired the cook. It had all been exactly as the Chofetz Chaim had described!

When the great rabbi saw what had happened he tried, of course, with all his power to change the situation, and in the end he paid a large sum of money so that the widow would be allowed to remain in her job and so that peace would be restored between them.

The great rabbi learned an important lesson from the Chofetz Chaim, and tried to correct his mistake. We, too, must be careful to consider all possible repercussions that our words might have upon our children, and to think carefully always before we speak.

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Akiva, "Whose deeds are better? Those of G-d or those of humans?"

Rabbi Akiva answered, "Those of humans are better." Turnus Rufus asked, "Behold the heaven and the earth. Can you make anything more beautiful than them?"

He answered, "Do not tell me about something that is higher than human capabilities, since humans are unable to do these things, but let us compare things which humans are capable of."

Turnus Rufus asked, "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" Rabbi Akiva answered, "I knew that you were asking about something like that, and for that reason I told you at the start that men's deeds are greater than those of G-d."

Rabbi Akiva then brought to Turnus Rufus two items: stalks of wheat and baked rolls. Rabbi Akiva said, "These [the stalks of wheat] are the deeds of G-d, and these [the baked rolls] are the deeds of humans. Are these [baked rolls] not more beautiful?"

"If so," answered Turnus Rufus, "since G-d is interested in circumcision, why did he not create human beings already circumcised?"

Rabbi Akiva answered, "Because G-d gave the mitzvos to the Jewish people only to purify them. And this is what David Hamelech said, "The word of G-d is pure, it is a shield for all those who take shelter in Him."(1)
(YALKUT 546, par. "Uveyom")

What did Turnus Rufus want to prove with his provocative question of whether G-d's deeds or those of humans are better? What was the meaning of Rabbi Akiva's reply that men cannot create heaven and earth? What did Rabbi Akiva mean when he said that human deeds are better, when it is obvious that men cannot compete with G-d? What did Turnus Rufus wish to prove by his question about circumcision? What was Rabbi Akiva's answer? Why do the mitzvos purify us?

Man Was Created to Fulfill G-d's Will

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked... "Whose deeds are better? Those of G-d or those of humans?"
Rabbi Akiva answered, "Those of humans are better."

Turnus Rufus was trying to prove that mitzvos are superfluous, since we cannot add anything to G-d's creation. Therefore, he implied, it is really an insult to G-d to try to perform any of the mitzvos, such as circumcision, that alter His creation. It is as if we are saying that G-d does not know how to create us, and we, in our "infinite wisdom," are going to correct His works.

Rabbi Akiva's reply that men cannot make heaven and earth implies that men's deeds fulfill G-d's will, and without man's actions, that Divine will would not have been fulfilled. This is what makes our deeds great. G-d tells us what to do, and we are, in a sense, even greater than G-d in that specific action, since only we can carry out His command. But G-d did not command us to make heaven and earth; therefore man is not lacking anything by not being able to do this.

Of course it is obvious that human beings are not greater than G-d, and there is no real competition or comparison to be made between the two, since humans are completely dependent upon G-d. But the point here is that men are needed in the world to do the mitzvos, and G-d intentionally left incomplete certain parts of creation, where men would be able to do mitzvos and thus to fulfill His will.

Since gentiles are not circumcised, Turnus Rufus wanted to prove that the Jews were wrong in practicing circumcision, saying that if circumcision would have been G-d's will, He would have created man already circumcised. He argued that since G-d did not do this, He must be telling us that He prefers that men should remain uncircumcised. Turnus Rufus "strengthened" his argument by implying that if we do circumcise ourselves, we are acting against His will.

Why Did G-d Create Man Uncircumcised?

"Why do you circumcise yourselves?"
Rabbi Akiva answered, "...for that reason I told you at the start that men's deeds are greater than those of G-d."

Rabbi Akiva's answer to Turnus Rufus was that G-d created man with a foreskin so that he would have to rid himself of it in order to do G-d's will. G-d wants us to train ourselves to do His will. If everything had been created in a state of perfection, without the need for us to do anything, then we would not have this essential training in doing His will, and thus we would lack a spiritual dimension of greatness. Because He has left us something specific to do, we are able to perform His will under His guidance.

Why do the many mitzvos purify us? Man has within him an evil inclination (yetzer hara) that tells him not to listen to G-d's will, but rather to do what gives him pleasure. Man's entire task is to subdue his yetzer hara and to perform G-d's will as opposed to doing what his yetzer hara tells him to do. The many mitzvos that are given to us all serve as lessons which lead us to this same goal. The more mitzvos we have, the more we are able to train ourselves to be obedient to His will rather than to our own wills. Therefore the more mitzvos we have, the more we are able to perfect ourselves.

That was what Rabbi Akiva told Turnus Rufus. Of course G-d could have created man circumcised, just as He created man's entire intricate body with its millions of cells and blood vessels. But G-d wanted to leave this part undone so that we could perform the mitzvah ourselves. In that sense man's deeds are indeed greater than G-d's, since G-d left His deeds undone, waiting for man to complete them.

Commanding Children Purifies Them

This lesson applies as well to training our children. When we command our children to do something, we are enabling them to learn obedience and to train themselves to subdue their own will to the will of those older and wiser than they are. Listening to his parents will save a child from many embarrassments and failures in his life, and that may be one of the reasons behind the mitzvah of listening to one's parents.

Sometimes children try to argue with their parents and prove to them that their commands are not correct. Never enter into an argument with your child about what you have told him to do. This would be in effect showing him that your words are negotiable. He may say to you, "But why should I do that when there is such-and-such reason for not doing it?" Your reply should be, "You should do it because I told you to do it, and for no other reason."

When you respond in such a way, the child is learning that there is no room to argue when you say something. You are his parent, and your authority is unquestionable. He may not understand it or appreciate it, but you should not change your mind because of his will. Obeying parents' wishes is excellent training in learning to obey G-d's will, since often a person would prefer to follow his own will, but when he trains himself to listen to his parents, he is learning the important lesson of subjugating his own will to that of a higher authority.

G-d does not give us commandments that we cannot fulfill, as the verse says, "It is not in heaven, so that you cannot say, who will go up to heaven and bring it to us."(2) G-d did not make any unreasonable demands. All His mitzvos are within our reach. If this were not so, we would not be responsible to fulfill them, as our Sages say, "Someone who is incapable of fulfilling a mitzvah, G-d frees him of his responsibility."(3)

Train Your Children to Obedience

An experienced teacher used to enter the classroom and tell a child to open a window or close a door. These were things that no one would question, and thus the students were given the training of listening and obeying a command, and accepting the teacher's authority. Then when the teacher gave commands that they might think of arguing with, they had already been trained to listen and obey, and they would not question other commands, even though there might have been room to do so.

This same rule applies to children at home. Give your child a command that he cannot argue with. For instance, tell him to eat his ice cream or to get dressed. These are simple things that he will not argue with, but he will be getting used to listening to and obeying commands. When he does these simple things correctly, praise him for his obedience, so he will feel that he has accomplished something.

If you start explaining everything you say, you will find that you are constantly entering into debates with your children. Home is not a debating society. It is a framework within which parents are the only authority. When they say something it must be obeyed. As parents, do not offer any explanations, but rather give commands that are clear.

In What Tone Do You Speak?

Your tone of voice is very important. Do not give commands in a meek voice, or as a question. Do not say, "Could you be so kind as to help me by taking out the garbage?" That sounds as if you are pleading. Don't say, "Do you think that you have enough time to help me this afternoon?" Of course the child will not have enough time, since you are leaving it up to his judgment. Your directives must come across concisely, in a clear commanding voice, leaving no doubt as to what you want and when you want it done.

Some parents may think that their approach at home is not democratic and that they must give their children equal rights to make decisions at home. This is a misconception. Your children need a strong hand of authority in order for them to grow up as organized, self-disciplined adults. No matter what they may claim, they feel secure when their parents rule the house. A child without strong parents feels lost and unprotected. He needs to know that his parents know what they want and that they mean business when they say something.

Don't Give the Wrong Commands

This general rule should teach us to consider the situation very carefully before we demand anything of our children. Never tell a child to do something that will be too difficult for him. You must always weigh his capabilities and judge whether he is in fact able to accomplish that which you wish him to do. If you demand something of him that is above his level, you will lose your credibility with him, and he will not obey even in things he can easily do.

For instance, do not ask him to study for more hours than you know he can manage, or to dress differently from his friends, or to run errands for you without limit. If you feel that he should study more, then make a program for him that is suited to his needs and will not be too much of a burden for him. If you feel that the way his friends dress is not suitable, then he has the wrong friends, and it is up to you either to find new friends for him or to move to another area. But requiring him to dress differently from his friends may be asking something that is beyond his capabilities. The errands you give him to handle for you should also be assigned in moderation, and you should not overburden him.

Don't Be Too Stern

Although obedience to one's parents is very important, we must be careful not to be too overbearing, otherwise the child may get the impression that we do not love him. We must incorporate our love into our sternness, so that our child will not forget that we are really being stern only for his good, and because we love him.

Our Sages say that we need to "push him away with the left hand and draw him near with the right hand."(4) This means that the right hand, which is our stronger hand, should show our love, since love is the most important need a child has. But we cannot show the child our love to the exclusion of any sternness, since the child will then develop an unwillingness to obey. Therefore the left hand, which is the weaker of the two, should be used to "push him away," since we do not really want to push him away entirely, but only to train him in obedience.

We must be careful not to confuse love and sternness. For instance, if it is necessary to punish the child, do not smile while doing so. That is being cruel. Your child is not enjoying the punishment, and if he sees you smiling, he may feel you are being sadistic. Instead you can simply tell him that you wish you did not have to mete out this punishment, since you truly love him, but his behavior leaves you no choice. When the punishment is over, you can return to showing your love for him, just as before, and you should forgive him entirely. Don't remind him of his previous misdeeds. Such reminders are unpleasant and unfair to him. If he has "paid" for his mistakes, he is entitled to a clean slate.

Just as the many mitzvos we do purify us, so too does the child who learns to obey his parents become purified. For in this way he is learning to be a G-d-fearing Jew.

1. Tehillim 18:31
2. Devarim 30:12
3. Nedarim 27a
4. Sanhedrin 107b

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