II Kings 4:1-37
And God appeared to Abraham …
It was in the year 1865 that a young boy who was about to celebrate his fifth birthday went to see his grandfather to receive his blessings. Upon entering, the boy suddenly burst into tears. When asked why he was crying, he responded: His teacher in cheder (Jewish school) had just taught him this week’s Torah reading, which begins, “And God revealed himself to him (Abraham) …” (18:1)
“Zayde-grandpa,” he cried, “It’s not fair! Why is it that God revealed himself to Abraham and does not do so to me?” His grandfather, the “Tzemach Tzedek,” lovingly turned to his grandson, the future fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, and responded, “When a Jew decides at 99 years of age that he must circumcise himself and that he must continue to perfect himself, he is worthy of God’s revelation.”
I heard this story many times from the Lubavitcher Rebbe while growing up in Brooklyn, where I was privileged to attend his weekly farbrengen gatherings for many years. It was always accompanied by a discussion of the lesson and implications for the majority of us who have as yet not been worthy of God appearing to us one clear morning, asking us to do something for him, revealing to us our purpose in life and sharing with us our destiny.
Many tend to think that Jewish knowledge and experience can only be instilled when our children are of an age when we can articulate to them the beauty of our traditions and the majesty of our faith. We hope that at their bar/bat mitzvah they will hear God’s call and be inspired to make a lifelong commitment to Judaism, but believe that young children are not yet capable of “visualizing” God.
Perhaps that is why God’s revelation revolves around the story of circumcision. Abraham was a great intellect. The founder of monotheism, he preached, taught, and reasoned his entire adult life. Yet circumcision is about laying one’s intellect aside and submitting to a supra-rational covenant, and when it’s time for his own son’s initiation into Judaism, he’s told not to wait for his bar mitzvah! Start now at 8 days old; it’s not too early.
One of the most beautiful stories in all of scripture (read on Rosh Hashana) is how a young Samuel first learns he’s been chosen by God to be his prophet. He’s a small child and he hears something, so he runs to the high priest and tells him: “I think God is calling me.” And the holiest rabbi of his time says: “Nah, you are just hallucinating. Go back to sleep.” It happens again and again before the holy priest realizes that it’s the real thing.
The reason this story is so powerful is that it tells us we must nurture our children from the youngest of ages to aspire to see and feel God’s presence in their lives, that we must never give up on any Jewish child. As adults, we should not suppress that pure childlike voice within us that constantly yearns to connect to our soul. It illustrates that one may be a child in years or in Jewish knowledge and yet yearn for God to reveal himself to us.
This may be why the Rebbe liked this story so much. The child’s question and the grandfather’s explanation express two extremes, whose contrast and synthesis are a hallmark of Judaism’s approach to life.
Imagine: A 5-year-old weeping because God doesn’t reveal himself to him! To “see” God — to attain a consummate vision of the Truth of Truths — is the ultimate goal of every spiritual quest. It is a goal that takes a lifetime to achieve. Here is a child, at the beginning of his spiritual journey, heartbroken that he has not achieved this goal!
And on the other hand, we have a man who has 99 years of the most extraordinary spiritual achievements behind him, who recognizes that he is still not perfect — that he must continue to change, grow and improve himself.
The Rebbe saw these two prototypes not as conflicting visions of life, but as complementary and indispensable to each other: To strive for the ultimate, yet never feel that one has arrived. To have huge aspirations, yet remain humble and unassuming. To say: I want to, and can do it all, yet no matter how much one has done, to know that there is still more to do.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.