Words at a Bris: From the Throne of Eliyahu to the Covenant of Avraham Avinu

From the Throne of Eliyahu to the Covenant of Avraham Avinu
by Tzvee, March 2, 2009, 6th Adar, 5769, Bergenfield, NJ, USA

We’ve been honored today to participate in the bris of a new baby, our fifth grandchild, given the name Gavriel Osher Chaim.

The bris is a simple ritual service with just a few prayers and blessings and yes, of course a significant little physical procedure, a circumcision.

Let’s look at two parts of the bris ceremony: the throne of Eliyahu, and the covenant of Avraham blessing.

We are told that because of Eliyahu’s complaints against Israel in I Kings 19:14, G-d commanded Eliyahu to appear at every bris to guarantee that Israel will not forsake the covenant.
וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת, כִּי-עָזְבוּ בְרִיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And he said: ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the G-d of hosts;
for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant…’

So when we placed the child on the chair that we designated as the throne of Eliyahu, this is composite prayer we said at the bris:

(1) This is the Throne of Eliyahu the Prophet, may he be remembered for good. For Your deliverance I hope, O Lord.

I have hoped for Your deliverance, Lord, and I have performed Your commandments.

(2) Eliyahu, angel of the Covenant, here is yours before you; stand at my right and support me.

(3) I rejoice in Your word, like one who finds great spoil.

Those who love Your Torah have abounding peace, and there is no stumbling for them.

Happy is the man You choose and bring near to dwell in Your courtyards; we will be satiated with the goodness of Your House, Your Holy Temple.

Like many rituals, the several lines of the poetic text of this one at first seem only loosely linked. Let us look at the text more closely.

(1) We first invoke our hope and trust in deliverance of G-d. We adjure G-d that we have observed his commandments. This bris is the first commandment given to the Jewish people. Our testimony that we are faithful to it is compelling evidence.

Now (2) we are momentarily puzzled. We call on Eliyahu, angel of the Covenant, and we say, “Here is yours before you; stand at my right and support me.”

What does this mean? We gloss over this because it is such a powerful statement.

“Here is yours,” means that here in the newborn life of every child is the potential for the deliverance of humankind. What a bold statement! But that boldness and conviction is the heart of our Jewish faith. Every new life is an act of creative energy and value that at its outset has infinite potential.

We realize at the same time that we cannot stand on our own against all the forces of time and history. We ask Eliyahu to support us so that the promised redemption will come.

We next appear to say (3) that we rejoice at the words of Eliyahu, like a finder of great spoils. But the ambiguity of prayer makes us stop and reconsider. Are we still addressing Eliyahu, the herald of our redemption or are we back to the real time or history? Of course it is that we rejoice in the word of G-d – in the Torah and its commandments, as one would delight in finding a great material bounty.

We’ve left Eliyahu and we are speaking of the value of the Torah, now and today and through the generations. We are so blessed to be part of a community and a family that loves Torah. And the promise of that love is “abounding peace” and a life without the blocks of “stumbling.”

These sentiments are said as matters of fact. But really they are our prayers and wishes. And we wish further for happiness and goodness in the courtyards and houses of the Torah.

We make deliberately vague our statements of what in our prayer is concrete promise and what in our prayer is hope and aspiration -- because we know now at the bris of the newborn and throughout our lives that -- with all our self-assurance and education and scientific achievements, at every moment of the day our destiny is in the hands of G-d.

Finally let us consider for a moment the core blessing of the milah ceremony recited by the father at the moment the circumcision is performed.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to enter him into the Covenant of Abraham our father.

Here we are. The real father and mother having just given birth to a miracle. A new world has been created with its infinite potential. The struggles of pregnancy and childbirth have reminded both parents of the travails of this world and kept them firmly anchored in the needs and struggles of the present moments.

And this new little baby is surely the center of the universe, a mystical gift and a timeless personality. The child so totally dependent on his parents’ care and attention, right here and right now, every few hours throughout the day and night. There really is no time for these parents to wax historical or become philosophical.

What could be more jarring than this reminder at the bris? We are told that we are not celebrating the here and now of the travails of these parents and this infant. We are bringing another Jew into the covenant with G-d with the entire Jewish people from antiquity to this very day.

Yes, this reminder is a humbling one. And at the same time it is an empowering one.

We are humbled to recall that we are part of a larger covenantal community. Regarding the covenant with Avraham, my teacher Rav Soloveitchik says, “The patriarchal covenant relates to the fundamental essence of a person. It teaches man how to feel, or to experience, as a human being…. The Patriarchal covenant teaches us how to feel our Jewishness.”

I believe he meant to say it teaches us how to accept our position in the universe as part of an ancient ongoing entity that has had a relationship with G-d for millennia.

And that thought should be comforting and even empowering to us. It reassures us that we now are not introducing this newborn to an awesome task of imposing magnitude -- of finding his own relationship with G-d.

We’ve been connected to G-d as the Jewish people over the generations. And to this bond of Jewishness our newborn child now enlists.

And so we complete our task, our ceremony and then we smile and greet the little boy with the exclamation, “Yehudi chadash” – we welcome into the covenant our newest Jew.

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