“You shall shine as the wings of a dove covered with silver and her pinions with yellow gold.”
The topic of circumcision makes me just as uneasy as I was during yesterday’s discussion of bloodletting. I have always found the circumcision ceremony difficult to watch and have wondered why my religion inflicts pain on eight-day old babies as part of its sacred covenant. One moment during the ceremony there is an innocent little baby swathed tightly in a blanket being cradled by his parents already secure in the belief that he has entered a world where he will be nurtured and protected. And then the knife appears and if you are like me you turn your back and the next sound you hear is one of wailing pain. I am not sure why there is the belief that babies do not feel pain, but the ritual seems to not just seal the covenant with God, but introduces the new-born into the world of pain.
Today we are also reminded that the act of circumcision was carried out during times of danger “when decrees of persecution prohibit Jews from circumcising their children.” During these times we are told that the person who is preparing for the ceremony should cover the scalpel in the presence of witnesses who can testify that it was being covered for the purpose of circumcision. We are told that workarounds are possible in such dire circumstances, and one can fashion iron tools for the purpose of circumcision, although this brings to mind the image of blunt instruments causing even more pain to the little baby.
Elisha, Man of Wings, makes an encore appearance in today’s text to remind us of the bravery of one man who stood up for his beliefs, like those who hid knifes to perform circumcisions during times when the practice was prohibited by government decree. Elisha, Man of Wings, was described in a previous reading as a man who was so exceedingly clean that he evoked the spirit of an angel. He was also a man who knew pain and was unwavering in his fulfilment of the covenant to wear his phylacteries despite a decree by Roman rulers that declared the act forbidden. The punishment for disobeying the decree was quite horrific: the brain of the transgressor would be pierced.
Elisha walked through the marketplace with his phylacteries, taunting the Romans with his audacity. When he was stopped by a Roman official, he removed the phylacteries and clasped them in his closed hand. When the soldier demanded to know what he was holding so tightly, he opened his hand and there was an innocent dove spreading his wings. The Talmud tells us that it matters that Elisha was holding within his palm a dove’s wings because Israel is compared to a dove and it was stated: “You shall shine as the wings of a dove covered with silver and her pinions with yellow gold.”
Elisha represents someone who has deep faith in his beliefs and is not willing to forsake his values regardless of the cost and pain, including threat to his own safety.
We have Elishas among us today in the form of all those who are not afraid to have their voices heard and speak out when they observe violence and injustice. And there are Elishas among all the healthcare workers and medical researchers who worked tirelessly in New York City hospitals during the worse of the pandemic and are now working around the clock to save lives in other hot spots across the United States and the world. They show up every day to over-burdened hospitals despite the risk to their own health. In their hands, they carry their own symbolic dove wings in their steadfast commitment to do their part in helping this country heal itself.
There is hope that we will find a way out of this pandemic crisis through the tireless dedication of the Elishas that live among us. But we all must do our part.