Our First Bris of 2019!
One of the great gifts of having been a Jewish educator and youth worker for decades is that many of my ‘kids’ have grown up. This past week, I had the absolute delight to study Torah with the next generation of my ‘kids’ hours after he arrived. Today, I also had the privilege to officiate at his bris and share his name with him, his family, and his community.
Born 17 Tevet 5779 / 25 December 2018
Bris 24 Tevet 5779 / 1 January 2019
Eight days ago, in the quiet of the night, you and I studied the Torah portion from the week you were born. Our tradition explains that God teaches each of us the entire Torah in the womb. (Gemara Niddah 30b) Then, just before we are born, we are made to forget it all and spend our lives being reminded of the Torah we’ve always held in our hearts. (Maharal) In your first hours, I thought maybe as my chevruta– my learning partner – you could remind me of a thing or two.
Your birth parshais Shmot. It’s the first Torah portion in the book of Shmot, which in English we call Exodus. “Exodus” keeps the focus on the journey of our people becoming a people. You reminded me that the focus matters. In Hebrew, our focus is shmot -- “names.”
Names like Joseph, a person who wasn’t known by Pharaoh, wasn’t even always recognized by his own family, but who God always knew by name. Names like Ephraim and Menasseh by whose names we bless our children. Names like Amram, Moses’s dad, and Jocheved, his mom. Names like Aaron and Miriam, his siblings. Names like Shifra and Puah, the midwives. And of course, the name Moses – given to him by his second mother, Batya, who came to the water to rescue him. Names so numerous, this parsha tells us, they are too many to count.
In parshat Lech Lecha, when our ancestor Abraham’s name was still Abram, God took him outside his tent and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars . . . so shall your offspring be.” But, of course, stars are too many for a human eye to count. Even for Abraham. Even for Moses. And Moses, I don’t have to tell you, he noticed everything.
Moses even noticed that the flame was no ordinary flame. Midrash tells us that the flame was burning in the bush for a long time, that many people had the opportunity to see it, but it was Moses who turned aside and took notice of it. Our sages teach that in that flame - להב - we can see another word: לב – heart.
Moses’s heart drew him to the flame of God. Moses’s heart saw things other people missed. In Judaism, heart is the center of thought and imagination. It is how we decide what to do with what we see. It is also where we carry God’s words.
Lev Zimra, you know your mama has a thing for gematria - this cool idea where each Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and those values add up and bring deeper meaning to words. Lamed is 30. Bet is 2. Added up, Lev is 32. According to the Sefer Yetzirah, 32 is the number of the organizing principles that underlie the universe. In Psalms 64:7 “From a man’s inside and from the depth of his heart” the first part has a value of 613, the number of mitzvot– of commandments – in the Torah, and the second part amok v’lev – 248, highlighting the 248 positive mitzvot and teaching that we are meant to go about the world with Torah al lev – Torah on our heart.
Naming you, your mom honors and remembers your grandmother Amy ZaiKaner Levey, of blessed memory. Amy means “beloved” and her favorite number was 32. She was drawn to its mystical connections and to the idea of the universe having a heart for a foundation.
How do we even do that, though? Go about the world with Torah on our hearts?
Well, for one thing, we get some help from a pretty cool king.
King David wrote many of the songs we sing in the “pesukei d’zimra – songs of praise. These songs awaken our hearts and prepare us to go out into the world bringing Torah with us, bringing our whole selves and our whole hearts into everything we do. When there is good and compassion and love and justice that we can bring to the world, we do. If we have talents and skills that can help repair the world, we use them.
In the zayin or ‘z’ in Zimra, your parents also connect you with your ZaiKaner family.
King David was said to have the heart of a lion. Of course your grandmother Amy would definitely want us to remember that she was a Leo! The lion in your name connects you with your dad’s family on his mom’s side, too. Your dad’s mom is Debra, she’s coming soon to get to know you, and her ancestors were Ukrainian. In Ukrainian, “lev” means lion. In Ukrainian folklore, the lions’ strength leaves them susceptible to arrogance and cruelty. It is their good heart, their lev tov, that can save them. Naming you, your dad gives you a name he hopes will help you always be both strong and kind.
Lev Zimra, you are the song in your parents’ hearts, and since before you were born, they’ve been singing you this song:
Ozi – my strength. V’zimrat ya – and the Song of God. Vayahi li lishuah – will be my salvation.
God told Abraham to go out and look at the stars and think of his descendants – too many for Abraham to count. But our tradition teaches us that God counts the stars twice each day: once bringing them out at night, and once tucking them back in to bed at dawn. In your parsha, Shmot, we learn that in the Oneness of this tremendous heart-centered-Universe, each of us counts, too.
Each of us is known by name.
And now you are known by the name Lev Zimra.
You are named in honor of your grandmothers.
Your name is all yours.
May your name always remind you of the deep love of your parents who gave it to you,
May you forever find strength in goodness and kindness,
May you be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are, and
May we, your family and your community, always be here for you and continue to be blessed by you.
And we all say: