Posts on the topic of "Birth"
This week I read the horrific story of Thalidomide, a drug which pregnant women took during the late 1950s and early '60s to counter the nausea of "morning sickness."
Many children born to these mothers were too deformed to survive; those who did survive had a soaring rate of birth defects – most commonly stumps of arms and legs.
Today there is a whole group of armless survivors called "Thalidomide kids." They include an amazing guitar player who plays with his toes, and a filmmaker whose feature documentary on the disastrous side-effects of Thalidomide, "NoBody's Perfect," won the 2009 German Film Award for Best Documentary.
The drug was pulled from sale in 1961 after doctors linked it to birth defects.
Now – this week, 50 years later – the German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal has finally apologized for the damage caused.
Also this week my mother told me that when she was pregnant with me (in 1960-61), the doctor suggested looking into the possibility of Thalidomide.
Thankfully, she refused.
Imagine what my life would be like, had my mother made a different decision.
Life is so complex, so fraught with perilous decisions at every turn.
Some people prosper, while others suffer.
We see "bad things" that happen to us, and may feel that our lot in life is unfair. Yet what about the many things in life that could have happened – the near-misses – that we don't even know about?
When put in this perspective, our own set of challenges becomes easier to bear. No, I didn't suffer the disaster of Thalidomide. But I do have my own set of challenges. And I embrace them, knowing that my life is closely guided by a loving and caring God.
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Brit Milah has been the hallmark of Jewish identification for millennia. This issue was particularly relevant in Nazi Germany when men were often made to strip down to determine their Jewish identity.
The point was made quite powerfully in a movie called "Europa Europa," the true story about a young Jewish boy trying to escape detection by the Nazis. The boy resembles an Aryan and speaks German fluently, so he poses as a non-Jew and is eventually recruited into an elite training program for the next generation of SS officers. Only his circumcision, which he couldn't hide, kept him Jewish. The man survived the war, and made a new life for himself in Israel. Instead, he may have ended up becoming a Nazi officer. It all depended on the Bris.
That's why so many are shocked at the ruling this week by a German court that renders religious circumcisions performed by Jews and Muslims a crime. Germany is home to an estimated 4 million Muslims and 100,000 Jews.
According to a report in Germany's Financial Times, the Cologne District Court declared circumcision is a "serious and irreversible interference in the integrity of the human body." The court also ruled that freedom of religion and the rights of parents cannot justify the practice.
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An old man dies and his curious descendants open the will to see whom he bequeathed his substantial wealth. The text was short and to the point:
"As a believer in reincarnation, I am bequeathing my entire estate to myself."
There are many Jewish sources dealing with what is popularly called "reincarnation." In Hebrew, it is called "gilgul ha'neshamot," literally the recycling or transmigration of souls.
The soul comes into this world in the first place to make a spiritual repair. If that is not fulfilled by the end of one's lifetime, then the soul will be sent down again. The return trip may only be needed for a short time or in a limited way. This in part explains why people are born with handicaps or may live a brief life.
I just returned from the Bris of my first grandchild, Noson Eliyahu Tal, and would like to share some of the many thoughts running through my head.
At the conclusion of a Bris, there is a special prayer the parent recites:
"May my son's heart be as open to Your Torah as the Ulam, the great entranceway to the Holy Temple."
This reference to the Ulam is not simply a poetic expression. It is based on the Talmud (Eruvin 53a) which quotes Rabbi Yochanan as saying that "the minds of the 'earlier scholars' were as broad as the entrance of the Ulam." The Talmud then identifies these "earlier scholars" as Rebbe Akiva and Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua.
This raises a question: Why are the new parents praying for their child to reach the level of Rebbe Akiva and Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua? These were great Sages from 2,000 years ago, and in our generation nobody reaches such a level!
I believe some insight can be found in the Talmud (Sotah 12b): When Batya found baby Moses floating in the river, he refused to nurse from the Egyptian women, and would only nurse from his mother. Moses required "kosher" food, since in the future he would be speaking directly with the Almighty and needed to maintain the highest level of purity.
Today we would never expect to reach the level of Moses, just as we don't expect to reach the level of Rebbe Akiva. And yet the Code of Jewish Law (Rema―Yoreh De'ah 81:7) says that the preferance to nurse from a Jewish woman applies equally today!
From here, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (Emes L'Yaakov 2:7) learns a principle: Every human being has unlimited potential, and we should never place any limitation on our hopes for a child's greatness!
This idea of encouraging the greatness of each individual was a hallmark of my father, after whom my new grandson is named. As an accomplished chemist, my father had attractive opportunities in the private sector, e.g. an offer from a large food company to develop ways for breakfast cereal to stay crunchier longer in milk. But he wanted to do something meaningful that would genuinely help others. So he became a university professor, where he taught not only the advanced levels, but also insisted on teaching the entry-level chemistry course. He believed that if you give someone a good foundation from the start, that will carry them through the future.
Over the years I have heard of many of my father's students who excelled, got good grades, and went on to become successful teachers in their own right. This was due in no small measure to my father's guidance, encouragement and belief in their great potential.
With children, so much of their success depends on encouragement from the parents. The Talmud (Yerushalmi―Yevamos 1:6) discusses how Rebbe Yehoshua became such a great tzaddik. When Rebbe Yehoshua was a baby, his mother set his baby carriage outside the yeshiva. This little baby was exposed to lots and lots of Torah learning and thus grew up to become the great Rebbe Yehoshua.
Yet how did this contribute to Rebbe Yehoshua's greatness? As a baby, he certainly didn't comprehend the complex rabbinic discussions in the yeshiva. Rather, what made Rebbe Yehoshua great was the influence of having a mother who was willing to sacrifice herself to bring him there every day, who showed him the importance of having strong Jewish values, and who believed that one day he could sit amongst the great ones.
It is with tremendous gratitude to the Almighty that I celebrated today my grandson's Bris. We have unlimited hopes for this gorgeous baby. May he exceed them all !
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Yesterday, life hit a new high: My daughter gave birth to my first grandchild ― a beautiful, bouncy baby boy.
It is, in my estimation, life's greatest milestone.
When my wife and I got married and started a family of our own, we enjoyed every moment of this new and exciting adventure. Yet as the main characters in this script (and due in no small measure to our youth and inexperience) we did not appreciate it all from a deeper, outside perspective.
Now one generation later, as my daughter and son-in-law repeat the process, we are able to relive our own transition to parenthood, this time with a deeper appreciation. We know the dynamics, the pitfalls, the learning curve ― and the pure joy. We can step back and watch the thrill of this beautiful new family unfold.
Now here's why this strikes me as the peak lifecycle moment: Even more than the joy of having children is the joy of grandchildren.
Most creatures in the world have parent-child relationships ― whether a mother lion protecting her cubs or a mother bird feeding her young. Only the human being has a concept of grandchildren, of perpetuation beyond a single generation.
Our forefather Jacob, on his deathbed, blessed his grandchildren before blessing his children (Genesis ch. 48). It was a recognition that being a grandparent connects us to our future family line, an expression of our uniqueness as human beings.
And the reverse applies as well ― in my grandson's eyes, I am a key link to his past. That's why I've chosen to be called not Grandpa or Saba (Hebrew), or even Abuelo (Spanish), Dedushka (Russian) or Oupa (Afrikaans). I'm going to be called the Yiddish ― "Zeidy." Judaism is so steeped in tradition and this will be a link to our ancestral roots in eastern Europe.
Indeed, my own father would have wanted to be called Zeidy, had he lived long enough. This is my small way of honoring his memory. I only hope that I can be as good a Zeidy as he surely would have been.
My prayer is that our new (as yet unnamed) grandson will bring much nachas to his family and community, fulfilling the will of God with sincerity and joy, and always blessed with health and peace.