Summer Series: Cycles of Life, Part 4: Welcoming a Baby

So much of our Jewish liturgy looks forward, toward the next generation. There are countless examples of prayers that mention our children: In the V’ahavta paragraph of the Shema, our central prayer of listening, learning, and loving, which is traditionally recited twice a day, we say: “You shall teach [these words of Torah] to your children.” In the Amidah, another core prayer, we say: L’dor va’dor nagid Godlecha — From generation to generation we sing Your praise.” And during our Passover Seders, we learn about four archetypal children, and how we can best teach our sacred stories to all kids while honoring their different perspectives and personalities. 

Unlike some other religious traditions, Judaism does not cultivate new followers by actively seeking converts in the public square through proselytization or missionary work. Instead, Judaism’s new followers are gained more privately, often in homes, Jewish schools, and synagogues—JCP included!—where we recognize that the next generation of children, along with those committed adults who actively seek conversion (we’ll learn about conversion rituals next week!), are the ones who will inherit our sacred teachings and traditions. 

Jewish learning and the shaping of Jewish identity happen immediately when a child is welcomed into a Jewish home. The Torah teaches us about two primary rituals: receiving a Hebrew name and circumcision. Interestingly, we first learn about these rituals not upon the arrival of a new baby, but upon Abraham’s entry into a relationship with God when he is 99 years old:

The Eternal appeared to Abram and said…“this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations…As for you…such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days….And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife, Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah (Genesis 17:1-15)

When Abraham and Sarah (and their offspring) enter into this new relationship with God, the experience is so powerful that their names change. They are so deeply transformed by this covenant with God that they can no longer be known by their previous names. For Abraham, he also experiences a change in his body in addition to a change in his name. Few Jewish rituals involve the human body to the same degree as circumcision, which is why all families need to make the choice that they feel is right for themselves and for their children. 

These traditions of naming and circumcision (called brit milah or a “bris” in the Ashkenazi pronunciation), which are used to welcome new babies into the covenant of the Jewish people, come directly from the Torah, and are probably among the most ancient rituals that we have. 

As we mark this very first milestone moment in someone’s life, their birth, we welcome them into our families, our communities, and our world. But these rituals also welcome the baby into this ancient yet everlasting covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah all those millenia ago. We anchor ourselves in these stories and customs of the past as we anticipate how this new child will be the next link in our chain of sacred tradition, carrying Judaism forward into the future, and ensuring that this covenant will last for generations to come.