We Know More than We Realize

Rabbi Bernie Fox

“And the Lord said to Avraham: ‘And as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you, and your descendants after you throughout their generations.  This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you.  Every male among you shall be circumcised’ (Sefer Beresheit 17:9-10).”

• Circumcision and Jewish continuity

In Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem presents Avraham with the commandment of brit milah.  Hashem commands Avraham in his own circumcision and to circumcise the male members of his household. He also tells Avraham that his descendants are required to observe this practice.  

Brit milah – observance of the covenant of circumcision – is our central and most significant element surrounding the birth of a son.  One of the aspects of brit milah is that it communicates a message of the continuity of our people.  We are celebrating the addition of this infant to our people and to our religious community.  Because of this perspective, the birth of any Jewish child and the accompanying brit milah of a male child are more than a cause for the celebration of parents and grandparents.  It is occasion for more than a family celebration. It is an occasion for a celebration by the entire community.  

• The child’s education begins before birth

However, our Sages regard brit milah as the culmination of an initiation process that begins before the infant is even born.  The talmudic scholar Ribbi Smalai discusses this en utero process.  His comments are astounding and enigmatic.  He explains that while the unborn child is in his mother's womb Hashem teaches him the entire Torah. However, the child does not take this knowledge with him into the world outside the womb. As soon as he emerges, an angel strikes him in the mouth and he loses all knowledge of the Torah that he learned from Hashem. What is the meaning of Ribbi Smalai’s teaching?  Let us consider two interpretations. 

The first interpretation is provided by the Rav – Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l.  One of the interesting aspects of the Rav's interpretation is his method. He begins by taking the teaching at face value and asks a simple question.  What point is there in Hashem teaching the entire Torah to the unborn infant if this child will be deprived of the knowledge the moment he takes his first breath?

The Rav responds that we should imagine this unborn infant as akin to a sheet of clean parchment. While in the womb the entire Torah is inscribed upon this parchment. When the child emerges into the external world, imagine that the text is erased from the parchment. If we now inspect the parchment, we will discover that the text is no longer present.  But its impression remains upon the parchment. This impression is more permanent than the text itself. It cannot be removed.  It is integrated into the parchment.

The Rav explains that the angel's slap deprives the newborn of his memory of the Torah that he learned. But it does not remove the permanent impression made upon the infant's soul by the Torah he learned from Hashem.

• The roots of the individual’s Jewish identity

This leads the Rav to his interpretation of Ribbi Smalai's teaching. He suggests that we each carry in our souls the remnant of the Torah we learned from Hashem.  The letters were not preserved but the impression made is permanent. As a result of this impression, we are existentially connected and drawn to the Torah. A Jew may abandon observance and chose to turn his back to Hashem. But he cannot erase the vestige of Torah that remains stamped upon his innermost being. He can choose to ignore his inner nature. He cannot change this nature. 

The Rav observes that this understanding of our spiritual identity is reflected in a comment of Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance.  He comments that we will only be redeemed from our exile and enter into the messianic age through repentance. Furthermore, the Torah assures us that we will eventually repent and be redeemed.  How can the Torah make this assurance?  How can the Torah confidently assert that we will ultimately return to Hashem?

The Rav explains that this assertion is based upon the teaching of Ribbi Smalai. The individual Jew can turn his back on Hashem and His Torah.  He can deny his own spiritual identity. But as a people, we are drawn by forces we neither control nor fully understand to return to Hashem and embrace His Torah. 

• The first principles of human reasoning

Another beautiful interpretation of Ribbi Smalai's teaching is provided by Rav Yisrael Chait.  

The development of a child is amazing. If one takes ten very different toy cars and places them in front of a young child, he or she will easily recognize that all of these objects share a single definition – they are all cars.  The child will recognize that different colors, sizes, and even shapes do not detract from their shared aspect, and that shared aspect suffices for them all to be declared members of the genus: toy car.

Where did the child learn to abstract? Who taught the child that specific objects – disparate in many ways – can be viewed as expressions of a single class?  In fact, is it even possible to teach such a basic idea?  Imagine an infant born without the first principles that we use in reasoning. How would we impart these?  What tools could be used to impart the most basic tools?

The answer is that our children are born with these most fundamental elements of reasoning. These building blocks are imprinted in the mind of the infant by Hashem. Only He can transmit knowledge that by its very nature is not teachable.  But even more amazing than the young child's innate knowledge of these first principles of reasoning is that he is completely ignorant of his possession of them.  The angel has slapped him and he does not know he possesses this wondrous gift.  Yet, the tools of reasoning are demonstrated even in the young child.  In his entire life he will never acquire another gift as invaluable as these tools. They will be the foundation of everything he will learn and of every achievement. Yet, he does not know he possesses them. Ask the child how he knows that there is a genus: toy car and he will look at you completely dumbfounded.  He cannot explain how he knows that objects can be grouped into classes.  He cannot defend his view on this issue. But he knows with absolute certainty that this is the case.  

The lessons that Hashem taught him are imbedded in his soul. They are the basis of all reasoning.  But he does not know them in the conventional sense.  He cannot identify them, explain them, or teach them.

• The wonders that surround us

Both of these explanations of Ribbi Smalai share a common understanding of his basic objective.  Ribbi Smalai observed a phenomenon that seems to be without explanation. According to the Rav, this is the existential spiritual identity of the Jew.  How does a Jew who has been alienated from his people and their religion return to his roots?  How did the Jews of the FSU (Former Soviet Union) retain their desire to live in the Land of Israel?  How was it possible that after decades of Marxist atheist indoctrination there remained among these oppressed Jews a desire to be part of our people and religion? According to the Rav, Rav Smalai responds that this is the expression of the permanent impression that remains from the Torah taught to the infant before birth. 

Rav Chait suggests that Rav Smalai sought to explain a different wonder that we observe time and again.  The capacity of even a child to employ the principles of reasoning that cannot be taught, but yet, are understood so well by the child.  The child uses these principles over and over, but is mute when asked to account for his wondrous knowledge.  The child does not know.  He cannot recall the experience.  He was taught by Hashem.  He learned his lessons and uses them constantly.  

We are surrounded with wonders.  Some are spiritual – like the survival of our nation and religion.  Some are natural wonders – like the innate knowledge of the child. These wonders provide us with constant reminders of Hashem’s presence and influence in all aspects of our world.