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‘I am a tightrope walker’

Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs - 8 May 2020

I am sure you know the images of a tightrope walker who had strung a rope between two incredibly tall buildings in Manhattan, and walked on the tightrope balancing one of those sticks in his hands. One little misstep and the show is over! It is of vital importance that the tightrope walker is constantly focused, doesn’t get distracted, keeps his goal in mind and is not afraid of heights.

Both in this week’s Sidra and in the Pirkei Avot-Ethics of the Fathers that we are studying on this Shabbat I encounter myself, the tightrope walker. And on the eighth day his foreskin must be circumcised (Leviticus 12:3). The Halacha, the Jewish law, says that even though the Brit Mila, the circumcision, can be performed any time during the course of the eighth day, it is better to fulfil this mitzvah right away early in the morning. Observing a commandment or whatever good deed should never be deferred! We have learnt this lesson from our patriarch Abraham. When G’d commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac, he did not defer that command, but rose early to do what was desired of him.

“Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind.”

Knowing this, the following question arises: Why did Abraham not circumcise himself in the morning, but deferred his Brit Mila until later that day? One of the answers I found was that Abraham was not thinking just about himself. He also wanted others to hear what he was doing. He wanted the entire society to quit worshipping idols. He hoped everyone would realise that there is only one G’d and that He desires men to be circumcised. He understood that if he would fulfil this mitzvah early in the morning, almost no one would notice it. So he decided, because of publicity, to do it later on the day. So others would be inspired.

In the Ethics of the Fathers (chapter 2:1) we read: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind. From this we see that Abraham’s attitude is a general rule. With everything we do, we have to look at the context. What is the influence of my behaviour on my environment? Judaism is not black-and-white. On the one hand, you always have to follow the right path, but on the other hand, depending on the situation, we sometimes have to choose an alternative route to reach the same goal.

So, life is constantly walking a tightrope. If you only look up, you will lose sight of the path you should follow. If you only look down, you will be overpowered by the fear that the abyss instils in you. It is of vital importance, especially in the difficult time we all find ourselves in, to not think in black-and-white. ‘I’m sure it will turn out all right and I’ll ignore all the measures which the government and the medics desire of us’, is a one-sided and thus a completely wrong attitude. It is like a tightrope walker who ignores reality and tries to reach the other side by solely looking up. But also only looking into the abyss, seeing everything in a negative light, solely letting your thoughts be determined by loud, frightening reports in the media, is a wrong attitude.

I feel like a tightrope walker. I constantly have to be careful that alarming headers on Facebook, newspapers, radio and television won’t make me go crazy. But at the same time, I need to consciously observe new rules and good advice. I also need to realise that there are always onlookers and that my unstable behaviour can instil fear or indifference in others too.

Dear people. Please don’t take this column personally. I just wanted to show you how I am constantly balancing myself. I am a tightrope walker that refuses to look down because of a fear of heights. But I also know that solely looking Upwards is not the Jewish and the right way. I’m trying to keep my balance. Will you please do the same.

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