“Purity that Defies Gravity”
By Rabbi Mindie Jo Snyder, ’15
And the LORD thy God will circumcise thy heart,
and the heart of your seed,
to love the LORD thy God with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
that you may live.
(Deuteronomy/ D’varim 30:6)
Birth and the female body, death and any body, status of the male foreskin: circumcision accompanying the Covenant, conditions specific to the largest organ in the body: the skin, all are explored according to the purity laws in Parsha Tazria (“she conceives”), Leviticus/ Yayikra 12:1-13:59.
But it is the nexus between birth and death that I will explore here, and the notion that a circumcised heart, rather than a gendered body part, generates the purity that brings holiness into this world.
Izzy was born in Belgium as the fourth of five sons. The year was 1922 and emergent European powers heralded a world at war. One afternoon, a sixteen-year old Izzy raised his eyes to the heavens, but did not find God. Instead, he observed a large assembly of airplanes. His first thought was the Belgian Air Force had grown in size and power. But then bombs began to fall. He knew that the Belgium military would not be bombing his own country. Those were Nazi planes destroying the world he knew.
Izzy’s father was a very smart man and a brilliant strategist. Years before, he determined that Jews were not safe in Europe, even though they had been law abiding citizens… even though the family established a successful diamond and jewelry business, even though they were good people, living good lives, even though… You see, Izzy’s family had escaped the pogroms and the Cossacks. A multi-generational fear of being othered, to the point of persecution, came from real circumstances. So, with knowledge of these historical patterns, he devised a plan for his tight-knit family to become untied, one from the other. They would escape to different parts of the world, sanctifying life through survival.
Overnight, they fled to France, Spain, Israel, South America, Canada, The United States. In stories that are as riveting as any action adventure film, Izzy and his immediate family cheated death countless times, while his extended family perished.
As Izzy lived, so did the purity of his Judaism. He embraced the stranger and made that stranger a friend. He bore witness to the challenges of being a Jew, yet he was determined to live each day as a Jew. For 93 years, Izzy was determined to live, and live ethically, compassionately, generously.
Izzy died a few weeks ago. Our Flagstaff community mourns his passing, because he was much loved here. His circumcised heart, opened the hearts of countless others. The Hopi and Navajo peoples joined the Jews, Christians, Buddhists, humanists, secularists in commemorating a life well-lived. Izzy escaped the Nazi’s, but never left his Judaism. He brought it with him into the high mountains of Arizona. Here, he established a new life, where diamond cutting became saddle making, where French became English and Spanish.
It was just before Purim, our festival that celebrates the miraculous survival of the Jews in the Diaspora, when Izzy died. Taking his best survival stories with him, he returned to the womb of the Holy One.
Not long afterward, Izzy was surrounded by his Jewish brothers in the purification ritual of Taharah.
Rabbi Avi Weiss (2011) noted how
Phinehas ben Jair, in a famous comment which was to contribute the outline of Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s “The Path of the Just” (Mesillat Yesharim), said that Torah, precision, zeal, cleanliness, restraint, taharah, saintliness, meekness, and fear of sin, in that order, lead to holiness.
He added that
Rav Ahron Soloveichik suggested the real meaning of tumah might be derived from the verse in Psalms, which says: “The fear of the Lord is tehorah, enduring forever.” (Psalms 19:10) Taharah therefore means that which is everlasting and never deteriorates. Tumah, the antithesis of taharah, stands for mortality and finitude, that which withers away.
Izzy’s body and soul were pure for God.
A circumcised heart, that never ceased to love God, remained pure. In a state of purity, he was returned to the earth and the heavens, where the enduring seed of his soul was free to begin, again.