THE BLOG
08/12/2013 02:01 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2013

Wholeness and Sacrifice: Circumcision, Mutuality, Trees and Quilts

Shel Silverstein's classic The Giving Tree has, for generations, engaged children and adults while promoting a questionable message of sacrifice. A boy and a personified tree develop a relationship in which, as the boy grows, the tree provides for the boy's needs. Apples, leaves, branches -- even tree-trunk -- are given up by the tree to fill the boy's needs, until, when the boy is quite old, the Tree (who is really only a stump at this point) is only able to provide a seat for the boy, who accepts this final gift.

A more recent addition to the world of children's literature, The Quiltmaker's Gift by Jeff Brumbeau, tells a different story of sacrifice. A king, who loves presents so much that he decrees himself two birthdays a year, desires a quilt made by a magical quiltmaker who only gives her stunning quilts to the poor. She informs him that with every gift he makes to someone else, she will sew one more patch of his quilt together. His initial reluctance to part with any of his possessions gives way to increasing joy with every new opportunity to give, until the quiltmaker finds the king shoeless and happy, laughing on the forest floor with a poor child who is now wearing the king's former crown. When the quiltmaker presents him with his completed quilt, the king gives her his one last possession -- his former throne -- for her to sit on as she sews her quilts.

The striking similarity between the endings of the two books -- the final gift of a seat -- might help us reflect upon the stark contrast between the different journeys of sacrifice depicted in each book.

The Giving Tree contains a story of one-sided sacrifice to the point of injurious self-denial, perhaps not the message we would choose for our children -- or for ourselves.

The Quiltmaker's Gift tells of a different way of giving, one which leads to wholeness through potentially healing acts of mutual self-sacrifice.

A third story might also beautify the tapestry.

In the Torah, we encounter the birth of God's relationship with Abram. God's first words to Abram are a command to "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1)."

We know nothing of Abram's life previous to this command from God to go to an unspecified place. Abram's willingness to set off on a journey with an unknown endpoint is perhaps testimony to the faith necessary for creating healthy relationship. This commitment is repeatedly tested through such moments as the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 21:9-13), the binding and sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19), and the command of circumcision (Gen. 17:1-14).

And it is this covenant (in Hebrew, 'brit'; in Yiddish, 'bris') of circumcision that might most embody the Jewish journey toward healthy relationship of mutual sacrifice.

The biblical pre-amble is crucial:

"When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be 'blameless.' I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous... As for Me, 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. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God. (Gen. 17:1-8)"

A number of observations:

1) The word 'blameless' in English is an attempted translation of the Hebrew 'Tamim,' a biblical word with many possible readings. One of the most commonly suggested meanings is its root, 'Tam,' sometimes translated as 'simple,' as can be found in the four children section of the Passover Seder. Another connotation is found in the Hebrew phrase 'Tam VeNishlam,' or 'whole and complete.' The command to be 'Tamim' might be most deeply understood as a command to become 'whole.' How strange that the command to be whole is actualized through removing a part of Abram's body!

2) It is certainly possible to read the above text quickly, knowing what follows. But when God says 'As for Me,' precious pathways to the sacred open. Jews are obligated to act in certain ways in order to fulfill our part in the covenant -- and so is God! God might want to give us children, a land, majesty, and even God's Self ("I will be their God"), but God commits to a mutual relationship in which even God is vulnerable to the consequences of human action before being "allowed" to act in these ways.

In other words, people give up parts of themselves in order to become whole, and God must give up infinite freedom in order to enter into relationship with people. The lesson to be learned from the covenant between God and us is that true partnership requires each partner to sacrifice a part of self in order to make room for another.

The extremes of sacrifice are hazardous to the health of participant and partnership. On the one hand is selfishness (no room-making for another), the other the loss of self (too much room-making for another) -- both destructive to the relationship and to each of the independent selfs involved. As we learn from God's blessing to the very first human partnership, each partner must serve as an "Ezer KeNegdo (Gen. 2:18)," a helper ("ezer") and a challenger ("neged"). Both roles are necessary ingredients for healthy relationship.

Circumcision is not easy. It requires faith that the future holds promise despite pain and belief that God is vulnerable to human action. And whereas we are viscerally aware of that which we give up for our side of the bargain, the Truth of God's sacrifice is not demonstrable. It is a matter of faith.

There are moments, such as circumcision, when it is hard to feel secure about God's commitment to humanity. But such is true about every relationship -- there are moments in which we doubt an equal return on our emotional investment.

There are also moments when we are overwhelmed by the loving response of our partner. How whole we feel in those moments.

The only way to experience love is to make myself vulnerable to my partner. And so the challenge is to find a partner I can trust.

I believe God invites us to be holy partners, to learn to relate, to make space for each other and for the world.

I believe God is waiting for our response, waiting to be invited back into the world.