When a new mother gives birth, her life will never be the same again. After months of aches, pains, nausea, and emotions, the new mother can finally clutch her little piece of heaven to her chest, and a new chapter in her life begins.

Yet the Torah requires waiting periods before a new mother attains purity, who must then offer a sacrifice. What is the purpose of this?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches that the different kinds of impurities are about the death of moral freedom amidst life, to varying degrees.

Pregnancy and having a child is chaotic and wreaks havoc on the mother’s life, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It would be a surprise if, under the circumstances, she didn’t lose the ability to choose clearly!

The words the Torah uses – אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ – describes the physiological process of seed forming. The most vital matters on which the future depends, marriage, the home, and family, can be reduced to a simple physiological process of biological happening, which can attest to the lack of moral freedom; this is the impurity that needs dispelling. The Torah calls on us to live consciously.

Moral freedom and the ability to choose are the gifts that distinguish humanity. The periods of waiting correspond to the child and to the parent, and how both must consciously and continuously strive towards greater moral consciousness, and this might help explain why the waiting period for a boy and girls are different, as the covenant of circumcision teaches this same lesson.

The process the Torah prescribes a new mother serves to rededicate her to her calling as a wife, mother, and Jew, despite the painful experience she has undergone. Submission to the forces of nature is antithetical to what it means to be a Jew. While the biological aspect is undeniable, the Torah calls the mother to the Mishkan, to exercise her moral freedom and dedicate physical life to a higher ultimate purpose.

To be a mother is not merely to give birth. To be a mother is to create human beings.

After living his life based on his intuition about the right way to live, Avraham was ultimately vindicated when God reached out to him in his old age. In this dialogue, God formed a covenant with Avraham, a contract for eternity, the sign of which was circumcision, an excruciatingly painful procedure.

The first thing we learn of the freshly circumcised Avraham, the very first act by the very first Jew, is that as he recuperated in the blazing heat, he was standing at the door looking for guests he could host and look after:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם. וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם – God appeared to him in Mamre, while he was sitting at the door in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men approaching, and he ran towards them. (18:1-2)

The three men were no ordinary guests; it turns out that they were angels on a mission! Part of the mission was predicting Yitzchak’s birth, after which Avraham has another encounter with God, in which God tells Avraham the divine plan, that Sodom is doomed and will be destroyed by morning:

וַהֹ אָמָר הַמֲכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. אַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא ה עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו – God said, “Shall I hide what I am doing from Avraham? Avraham will be great, and through him, the world will be blessed. I know he instructs his children, and their children after them, to preserve the way of God; to do what is right and practice justice…” (18:17-19)

It is important to notice how irregular and unusual this is. The Torah characterizes God’s internal thought process, narrating God’s discomfort with hiding something from a human! This should rightly strike us as absolutely bizarre – God is God and can do as God pleases, without human approval or intervention. That’s why God is God!

If we closely read God’s discomfort, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. God warns Avraham about how wicked Sodom is as the reason for its demise. Yet Avraham is the last person who needs to be instructed to avoid the ways of Sodom!

We already know that Avraham already is someone who will always do the right thing- the very setting of the conversation is that in his weakest moment, in agonizing pain, he is out there looking for weary travelers to bathe, feed, and take care of! Avraham is already the anathema of Sodom. Is this a man who needs to be warned to avoid the ways of Sodom?!

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that Hashem wasn’t concerned for Avraham in this conversation. Hashem shared His plan with Avraham not so that he would do the right thing, but because he was someone who would teach his family to do the right thing – אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו. And Avraham argues with God to save Sodom!

This story presents a haggard, old, sick, and weary Avraham as the pinnacle of humanity – ethical and humane at his lowest and worst; in stark contrast to Sodom, a vibrant, wealthy, and successful commercial hub, yet so cruel to outsiders.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this contrast as the very first lesson we learn after Avraham circumcises himself. Entering into the covenant could set him apart, but it did not. He was still himself, living in Mamre, the land of his old friends and allies. He did not cloister himself away from the world or think he was above it all. He could abandon Sodom to their fate without a fight – a fight with God! This, even despite knowing of their cruel and wicked ways.

And even then, he was looking to the streets to bring in some pagan idolators to entertain; who else he could expect?! And he personally ran to give the mysterious guests luxurious and freshly prepared cuisine.

This is the first encounter the world has with the people of the covenant.

Avraham himself was only overjoyed that people would not think he was strange or different. His distinction only enhanced his relationship with humanity, and it must be the model for us – the בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו – God’s very purpose in engaging in the conversation.

Avraham is our hero and role model, the perfect man – the original “human.” He was not someone who hid away from the world to focus on his own holiness or mystical spirituality. He went out into the world, engaged with it, and made it better through his interactions.

As descendants of Avraham, we are charged with being the most humane of men – to show the world a better way, Avraham’s way. The way of open hearts and open hands.

Avraham spoke to God many times without incident. But just one time, in the conversation where God instruction Avraham to leave his birthplace, something unusual happens:

וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו; וַיְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר – Avraham fell on his face, and God spoke to him. (17:3)

Avraham recoils as though he were burned. This sort of reaction to God’s presence is unique – nothing like this happens any other time.

What made Avraham fall?

In this conversation, Avraham got a glimpse of the future in store for his descendants, a covenant marked by the sign of circumcision.

R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that before something is required, there is no deficiency for not complying. But once the obligation exists, we are liable. Avraham didn’t have to circumcise himself before God told him – how could he know? But the very moment God gave the instruction, Avraham was physically defective and literally could not stand in God’s presence in such a state.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of.

But improvement is gradual and incremental. So long as you are not ready for more, it’s not your fault you’re not there yet.

But when the moment arrives that you can do more, and remain content to stay put, the burden counts against you – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.

Yes, chase more responsibility, learn more, and demand a higher standard of yourself. But the moral life is a marathon, not a sprint. One step at a time is an effective strategy too.

Don’t run before you can walk.

Humility is one of the defining features of what it means to be a good person, and it was a characteristic closely associated with Yakov. When Yakov took stock of the blessing he had received, he recognised that he did not deserve the extent of what he had:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am diminished from all the kindness You have done Your servant. (32:11)

Humility means having the measure of what you are and where you stand. Humility does not mean downplaying yourself or your achievements. There is a required dose of arrogance is absolutely necessary to have confidence and pride in yourself.

The tension between humility, arrogance, and confidence are ever-present. Curiously, the Gemara cryptically sets an oddly specific ratio of an eighth of an eighth. Yakov’s admission

The Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth pasuk in the eighth parsha. Yakov does not believe his merits are worth what he was given, and our perspective should be the same.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the number eight is where natural and supernatural meet. Seven is a cycle, and eight is a restatement of what came before, an octave higher. It is a renewal of the wavelength of relationship. This is what Bris and Yovel signify. Eight makes the seven that come before meaningful.

We must not get carried away with what we have, and what we have achieved. All that we are exists for us to help those around us. But even if you do focus on everyone else, and acknowledge that your talents and achievements are from God, it is still possible to get caught up in why you specifcically have the gifts you do.

This is the second eighth. It is not enough to acknowledge your gifts. True humility is recognition that the fact of the gift is itself a gift, and not because you deserve it.

So pay it forward.

There is a concept called hidur mitzva, which means that we enhance mitzvos we do to make them beautiful. Examples of this principle include using beautiful esrogim on Succos, using larger tefillin and arranging for a megillah to be written by the best scribe.

The basic mitzvah of Chanukah is that the householder will light one candle each night on behalf for all the residents. The next stage is where another candle is progressively lit as the holiday progresses. The ideal method of performance is where each resident lights progressively

The Brisker Rav quotes the Rambam as codifying the act of lighting in the singular, indicating his view that there is no such step as the final one mentioned above, and that therefore the best mitzvah one can do is for the householder (but not each member of the house) to light progressively, which Sefardi Jews do.

This is at odds with the Rema, whom Ashkenazi Jews tend to follow, who maintains that each person lighting is ideal.

What is the disagreement over?

The Gemara in Shabbos discusses a Bris Milah, where the Mohel realises afterwards that he has left a small piece of skin. There are two possibilities with this surgical error; one that leaves the baby considered uncircumcised, and the other does not matter, meaning the mitzvah has been fulfilled. The Gemara concludes that there is no need for the Mohel to repeat the Bris if it is the type which does not matter.

Rashi explains that it is only when the circumcision takes place on Shabbos that the Mohel does not return, but that on weekdays he would. The Rambam disagrees, and says the Mohel would not perform the operation again even on a weekday.

The Brisker Rav sheds light on the issue: after the time of the mitzvah has past, the mitzvah cannot be improved. There is no doubt that this is the case on Shabbos, where there is universal agreement that one does not break it for the hidur of removing the leftover skin, but the Rambam says that once the Mohel has finished the Bris, he cannot make it any more beautiful than it was, as the mitzvah has been completed and therefore gone.

The Rema and Rashi disagree, and say that yes, you can! This is the same difference with regard to lighting menorahs. The Rambam says that once the householder has lit, there is no further possibility for the rest of the household to perform a hidur, as the basic mitzva was already completed when the householder had lit the first light, so the hidur stops once he has lit additional lights. Any further attempts at beautification by doing more, eg everyone else lighting, are after the mitzva has passed, so are redundant.

Ashkenazim follow the opinion the Rema and Rashi, that we can enhance something after the main mitzvah has been completed, which is why each of us lights our own menorah.