Parshat Lech Lecha  תשפ”ב

This week’s portion introduces us to Avraham Avinu, Avraham our forefather, who was so dedicated to Hashem that he made it his life’s mission to teach the world about Him. Hashem, in turn, loved Avraham so much that He found Avraham worthy of a ברית  – brit – a covenant – with Him. Hashem told Avraham (Genesis 17:10) 

(י) זֹאת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּ בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ הִמּוֹל לָכֶם כָּל זָכָר

10) This is my covenant that you shall keep between me and between you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  

Avraham was 99 years old when this commandment came, and he did the brit on himself!

            This covenant is still alive and well today. Generation after generation in an unbroken chain starting with Avraham Avinu 3735 years ago, Jews from all denominations continue to circumcise their baby boys at eight days of life, to uphold their side of the covenant. The Talmud says (Shabbat 130a). 

תניא רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר כל מצוה שקיבלו עליהם בשמחה כגון מילה דכתיב שש אנכי על אמרתך כמוצא שלל רב עדיין עושין אותה בשמחה

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says, Any mitzvah that the Jewish people accepted upon themselves happily, like the brit Milah, … thy still do it happily.

            We are witnesses to the truth of this statement. One might think that, considering what happens at a Brit Milah, it would be an occasion to avoid, never mind celebrate! Have you ever attended a tonsillectomy party? How about an appendectomy? Yet friends and family travel from near and far to share in the simcha of the Brit Milah where we are rejoicing over a child having his foreskin excised! What gives? 

            The Sages ask an interesting question. The Torah teaches us that Avraham Avinu kept the Torah before it was given. The Torah says (Genesis 26:5) 

(ה) עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי

5) Because Avraham obeyed My voice; and he observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.

What are all these four categories that Hashem said that Avraham kept? Quoting the Talmud, Rashi explains: 

וישמר משמרתי – גזרות להרחקה על אזהרות שבתורה כגון שניות לעריות ושבות לשבת (יבמות כא)

My Safeguards: Rabbinic laws designed to distance a person from transgressing the original Torah prohibition. 

 מצותי – דברים שאילו לא נכתבו ראויין הם להצטוות כגון גזל ושפיכות דמים

My Commandments: These are laws that even if they weren’t written in the Torah would have been proper to enact, such as not to steal and not to murder.  

 חקותי – דברים שיצר הרע ואומות העולם משיבין עליהם כגון אכילת חזיר ולבישת שעטנז שאין טעם בדבר אלא גזירת המלך וחקותיו על עבדיו

My Decrees: This refers to laws that the evil inclination and the nations of the world claim are nonsense such as eating pork and wearing linen and wool in the same garment; laws that have no easy explanation and are an edict from the King to his subjects. 

 ותורתי – להביא תורה שבעל פה הלכה למשה מסיני

My Torahs: This includes the Oral Torah and the Laws passed down orally from Moses on Sinai.

This being the case, since Brit Milah is one of the Torah’s 613 commandments, why didn’t Avraham perform it beforeHashem commanded him to do it? Why did he ignore such an important mitzvah? 

They answer that a brit is a covenant, a contract, and a covenant is an agreement between two parties. Each party pledges to keep certain obligations towards the other. It was therefore impossible for Avraham to perform the britbefore Hashem asked him to join with Him in a covenant, since there cannot be a one-sided contract. 

This is also the reason for the great celebration. A Brit Milah is not a surgical procedure; it is a holy act bringing the child into the covenant of Avraham with Hashem. Having another Jewish child enter into a covenant with Hashem is the greatest possible reason to celebrate. Another link in the unbroken chain leading back to Avraham Avinu has been forged. The Jewish identity of another generation has been secured.

The Ramban writes that the word ברית (brit) stems from the word בריאה , which means a creation, and explains that a covenant creates a real bond between the two parties. How is that? 

We can answer this question with an insight from the Vilna Gaon about the concept of a brit – covenant. The Vilna Gaon seems to be addressing an apparent contradiction in terms relevant to a covenant. 

On the one hand, a covenant creates a strong bond between the parties. Yet the Hebrew word used to craft or create that covenant is the same word that means to cut off, כרת, such as in the conclusion of the blessing that we say at a Brit Milahכורת הברית – the one who “cuts the covenant” referring to Hashem, who made the brit with Avraham. But why use a word that means “to sever” to indicate the exact opposite concept- to establish – when creating a covenant?  

פרוש הגר”א ז”ל על ספר יצירה – פרק א משנה ח

 אומר לך מהו ענין ברית והוא אדם שיש לו אוהב כנפשו ורוצה שלא יפרוש ממנו אבל א”א להיות אצלו נותן לו דבר שכל מגמתו ותשוקתו אליו והן נקשרים ע”י הדבר ההוא אע”פ שנוטל ממנו את הדבר מ”מ כל מחשבתו שם הוא, ולשון ברית הוא הבטחה שע”י הדבר ההוא ודאי לא יתפרד ממנו, וזהו ענין לשון כריתה שכורת ממנו דבר הדבוק לו ונותן לו

I will explain the concept of a brit. When a person has a friend whom he loves very much, and who he would never want to be separated from, but, alas, it is impossible for them to remain together, what can he do to keep their connection strong and vibrant? Each gives to his beloved something that he very much cherishes and treasures; the very last thing in the world that he would ever give away. He will miss it terribly, and he will always be thinking about it, but, because of his tremendous love for the other, he is willing to part with it. As each receives the treasured gift from the other, and appreciates the tremendous sacrifice involved in it, he promises that because of and through this gift he will never forget his beloved friend who has sacrificed so much for him. Even though they are now very far away from each other, when they look at the gift they received from their friend, they are filled with warm feelings of love for their friend as they feel the warm feelings of love coming through to them, through the item that they have from him. Hence, the brit creates a tangible, intense bond between them, and they become joined into one through that item. The word “Karet” to sever- is used because creating the covenant required each of the parties to “cut off” something very precious and connected to himself to give to his beloved. 

This is exactly what happens in a Brit Milah. The child gives of his own flesh and blood to join with Hashem in a covenant. He even undergoes a certain amount of pain to accomplish that. Hashem cherishes that sacrifice and, through it, creates a profound bond with the child. This bond with Hashem serves as the foundation upon which the child’s entire spiritual future will be built. 

You may be thinking, “But the child has no choice! He is just eight days old – without a choice – so what kind of statement can he be making?”

There are two answers to this question. (1) In his essence, every Jew wants to do Hashem’s will, and evermore so, the pure soul of the child wants to enter into a covenant with Hashem. (2) When a father arranges for a brit to be done on his tender little son, in essence he declares, “I am happy with what was done to me.” Otherwise, why would he do to his child something that he wouldn’t want done to himself? 

We understand very clearly what the child is giving up for Hashem, but what is Hashem “giving up” so to speak for us? What is Hashem’s part of the covenant? 

Hashem imparts a part of Himself into the child that no matter what happens to the child, and no matter what sins he does, that spark of Hashem will always remain within him never to be extinguished. That child will have the spark of Judaism within him until the day he dies. What’s the big deal for Hashem you say? Unfortunately, there are circumstances under which it is inappropriate for Hashem’s spark to be present. By right, Hashem could say, “The heck with you, I’m out of here!” But, Hashem never will. This is a covenant, and when the boy was eight days old, he created a covenant with Hashem, and a covenant cannot be broken by one party. 

It would seem that this is why when one does not perform the Brit he loses his connection to the Jewish nation. As long as a Jew has a Brit Milah, no matter how far from Jewish practice he is, he will remain connected to Hashem and the Jewish people. 

Performing the brit is such an important commandment that the punishment for not doing it is כרת (Karet) – the soul is cut off from Hashem, the most severe punishment in the Torah. The reason for this may be that one who has abrogated his covenant with Hashem has ipso facto “cut” himself off from Hashem. 

The Midrash (Tanchuma Noach 5) tells us that seven people were born without a foreskin – נולדו מהולים.

 תמים זה אחד משבעה מהולים שנולדו בעולם אדה”ר נברא מהול ושת בנו נולד מהול דכתיב (שם ה) ויולד בדמותו כצלמו נח נולד מהול דכתיב תמים היה בדורותיו יעקב נולד מהול דכתיב (שם כה) ויעקב איש תם ויוסף נולד מהול דכתיב (שם לז) אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף שהיה דומה לאביו משה נולד מהול שנאמר (שמות ב) ותרא אותו כי טוב הוא ואיוב נולד מהול דכתיב (איוב א) איש תם וישר

The verse says that Noach was תמים – perfect. He was one of the seven people born into the world perfect (without the need to perfect his body through removal of the foreskin). Adam was born מהול – without a foreskin, and his son Seth … Noach, … Yaakov, … Yosef, … Moshe… and Job.

The members of this list were all holy and special people, destined for holy life of service to Hashem. That they didn’t require a brit, indicates that they innately had the special spark of Hashem in them from their very inception. 

Interestingly, a woman is considered someone who has undergone a brit.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף כז/א

דאשה כמאן דמהילא דמיא

This means that all Jewish women are born as holy as Adam, Noach, Yaakov, Yosef, and Moshe who were also born without the need for a brit. Women are given souls that have a natural covenant with Hashem and don’t require the act of a brit to create it. Perhaps this special soul that a woman is born with qualifies her to be the sole factor in determining the Jewish identity of the child she carries. As the child develops within her, it absorbs the natural holiness of a Jew from his holy mother.  

The Midrash (Tanchuma Tazriah 5) records the following conversation between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman general Turnusrufus. 

מעשה ששאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר’ עקיבא איזו מעשים נאים של הקב”ה או של בשר ודם? א”ל של בשר ודם נאים! א”ל טורנוסרופוס הרי השמים והארץ יכול אדם לעשות כיוצא בהם א”ל ר”ע לא תאמר לי בדבר שהוא למעלה מן הבריות שאין שולטין עליו אלא אמור דברים שהם מצויין בבני אדם. א”ל למה אתם מולין א”ל אני הייתי יודע שעל דבר זה אתה שואלני ולכך הקדמתי ואמרתי לך שמעשה בני אדם נאים משל הקב”ה הביא לו ר”ע שבלים וגלוסקאות א”ל אלו מעשה הקב”ה ואלו מעשה ידי אדם א”ל אין אלו נאים יותר מן השבלים א”ל טורנוסרופוס אם הוא חפץ במילה למה אינו יוצא הולד מהול ממעי אמו א”ל ר”ע ולמה שוררו יוצא עמו והוא תלוי בבטנו ואמו חותכו ומה שאתה אומר למה אינו יוצא מהול לפי שלא נתן הקב”ה את המצות לישראל אלא לצרף אותם בהם ולכך אמר דוד (תהלים יח) כל אמרת ה’ צרופה:

Turnusrufus the evil once asked Rabbi Akiva, “Whose deeds are greater? Those of Hashem or those of man?” “Why, those of man!” answered Rabbi Akiva. Turnusrufus said to him, “What about the heavens and the earth? Can man make the likes of them?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “Don’t talk to me about the things that are above our world where man has no control. Talk to me about things that are accessible to man.” Turnusrufus asked, “Why do you perform Brit Milah?” (How do you think you can improve on Hashem’s perfect creation?) “I knew that’s where you were headed with your original question! That’s why I answered that the deeds of man are greater!” said Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva then brought out a few stalks of wheat in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other and said to Turnusrufus, “In this hand I hold Hashem’s handiwork (the stalks of wheat straight from the field), and in this hand I hold the works of man (the bread made from the wheat). Which is better? Of course, the bread!” said Rabbi Akiva. “But, if Hashem wanted the human body to be without the foreskin, why didn’t He make it that way? (You are messing up Hashem’s perfect creation!)” countered Turnusrufus. “The answer is that Hashem gave us the mitzvot so that we should perfect ourselves through performing them,” said Rabbi Akiva. 

Brit Milah teaches us one of the most profound insights into what life is all about, as revealed to us by Rabbi Akiva. Hashem gave us the mitzvot so that we should perfect ourselves through performing them.

Man’s body was made deliberately imperfect, requiring an act to perfect it. This is symbolic of man’s entire creation. He is like the raw stalks of wheat that require many steps of refinement until they become a delicious loaf of bread. Man is a piece of raw material that takes a lifetime to perfect. This is man’s mission in life. 

What tools does he use, and what is the picture of the perfection that he is trying to achieve? 

Enter the mitzvot. Just as the goldsmith who melts his gold to remove its impurities and has an exact plan and system that he employs to do so, so, too, Hashem has given us the mitzvot so that through their performance we remove the impurities from ourselves. Each mitzvah exerts its unique influence on a person, perfecting a different part of him. The goal and purpose of every mitzvah is to purify us and make us into a more refined and holy people. The mitzvot must also be done repeatedly, to slowly but surely, remove all of the impurities; and as we do them more and more consistently, we refine ourselves more and more. 

The picture of the perfect man is molded in the image of Hashem. We are instructed to model ourselves after Hashem. Just as He is merciful, so are we supposed to be merciful. Just as Hashem visits the sick, so should we, etc. A lifetime of performing the mitzvot properly yields a refined person who models all the proper traits of Hashem. 

Rabbi Akiva’s final reply to Turnusrufus applies to each of us as we attempt to better ourselves each day. Wishing everyone much success in their holy work!

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