The idea of perfecting and partnering with God in creation is a recurring theme. God didn’t give us a perfect world, but rather, He gave us a perfectible one.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Tazria-Metzora” (Leviticus 12:1-15:33), and in it we read about the sin of gossip, slander, and other forms of evil speech which was once punished by a spiritual form of leprosy. But before getting into all of that, the Torah reminds us about the mitzvah (commandment) of Brit Mila: Jewish circumcision. As such, it is a perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about the ancient sacred ritual.
We first meet the mitzvah of brit mila in the book of Genesis, where it says “…every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be sign of the covenant between Me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised.”
It is actually the second mitzva given in the Torah, the first being the mitzvah to have children. The performance of Brit Milah is one of the most sacred rituals in Jewish life. Abraham was the first to circumcise himself when he was given the commandment at 99 years old.
The mitzvah of brit mila is said to be tied for first place as one of the greatest “positive” (“you shall do…”) mitzvot of the Torah. The other? The mitzvah to offer “Korban Pesach” – the Passover sacrifice. Why are these two mitzvot tied for first place in the entire Torah? What do they have in common?
It is explained that these are the only two positive commandments that are subject to the punishment of “Karet” for non-fulfillment. Karet is the severe spiritual punishment of being “cut off” from the Jewish People. This is because both commandments deeply symbolize and represent being a part of the Jewish People. One who is negligent in these commandments essentially dismisses the importance of being a part of our great nation, making the punishment of Karet especially reasonable and relevant.
The Jewish circumcision ceremony is often referred to as a “repair” or “completion” in Jewish literature. When the Roman ruler asked Rabbi Akiva why Jews circumcise their sons, which he considered to be mutilating the body, Rabbi Akiva responded by pointing out that it is not mutilation, but perfection. He showed how everything we enjoy in the world is improved by human intervention. From simple grains and flour, we make bread, cake, and other pastries; from stalks of flax (linen) we make clothing. God gives us the raw ingredients, but we bring things to the next level.
And so it is with circumcision. By circumcising our sons,we are perfecting the body that God gave us and actually becoming a partner with Him in the creation of man.
Indeed, this idea of perfecting and partnering with God in creation is a recurring theme. God didn’t give us a perfect world, but rather, He gave us a perfectible one. Human input and effort is essential and expected for improving and repairing the world. The message of circumcision, removing the needless foreskin, reminds us that if we want to repair the world, we must start by repairing ourselves.
The brit ceremony also teaches us that a Jew is bound and committed to God at the earliest opportunity, even before one’s faculties are developed. This is from a spiritual perspective, in terms of being obligated to observe the mitzvot of the Torah, but also from a physical and national perspective.
It wasn’t until recent times that non-Jews also began circumcising their children. For most of history, it has been something exclusively Jewish. Even the Nazis often decided if a man was Jewish by checking to see if he was circumcised. At only eight days old a Jewish boy is given a permanent mark on his body to remind him 24/7 that he is a part of the Jewish People.
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