Throughout history there have been times when the Jewish people, as a whole, have been more observant and other times less so. Yet our Sages in the Talmud predicted that there would be one mitzvah that would be consistently and loyally kept by the Jewish people, and that is the mitzvah of Bris Milah, circumcision.
If you think about it, circumcision doesn’t seem like the obvious choice of a mitzvah for our Sages to predict would always be kept. It requires a lot of commitment and loyalty to Judaism to take an eight-day-old baby and circumcise him. And yet Jews have always kept it because it represents our covenant with Hashem with prophetic vision. Our Sages predicted that it would always be part of the Jewish people and we have seen this till this very day: no matter how far people drift from their Judaism, they keep Bris Milah, which tells us about the importance of what it represents. It’s not just a mitzvah, it’s a foundational mitzvah. And it’s not just about the individual’s mitzvah, but about what it means for the Jewish people as a whole.
Circumcision is such an integral part of being Jewish that it is a necessary component in the conversion process. The conversion process entails going in the mikvah, as well as circumcision if it’s a male convert. That circumcision is not performed simply as one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments which the convert now has to keep, but rather it is part of the actual conversion ceremony; without it there is no conversion. It’s part of the transition to becoming a Jew.
Bris Milah and mikvah – foundational mitzvahs in our covenant with Hashem
This week’s parsha talks about the laws of childbirth and specifically these two mitzvahs, circumcision and mikvah. The parsha deals with the laws of purity and impurity, applicable in Temple times, but also the laws of Niddah between husband and wife, applicable even today. The parsha begins with the laws of circumcision. If a male child is born he must be circumcised on the eighth day. Then the parsha carries on discussing the mother’s purification process culminating in the mikvah. These two mitzvahs – circumcision and mikvah – are foundational mitzvahs, as they represent our covenant with Hashem. Bris Milah, although it is performed on males, is a mitzvah which is connected on the entire Jewish people. In fact, the Gemara says that women are k’mehulim – they are regarded as if they are also circumcised and this binds us all in the covenant with Hashem.
There are three places in the Chumash where circumcision is discussed: firstly, when the mitzvah was given to Abraham, at the time his name was changed from Avram to Avraham and Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah. The second place that is just before the people leave Egypt, when they are commanded to bring the Korban Pesach, the very first Pesach offering. They were told that anyone who is uncircumcised may not partake of the pascal sacrifice. The third place is in our parsha, where it says that when a woman gives birth to a boy, he must be circumcised on the eighth day.
These three places where circumcision is mentioned are all crucial beginnings: the mitzvah of circumcision was given to Avraham, the founding father of the Jewish people; it was given to the Jews in Egypt, when we became a nation; and at the birth of a child, mentioned in our parsha, Bris Milah is mentioned because the birth of a child represents a new beginning as well.
It’s interesting that we are only obligated in the commandments from the age of thirteen for a boy or twelve for a girl; the only commandment we start keeping from infancy is circumcision. The Rambam writes that one of the reasons the bris is done so early is out of compassion – to put an older child through circumcision is much harder for the child, and therefore much harder for the parents. But philosophically, the reason the bris is done right away is because it’s the very foundation of the Jewish people. Bris means a covenant. It is a covenant between us and Hashem, the foundation of our relationship with Him.
The connection between Shabbos and Bris Milah
There is an interesting relationship between Bris Milah and another very important mitzvah – Shabbos. Many Torah scholars ask why a bris is done on the eighth day, as generally the number seven is the key holy number within the Torah – Shabbos is on the seventh day, the sabbatical year is the seventh year, the jubilee year is after seven cycles of the sabbatical year, there are seven weeks in the counting of the Omer. Why, then, is the bris on the eighth day?
One of the answers given in the Talmud is that so the the child will have experienced at least one Shabbos before being circumcised. Shabbos, too, is a foundational mitzvah. Already at the creation of the world, even before there was a Jewish people, G-d created Shabbos. In fact it was one of the very few mitzvahs given to the Jewish people before Mount Sinai – it was given in the desert, on their way to Mount Sinai. The baby must go through a Shabbos before his bris because Shabbos, too, is a foundational mitzvah. Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that Shabbos forms the foundation of our faith in G-d. We keep the mitzvahs not because of cultural or ethnic identity but because this is what G-d told us to do and we have faith in Him. A person who keeps the commandments but doesn’t believe that G-d exists, his commandments are meaningless. In fact, Rav Moshe brings from the Rambam that if a person who doesn’t believe in G-d writes a Sefer Torah, it has no holiness and in fact we are actually required to burn it. Writing G-d’s Names and His words has no meaning if one doesn’t believe in Him.
Shabbos takes belief in G-d to another level. It is not only an acknowledgment that G-d exists, but an acknowledgment that He created the world, is constantly involved in it and is interested in our personal lives. Shabbos teaches us that everything comes from Hashem and therefore it is the prerequisite to the bris and all of the other commandments.
There is one other idea I would like to share with you, which goes to the heart of what bris is all about. There is a well-known debate in the Talmud, between Rabbi Akiva and Tornus Rufus, one of the great Roman generals. Tornus Rufus said to Rabbi Akiva, whose actions are better, G-d’s or man’s? Tornus Rufus was setting Rabbi Akiva up with this question, because this led to the question of how can you bris a child. It seems such sacrilege; if G-d had wanted the baby to be circumcised, he would have made him be born brissed. To change a child whom G-d has given to you implies that G-d’s actions are not good enough. How can you justify such change?
Rabbi Akiva answered very cleverly. He took out a loaf of bread or a cake (it’s unclear from the translation, but it was some sort of delicious pastry). He then took out stalks of wheat. He said to Tornus Rufus, which would you like to eat, what G-d created – the stalks of wheat – or the man-made bread? Obviously, he preferred the man-made food. Rabbi Akiva then said that a bris is the same thing. G-d created this world incomplete and He invites us to join Him in the process of completing it. In the words of the Talmud, each one of us is shutaf laKadsoh Baruch Hu bema’aseh bereishis, we are each partners with the Holy One, Blessed Be He, in the creation of the world. Obviously, without the stalks of wheat there would be no way to make a loaf of bread. But we must take the wheat and turn it into bread.
G-d created us uncircumcised, and in so doing he conveyed the message that human beings are not governed by nature. Nature and animals are what they are; they don’t change. An animal operates purely out of instinct. It goes on a hunt, to find grass or berries, and that’s it. A human being, in contrast, innovates and creates. G-d gave us tremendous creative powers so that we could put our stamp on the world. We are not just passive beings who happen to inhabit the world, going about our lives like the animals. The difference between human beings and animals is that human beings are proactive creators, created in G-d’s image, who are called upon to improve ourselves and the world on a physical and spiritual level – that’s why we have been given the mitzvahs.
The philosophy behind the mitzvahs is that we don’t just come into life to survive, but to become better people, to improve our character, become humble, be more compassionate, be more spiritual and more connected to G-d such that by the time we leave this world, please G-d after 120 years, we have made a difference and we have become better people than we were when we first arrived.
The Midrash, quoted in Rashi at the beginning of our parsha, points out that the end of last week’s parsha talks about the laws of purity and impurity regarding animals. Our parsha talks about the laws of purity and impurity of human beings. Rashi says this structure is similar to the order in which G-d created the world – first the animals and then human beings. This highlights the difference between animals and human beings: animals were not asked to do anything, their situation is simply described. In contrast, our parsha discusses the human condition, and that we are obligated to do something about it, beginning with circumcision and improving throughout life.
Now we can understand why circumcision is so symbolic of Judaism. It’s not just because it’s the covenant between us and Hashem; it’s more than that. The covenant being expressed in something that fundamentally changes the human being is G-d’s way of saying to us, don’t accept reality as is. Don’t accept yourself for who you are. Go and develop, grow, become a better person and live a life of mitzvahs and good deeds; make a difference and put your own stamp on the world. We have the freedom to recreate ourselves and the world around us. Circumcision represents the fundamental principle that we can change and grow. Mikvah, too, represents the principle that we can purify and change ourselves. We can overcome sin, overcome challenges and become better people, but we have to live proactively and take action.