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Parashat Lech L’cha – 10/30/2009

Weekly Torah portion:
Lech L’cha
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

In this week’s Parashah, Avraham is commanded concerning brit milah.  I specifically didn’t say that we were commanded concerning brit milah, because commandments given to our Patriarchs are in fact not binding on us, unless they are reiterated later in Torah by Moshe Rabbeinu (Lev 12:3, at the beginning of Parashat Tazria – although the mention of brit milah appears to reference something that was already common practice among our people, as the incident with Shechem shows, nevertheless this is the place where we are formally commanded in brit milah).  Nevertheless, this particular commandment is rooted in antiquity, at the very beginning of our historical journey as a nation, and it is one that the Jewish people has upheld for thousands of years, in the face of the most rabid attempts to eradicate it.

The first point I’d like to make about brit milah is what it says about the Jewish view of the human condition.  The Greeks objected to circumcision because they held that human beings are born perfect.  The reasoning is, if Gd is perfect, surely the world Gd created is also perfect, and it is improper for human beings to try to improve on it.  The opposite view of course is that human beings are hopelessly flawed by “original sin” and any attempt from our side to perfect ourselves is futile.  The Jewish view is in the middle, as symbolized by brit milah.  The orlah, or foreskin, symbolizes blockage, or stopping up of a channel by which Gd’s light flows into the world.  Removing it gets rid of this blockage, and is a powerful reminder, sealed in our flesh, that we can perfect ourselves with Gd’s help and guidance.  This is alluded to in Parashat Bereishit where Gd tells Cain (after he has killed Abel) “…sin crouches at the door and its desire is towards you, but you can rule over it.”

I found another approach in a beautiful book I just got called The Torah of Brisk – elucidations of the weekly Parshiyot from the teachings of various members of the Brisk dynasty (which stretches from the students of the Vilna Gaon to R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who trained the bulk of the Orthodox clergy in the US).  R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the Bais HaLevi) points out that the mitzvah of brit milah is actually twofold.  First there is milah, which is the actual removal of the foreskin; this is the part that was commanded to Avraham.  It corresponds to the command to “be perfect” (tamim).  The second part is periah, which is removal of the thin membrane that surrounds the circumcision.  This is the command that was given to Avraham’s descendents (it was given in the Oral Law, along with other details of brit milah, and the other mitzvot as well).  It represents a further development along the same line as “being perfect” – it is the imperative to be holy.

I can only make a stab at distinguishing between “perfection” and “holiness.”  Perhaps we can look at the Shabbat morning liturgy, Psalm 34: “Who is the man who desires life? … Turn away from evil and do good.”  The Psalmist is apparently telling us that turning away from evil and doing good are two different things.  It is one thing to avoid doing things that we know are wrong.  Sometimes it is not easy to squelch our desires for immediate gratification, or for physical pleasure, because that desire would involve us in doing something forbidden.  However in the final analysis, it involves “simply” turning ourselves away, into a different path or a different activity.

“Doing good” is something of a more proactive nature.  It is the difference between giving, even generously, to the beggar who comes to the door, and going out and seeking those in need so that one may offer help.  Maybe we can say that one who has perfected himself has refined his awareness to the extent that he can no longer do anything opposed to Gd’s Will.  He has completely turned away from evil.  He has detached his Self from the physical to the extent that physical desires and forces cannot turn him to anything improper.  He has “cut away the foreskin of his heart.”

The Jewish people are commanded to strive for something higher.  We have the added mitzvah of periah.  We are commanded to “do good,” to express holiness in an active way.  We are required not only to put our individual wills in tune with Gd’s Will, but to make Gd and Gd’s holiness manifest in every little bit of creation.  In the idiom of the ’60’s, it is not sufficient for us simply to not be part of the problem; we must be part of the solution.  We are charged with bringing Gd’s entire universe to higher and higher states of integration, until the “earth is full of the knowledge of Gd as the waters cover the sea.”  We start the process at age 8 days.  May Gd give us the strength and wisdom to continue all the days of our lives.