by Rabbi Herzl Hefter
In this week’s parasha, Avraham circumcises his son Yitschak. I have always thought it odd that cutting away the foreskin of the male organ should serve as the symbol of the covenant between God and the descendants of Avraham. In order to understand this we need to turn our attention to the technical aspect of circumcision.
The Talmud (Shabbat 137b) teaches that he who removes the foreskin (mal) but neglects to sever the membrane (called the corona) (ve lo para’) which continues to obscure the glans (atarah) has performed an incomplete circumcision.
Yet the Talmud (Yevamot 71b) also states that Avraham himself was not commanded to cut away the corona. Tosafot is of the opinion that nonetheless Avraham performed the peri’ah voluntarily.
Clearly, then there are two aspects to the brit milah; the milah and the peri’ah. We must ask what these symbolize and why the first was fulfilled by Avraham as a response to Divine command while the second was fulfilled voluntarily.
Referring to the verse in Iyyov, ‘from my flesh I will see the Almighty’, the Midrash states that this is an allusion to Avraham who comes to comprehend God by circumcising himself. The milah was a prerequisite for revelation. The kabbalists (see for example the introduction to the Shnei Luchot Habrit by Yishayahu Halevi Horowitz) took this verse much further when they attributed to it anthropomorphic meaning. They explained that from the physical body (literally, from the flesh) of man created in the image of the Divine, God can be comprehended. Following this line of reasoning, the orla is that which conceals the true source of the sustaining life force of creation. Creation is not as it seems. By all appearances creation is separate from the Divine, enjoying independent existence. Avraham and his offspring are charged to strip away the veil which prevents humankind from comprehending that God is the true source of sustaining vitality in the world. According to this reading, the milah is not only a prerequisite for revelation but actually symbolizes it. This is the substance of the covenant and why it is symbolized by circumcision.
What then is the meaning of the two aspects of the brit mila; milah and peri’ah? Stripping away the veil in order to reveal the true nature of the world and God’s relationship with it, involves a paradigm shift in human experience. This shift must not only affect the intellectual awareness of the individual. Faith in God is not a question of intellectual knowledge; it involves existential commitment, it must be sealed upon the heart. The intellectual knowledge that God is the source of life is revealed to Avraham in the commandment to circumcise. But how do we know that Avraham is engaged existentially? We see this in his desire to perform what God has notcommanded in order to reveal and uncover more divine presence on his own initiative. This is the meaning of Avraham performing the peri’ah voluntarily.
In our relationship with God and the Torah do we respond to command, or we do seek to express ourselves spiritually in a way which we find personally meaningful? The covenant of Avraham as symbolized in the act of circumcision teaches us that we must find the balance between both these poles of religious expression. To be a member of the House of Avraham is to stand before God as a creature who is commanded. However, this alone is insufficient. Our intellectual commitment must take root and flourish in our hearts.
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your hearts… וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם