“And now Israel what does God your God ask of you, if only to fear God your God, to go in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve God your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul. To guard the commands of God and His statutes, which I command you today for your benefit. Behold, the heavens and the heavens of heavens are God’s; the Earth and all that it contains. Rather, in your forefathers did God desire, to love them, and He selected their seed after them from all nations as today. And circumcise the foreskins of your hearts, and your neck shall no longer be stiff. For God your God He is the God of all judges, and the Master of all masters; the mighty, great, powerful and awesome who does not favor anyone, and does not take bribes”.
Earlier, Moses admonished the Children of Israel, citing numerous cases where they rebelled against God. Here, Moses embraces a positive message, although speaking to a rebellious emotion in man. He first expresses how one should view God’s commands, “what does God your God ask of you?” Moses makes Torah obedience appear as a small thing. The Talmud asks, “Is it truly a small thing to follow the Torah? Yes, for Moses it was a small thing”. This means that for such a man possessing true knowledge of the good of Torah, Moses loved God and the system, and it was not a burden. It is only in regards to the lesser Jew that Torah adherence is more of a distraction from subjective desire and a burdensome inconvenience. But if one understood – and we can – just how beneficial and enjoyable is Torah study and lifestyle; we would run to it as eagerly as did Moses. Clearly, Moses wished to impress upon the people a perfected view of Torah. Clearly, the Jews needed to hear this since they rebelled so often.
However, the next two verses strike us as completely disjointed: “Behold, the heavens and the heavens of heavens are God’s; the Earth and all that it contains. Rather, in your forefathers did God desire, to love them, and He selected their seed after them from all nations as today.” What is this verse’s connection to the previous one? Why mention that God created everything?
In the first two verses, Moses addresses the Torah system as beneficial, focusing on the value of attaching one’s self to God. But we notice a repetition. Moses repeats “God your God” three times…in a single verse. We know who God is, so why the repetition? Why this phrase? What is his message? I believe Moses is stressing the God being our Creator, our “God”. And he does so to make the Jews recognize they cannot exist without Him…their lives are due exclusively to Him. Moses wishes to generate a true and deep feeling of appreciation in the Jews, an appreciation for their very existence, for their lives. He wished to focus them on the realization that rebelling against God is ridiculous. Moses says in other words, “God created you, He knows what you need to be happy, and you should run to His direction…His Torah.” That is why Moses says, “what does God your God ask of you?” For Moses, it was obvious and easy to follow God.
Moses then refers to himself, “which I command you today for your benefit” as if to say, “If I command you, that too should be a strong argument to follow God, since you respect my wisdom.” But Moses mentions that reason to follow him, subsequent to following God…which is the ultimate reason.
Why does Moses discuss the heavens? He does so because he wishes to stress the point that from all creation, God desires man: “Behold, the heavens and the heavens of heavens are God’s; the Earth and all that it contains. Rather, in your forefathers did God desire, to love them, and He selected their seed after them from all nations as today.” The word “rather” means that although He created everything, there is some part of creation, to which He shows preference: mankind. He created us for a good life. It is His will that man enjoys what is beneficial. This argument is one of “providence”: as God intervened on behalf of the Patriarchs, we witness proof that He bestows good on man, but only a man who follows the good life.
Moses’ first argument was to awaken the Jew to appreciate God for his very existence; we would not be alive without God. This second argument imparts the knowledge of God’s relationship with mankind: we see how He operates to benefit our forefathers, and us.
Now that we understand how God desires our existence, and our good, Moses tells us not to be stiff-necked any longer. But he does so with a euphemistic phrase: “And circumcise the foreskins of your hearts, and your neck shall no longer be stiff.” Why can’t Moses simply say what he means? Why use a euphemism? To answer this, we must first understand the command of circumcision.
Circumcision, as explained by Maimonides, seeks to minimize sexual satisfaction for both the man and woman. One uncircumcised experiences much greater sexual satisfaction, and so does his partner. So much so, that a woman who has slept with an uncircumcised man cannot be as satisfied with a man who had a circumcision:
“As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate. Some people believe that circumcision is to remove a defect in man’s formation; but every one can easily reply: How can products of nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use of the fore-skin to that organ is evident. This commandment has not been enjoined as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for perfecting man’s moral shortcomings. The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor does it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment: the organ necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering from the beginning. Our Sages (Beresh. Rabba, c. 80) say distinctly: It is hard for a woman, with whom an uncircumcised had sexual intercourse, to separate from him. This is, as I believe, the best reason for the commandment concerning circumcision.”
Circumcision, then, is to distance us from excessive desires. As beings granted a Tzelem Elokim – intellect – God designed us to obtain greater pleasure from knowledge, than from physical lusts. We may not feel that way emotionally, never heaving reached the bliss of study as exemplified by Rashi, Maimonides, Einstein, Aristotle, the Sages, and numerous others…but we can, with patience and honesty.
Applying this understanding, what did Moses mean by “And circumcise the foreskins of your hearts, and your neck shall no longer be stiff”?
It appears that physical circumcision is insufficient. Had it been, Moses’ command here would be unnecessary. We are forced to conclude that although physically circumcised, we also require a “circumcision of our hearts”. Ibn Ezra explains Moses’ words as referring to “distancing ourselves from thick and heavy lusts”. In addition to removing our foreskins, we must also circumcise ourselves “internally”. How do these two circumcisions function together?
One manner in which God’s kindness reaches us, is His command that we minimize the intensity of our physical satisfactions. This includes laws of kosher, sexual relations on only certain days and with certain partners, fasts, and so on. Circumcision also minimizes such intensity. But these examples all refer to actual physical satisfaction…in action. There is yet another part of us that has gone undressed: our attitudes and values. It is insufficient that only our actions are addressed. For this is merely a last chance “brake system” to afford us frustration in the world of the physical, long enough to redirect ourselves back to the realm of approaching God through wisdom. For if we were 100% satisfied with the physical desires, we would not leave them. God’s mercy demanded that man have frustration built into the physical world and our sensations of this world, for this very reason of redirecting us back to God. But this all applies only once we have corrupted ourselves so much, that we “decided” to sin. What about prior to such a decision? Are we to remain unrestrained in our thoughts?
God’s mercy extends even to this area, as Moses commands. Moses asks that we circumcise the foreskins of our “hearts”. This means that we must distance our thoughts and attachments from excessive lusts. It is only due to the first step of thoughts that man follows through in action: man first thinks to do something, and then he acts. The primary means to avoid hedonistic acts, is to learn the destruction of such acts, to gain control over our thoughts, and then avoiding sinful opportunities. And if all this fails, at least God has addressed the sinful action, by causing it to meet with frustration.
We now understand that we must not only remove our foreskin, but we must perfect our thoughts as well. In this fashion, we control both thoughts, and actions: the only two realms in which man functions. (I include speech in the realm of “action”)
A Rabbi once explained why in connection with both Adam and Eve, the word “depression” (etzev) is found: “In depression you will bear children” and, “In depression you shall eat”. Since both sinned due to an overindulgence in the physical desires, God created a change in both man and woman, that they will now experience a depression at the climax of their respective desires: women will experience postpartum depression upon birth, when they have performed that great act of creating human life; and men will feel depressed when they arrive at their accomplishments – man’s area of desire. Both forms of depression are designed to redirect man and woman away from seeking life’s ultimate satisfactions in the realm of the physical, enabling us to redirect our energies towards wisdom and God: that which God designed to truly offer us the greatest satisfaction.
So vital is circumcision to our individual perfection and our national formation, that failure to perform it meets with the loss of our souls; our first patriarch Abraham was commanded in it; and circumcision preempted the Exodus of each Jew:
“When God gave them the commandment of the Passover, and ordered that no one should kill the Passover lamb unless he, his sons, and all the male persons in his household were circumcised, that only “then he could come near and keep it” (ibid. xii. 48), all performed this commandment, and the number of the circumcised being large the blood of the Passover and that of the circumcision flowed together. The Prophet Ezekiel (xvi. 6) referring to this event, says, “When I saw thee sprinkled with thine own blood I said unto thee, Live because of thy [two kinds of] blood” i.e., because of the blood of the Passover and that of the circumcision.”
Circumcision teaches that the physical lusts are not man’s essence: that would be man in the sole capacity of animal. But as our mission is to strive towards the spiritual life, we bare this indelible insignia not only as a real physical imperfection, but also as an equally real internal perfection. As we imperfect our bodies, we perfect our souls. Perhaps this is another subtle reason for Moses’ use of circumcision in connection with perfecting our hearts.
My close friend Howard added that Moses uses a euphemism for good reason. Moses desired to teach that this act of circumcising our hearts indicates a “positive” change in our hearts, just as takes place in the organ of procreation when circumcised. Comparing physical circumcision with internal circumcision of our hearts, Moses equates their severity, which might be lost in a simple command of “distance yourselves from desires”. Thus, we understand why Moses resorted to a euphemism, and such a harsh one at that.
We come to one last idea, that of Moses telling us that God loved and chose the patriarchs, and us. Why must we know this? I believe this helps us see the Torah lifestyle as truly good, since God loves it Himself. God created everything, and if there is something which He “loves”, then this means it is most important to Him, and it should be most precious to us. Certainly, if what God loves…is us.
Moses desired the good for us, and directed us towards true ideas that should awaken us. He taught us that our existence is due to God, implanting in our hearts an appreciation for God. And then he taught us that of all creation, man is most elevated, and that God loves the patriarchs, and us, their offspring. Moses teaches that we must remove ourselves from the stiff-necked lifestyles that caused us to sin so often, for we are rebelling against the One who desires our good. This is akin to spitting in the face of someone who gives us millions of dollars.
And if all else fails, Moses teaches us that God will judge us: “For God your God He is the God of all judges, and the Master of all masters; the mighty, great, powerful and awesome who does not favor anyone, and does not take bribes.”