THE BRIS OF ABRAHAM
By: Rabbi Yisroel Chait
The commandment of circumcision, or "bris", is an essential mitzvah which was transmitted by G-d to our forefather Abraham. Maimonides in his Mishna Torah in the laws of Circumcision the third chapter law 8 teaches us that this commandment is extremely important. The Rambam tells us that Abraham was not called "shalame", complete, or perfect, until he was circumcised. The Rambam quotes Genesis chapter 17 verse 1, which states, "...Walk before me and be perfect." We therefore can infer that prior to Abraham's circumcision he was in a state where he evidently was lacking perfection. The Rambam additionally states in law 9 that the commandment of a bris is extremely important because Abraham's bris is mentioned 13 times in the Torah, whereas the entire commandments of the Torah were only undertaken by three covenants.
A review of this Rambam raises several important questions. What is so essential about the commandment of circumcision that the Torah seems to view it as a more significant covenant than the covenant respecting the entire Torah? Furthermore, in what way was Abraham lacking perfection prior to his bris and what does circumcision accomplish? We must attempt to understand the concept of a "tamim", completeness, especially in view of G-d's commandment to Abraham to have a bris and "walk before Me and be tamim", complete.
Upon examining some of the halachik aspects of the act of the mitzva, the positive action of circumcision, we can gain some insights. There are two blessings made when performing the act of circumcision. The first blessing is made right before the action and it is the blessing of al hamilah. This is the blessing of the action of circumcision and like all blessings on an action, the blessing precedes the action and qualifies it. However, there is a second blessing which the mohel makes. This is the blessing of "lehachniso bivriso shel Avraham avinu", "to enter the child into the covenant of Abraham our father". There is a question amongst the Rabbis as to the nature of this blessing. If it is a blessing on the action, then it must precede the circumcision, like the first blessing. If it is a blessing of shevach, of praise, then it follows the circumcision, which is the basis for our praising G-d. The Rabbeinu Tam in Tosafos in Pesachim 7a states that it is considered a blessing of praise and thus recited afterwards. He states that the blessing is a praise to G-d for granting us the commandment of circumcision. We must also articulate that the circumcision is being done for the sake of G-d our creator and not for the sake of idolatry.
This Tosafos raises several problems. Why must we express that this commandment of circumcision is being done for G-d? Why is the commandment of circumcision the only Mitzvah that demands that we specifically mention that it is not done for idolatry? There is a law that the halachik action of slaughtering cannot be performed by a gentile because we are concerned that he will be performing the action for idolatry. It would seem that the blessing for slaughtering would be a more appropriate action for the pronouncement that it is not being done for idolatry. What is so unique about the commandment of circumcision?
To comprehend the significance of circumcision we must explain the concept of tamim. The Rambam in his Mishna Torah in the Laws of Idolatry, at the end of chapter 11 discusses the positive commandment in the Torah of "tamim t'heeyeh im Hashem Elokecha". The Rambam teaches us that sorcery; witchcraft and divination are all false and nonsensical practices. These are primitive practices whereby man predicates his daily actions based upon some irrelevant external events. They are usually superstitious practices which appeal to man's instinctual insecurities. Amongst these practices are the individuals who state that "since my stick fell out of my hand, I cannot travel in that direction". A different example of a prohibited action is if someone says that said date is a good day for performing certain actions. If a person consults a charlatan who pretends to speak to the dead or pretends to predict the future, these are also forbidden practices. These practices appeal to the dark side of man's nature, the part that wishes to deny reality and satisfy instinctual urges by positing authenticity to these inane activities which are attractive to the instincts. They appeal to man's fantasy and create an illusion of great satisfaction. It would be foolish for modern man to deny the force of these emotions and posit that this type of behavior is only symptomatic of primitive man. One need only look at the appeal of horoscopes to dispel such a notion. A recent leader of the free world, the most powerful man in a supposedly sophisticated society, based his schedules on this nonsense. Maimonides advised us that all these activities are categorized as emptiness and vanity. The Rambam further admonishes against these practices and states that if anyone believes that these actions are true or contain wisdom, they are ignorant and lack knowledge. However, if someone has been fortunate to obtain wisdom he will know that these actions are false and are attractive only to foolish people whose minds are lacking intellectual clarity. The Rambam concludes that all these practices are contrary to the Torah's commandment of "tamim t'heeyeh im Hashem Elokecha", "Perfect shall you be with Hashem your God".
There are two parts to human nature. One part is the reality-based part of the human mind. It is man's crowning glory, his divine image, and the part of man that can perceive wisdom and knowledge. The other part of man's nature is the primitive part of the mind which appeals to man's fantasy. It demands suspension of the critical faculty. In Judaism there is no room for this part of man's nature to guide his actions. We are commanded to love G-d. This means, as we recite in the Shema, to teach our sons and to know Torah. The only part of man that can relate to G-d and learn Torah is the tzelem Elokim, man's intellect. The prophets repeatedly have counseled the children of Israel to have knowledge of G-d. This can only be accomplished by a long searching process which begins with the part of man that perceives G-d's knowledge.
Therefore the concept of tamim means that man should guide his life based upon the part of man which can perceive G-d's knowledge. This part of the human personality must always retain control and exercise its force on the person's actions. One can only be tamim, complete, when the soul of man is not affected by the instinctual part of his nature. The ruling part of his soul must be the part of man that can recognize G-d. The state of tamim is only achieved when there is only one ruling principle in the soul, namely the tzelem Elokim. Nothing else can affect the person who is tamim.
Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed states that an uncircumcised person is more perfect physically. Since he is born that way he is more physically perfect. G-d created man uncircumcised, which must be a physically more perfect state respecting his physical existence. Circumcision reduces man's instinctual drive. It makes us less perfect physically but demonstrates that we must perfect ourselves spiritually. Milah signifies man's conquest over the instinctual part of his nature. Circumcision represents an institution in man which demonstrates a reduction of his instinctual drive. The instinctual part of man's nature is the source of his superstitious tendencies. Man's instinctual nature detracts from his being tamim. Therefore milah is the establishment of an institution in man, which installs in man the ruling element of his soul. This is the part of the soul which can recognize G-d. Therefore milah is the institution which signifies that man must guide his actions by chochma, wisdom, not the instinctual, and that one strives to be tamim, perfect.
Circumcision is mentioned thirteen times in the Torah, compared to the covenant of the very acceptance of the Torah, which is only mentioned three times. Circumcision is the institution which reflects that an individual's actions must be guided by the tzelem Elokim, intelligence. Acceptance of the Torah is only possible if there are individuals who are capable of dedicating their lives to its intellectual precepts. Therefore, milah is essential because it creates individuals who are tamim, complete and whose ruling part of their soul is the intellect. Only then is the system of Torah capable of being perpetuated.
The commandment of milah was given over specifically to Abraham. Abraham had the intellectual conviction to reject the primitive and pagan beliefs that pervaded his society. He had the intellectual courage to recognize G-d as the source of reality and deny the idolaters of his day. Therefore he was blessed with the institution of milah. The personality of Abraham was deserving of this institution. However, Abraham was not shalame, not complete, until he performed the Mitzvah of milah. He had to demonstrate through this commandment, that the ruling part of his soul was the intellectual. Through the performance of this mitzvah he rendered himself an adam hashalame, complete. Abraham demonstrated that all parts of his personality were subdued except the part of his soul which recognized and related to the creator. He thus became tamim and was able to walk before G-d.
We can now appreciate the Rabbeinu Tam's concept of the second blessing made at the circumcision. It is a blessing of praise which uniquely articulates that its objective is for the sake of G-d. Circumcision is the only commandment which, by its very performance, subordinates the instinctual forces in man. The very essence of its objective is the demonstration that we aspire to guide our own lives based upon the part of man that can perceive reality and relate to G-d. Therefore, we express our intentions that we are performing this unique commandment for the sake of G-d and not for idolatry, which appeals to the lower part of man's nature.
The importance of milah is also attested to by the fact that if one does not perform the mitzvah, he receives the punishment of excision, Kares. Similarly, if one fails to partake of the korban Pesach he is similarly punished. These are the only two positive commandments that if one fails to perform, makes him subject to kares. Circumcision is essential because it signifies that the individual, is one who is capable of living a life of Torah. The korban Pesach was commemorative of the exodus of Egypt and the birth of a nation dedicated to the principles of the Torah. Thus, both these mitzvos are essential components for the Torah system, milah insofar as the individual is concerned, and korban Pesach with respect to the nation.