Parshas Tazria: Understanding Bris Milah

Leviticus 12:1-3:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר׃ דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כִּימֵי נִדַּת דותה תִּטְמָא׃ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ׃

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a woman be delivered, and bear a man-child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

In this week’s parsha the Torah commands bris milah, or circumcision. In a parsha, and series of parshios, dedicated almost exclusively to dealing with the laws of tumah and taharah, one wonders how bris milah fits into the picture. Herein we shall examine the mitzvah of bris milah and see if we can come to a better understanding of what it is really all about, and how to understand this pervasive, but seldom contemplated, practice.

The Meaning Of Bris Milah

While bris milah on the one hand is a sign of the covenant — a branding, so to speak; a sign of Judaism and Jewish faith — it is, on the other hand, a way of placing kedusha in the least likely of places. It is a permanent reminder to keep one’s physical desires in check. Indeed, kedusha finds its ultimate expression in the places we would least expect it. The Jews who found themselves on the 49th level of tumah in Egypt were also the very people to witness and experience the greatest revelation of God in history. This is holiness where we would least expect it.

As it was put once by one of my teachers, when one bestows the compliment of “He/she is a walking sefer Torah” upon another person, which do we then presume to be holier? The person? Or the sefer Torah? Surely the sefer Torah, for it is the real thing, while the person in question merely possesses a little bit of that greatness. The truth is, however, very much the opposite. The ultimate expression of God, and holiness, is through a person. The ultimate expression of Torah is through the actions of human beings. Torah shines its brightest when it is associated with something fundamentally low, base, and not intrinsically holy. To bring holiness, kedusha, and the Torah into the least likely of places is a recreation of the Exodus itself!

Holiness in its most obvious domain is without question holy, but holiness where it is least expected is the very epitome of kedusha. This, then, is a fundamental idea behind bris milah; it is the the imbuing of holiness upon the least likely of places.

There are other ideas and explanations behind bris milah as well. The Maharal explains that the requirement of bris milah implies a certain imperfection in God’s Creation that becomes the duty of Man to perfect. Milah also suggests a continuum, in a way — a constant, never-changing sign as a symbolic representation of one’s constant relationship with God. No matter where a person might go, no matter what a person might do, there is a certain element of his relationship with God that will never change. Milah also represents the fact that often the greatest holiness is to be achieved in the places in which achieving said holiness is most challenging.

Whichever understanding of bris milah one fancies — and they are not all of them mutually exclusive — it is evident that milah is most fundamental to Judaism. Many enemies of the Jews throughout history have understood that uprooting milah would be to uproot Jewish faith itself. The ritual of bris milah is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be Jewish.

What Does This All Mean To A Child?

In our coming to understand the great significance and profundity of bris milah we have evidently created something of a problem as well. If bris milah is, as we said, the ultimate commitment to God on multiple simultaneous levels, how on Earth can this be expected of an eight-day-old infant? How is the commitment of bris milah even the slightest bit meaningful? In a similar vein, how is it even fair to force this sort of religious coercion upon our children — and then celebrate it?! For all its great meaning and depth, bris milah certainly seems more than a little barbaric and coercive.

Perhaps, though, there is a level of misunderstanding here. There is a story told about a particular chassid who needed extreme assistance in one thing or the other. He came to his Rebbe to ask what he should do. His Rebbe instructed him that he should say “Ana HaShem” with the utmost kavanah. The chassid did as instructed. When no Divine assistance manifested, the chassid came once more before his Rebbe to complain. He explained that he did exactly as the Rebbe prescribed, and said the phrase “Ana HaShem hoshiah na”, “Please, O Lord, save now!”, with a level of concentration the world had never seen, but nothing had happened. The Rebbe looked at his chassid and explained that he had said the wrong Ana HaShem — the Rebbe had meant for him to say Ana HaShem ki ani avdecha, “Please, O Lord, for I am your servant!”

Similarly, what does “bechira”, “choice,” mean in the service of God? Almost everyone would reply with something about bechirah chofshis, or our free will. R. Moshe Benovitz explains, though, that there is another bechirah, namely that we were chosen as the am ha’nivchar. The Jewish people were chosen for a mission. Not everything is up to us, our free will, at the end of the day. We simply cannot choose to be something that we are not. There are limits to our free will, and perhaps the greatest limit of all is that we cannot choose to be unchosen. R. Benovitz explains further that the father, at a bris, represents himself, his child, but first and foremost represents God in bringing the child into the covenant.

We were given the Torah and charged with responsibility. It is now up to us what we do with it. We can ignore it, or we can live up to it. But the bris milah remains a constant reminder of who we are and what we are capable of.

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