Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 30 June 2007 / 14 Tammuz 5767

The Covenant Land

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Gary in Boston

Dear Rabbi,

Is there some connection between the covenant to circumcise and the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel? If so, since the Muslim Arabs also circumcise, do they also have a similar right to the Land?

Dear Gary,

There is definitely a connection between the commandment of circumcision and possession of the Land.

This connection is explicitly stated in the Torah: “And I will establish My covenant [of circumcision] between Me and between you [Abraham] and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be your G-d and to your seed after you. And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be their G-d” (Gen. 17:7,8).

This mitzvah is comprised of two procedures called in Hebrew “milah” and “priyah” where the first refers to the actual cutting of the external layer of skin, and the second refers to the tearing of the finer, inner membrane. This is symbolic of a Jew’s responsibility to both cut away extraneous physicality while also tearing the more subtle barriers inhibiting spirituality as well. This is intended to reveal G-dliness into the world.

The connection between the Jews and the Land is similar. When Jews keep the covenant, a potentially solely physical relationship with the Land is peeled away. They are able to penetrate the more sublime, spiritual dimension of the Promised Land, and G-diness is thereby revealed.

As you note, Ishmael, the father of the Arab/Muslim people, also has a role in this unique covenant connection. After all, he was a son of Abraham and was circumcised at the age of thirteen, on the very day Abraham was commanded to circumcise: “And Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house...and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin on that very day, as G-d had spoken with him.... And Abraham was ninety-nine years old.... And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old... On that very day, Abraham was circumcised, and so was Ishmael his son” (23-26).

However, G-d revealed to Abraham that his true spiritual successor and the rightful inheritor of the covenant to the Land would be Isaac: “And G-d said, Indeed, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him. And regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly.... But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year” (19-21).

Since Ishmael is nevertheless connected to the covenant, what is his role in and relationship to the Land?

The Zohar comments on the difference between Isaac’s and Ishmael’s right to the Land based on the different way each performs the covenant. Unlike Isaac who performs both the external “milah” and internal “priyah” described above, Ishmael performs only the external “milah”. This teaches that Ishmael’s connection to the covenant is only superficial and secondary — entitling him to custodianship (not ownership) over the Land only during Israel’s absence. Furthermore, this secondary claim must give way to the Jewish People’s primary and inner bond to the Land of Israel. Thus the Zohar states so long ago, “In the future, the children of Ishmael, whose circumcision is empty and incomplete, will rule over the Land of Israel when it is desolate and uninhabited. And they will hinder the Jews’ return to Israel until Ishmael’s merit runs out and the Jews will return” (Parshat Va’era 32a).

A story is told regarding the acquisition of the first tracts of land upon which the modern city of Netanya was founded. The Jewish pioneers approached an Arab landowner proposing to buy his stretch of barren, undeveloped coastal sand dunes. The Arab replied, “G-d forbid I should sell you what is rightfully yours by the word of G-d. I do not own this land, but rather my father and my father’s fathers were merely custodians over it during your absence. I am entitled to compensation for keeping the land, but I cannot sell you what is already yours.”

An amazing facet of the connection between the covenant and the Land was foreseen long ago by the great Chasidic master and scholar Rabbi Chaim of Sanz and is unfolding before our very eyes today. Noting the teaching of the Zohar quoted above, a certain scholar asked the Rebbe, “Even if the covenant of Ishmael is superficial and secondary to that of Isaac, nevertheless Ishmael was circumcised of his own volition at the age of thirteen, while Isaac and his progeny are circumcised as infants with no element of conscious self-sacrifice on their part.” The Rebbe replied, “This portends that in the future, when the Jewish People will return to the Land of Israel, there will be Jewish adults who, not circumcised as children, will bravely and proudly enter the covenant of their own free choice. It will be in the merit of these Jews that Ishmael’s connection to the Land finally will be severed.”

Rabbi Chaim of Sanz lived in a time when it was unthinkable that Jewish children would not be circumcised. However, today we know that tens of thousands of Jews persecuted under the Soviet empire were prohibited from circumcision. Many of these Jews, brutally uprooted from their people, culture and religion, are now returning to the faith of their fathers, and as adults are engraving the covenant upon themselves with courage and pride. May we, the rest of the Jewish people, follow their example by circumcising our hearts and returning to G-d, thereby meriting a complete and full redemption and return to the Land of Israel.

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