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Circumcised and Circumscribed

Our Torah portion opens with a weakened 99 year old Avraham, sitting in the scorching sun, desperate to find wayfarers to invite into his tent. Avraham had just performed the very first mitzvah that will be binding on his children, the mitzvah that will serve as the sign of G-d’s eternal covenant with the Jew — Brit Milah.

The preamble to this mitzvah tells us a great deal about its purpose. “I am E-L SHA-DAI conduct yourself before My Countenance and become complete.” Then, even before the symbolic act of the covenant is presented to him, Avraham is told two things: This is an exclusive covenant between G-d and his children, and that by accepting this covenant he will become the father of a multitude of nations.

The requirement to be tamim, complete, is introduced with the words ”I am E-L SHA-DAI.” There is a close tie between that name of G-d and the demand G-d makes of man. “Sha-dai” is an abbreviation for “ani hu she’amarti l’olami ‘dai’” (“I am the One Who said to My world: It is enough!”) G-d did not create the world and allow it to expand and evolve unchecked. Rather, He still stands above the world and its elements and has ordained the “Enough!” over all of these forces and their effects. He sets the extent, the duration and the limitations for everything.

Avraham is instructed to act accordingly. He is not told halach, “walk” before Me, but rather hit’halech, “conduct yourself” before My Countenance. Do not just go in the way of your drives and passions, but purposefully conduct yourself, in order that you may become tamim, complete. The root taf-mem expresses both perfection (as in ish tam) and cessation (as in yitamu chata’im). Rav Hirsch explains this peculiarity: that which is truly perfect can be only “one” thing, so that anything that is to be truly perfect, truly “one,” must have ceased to exist as anything else. Thus, there are no contradictions in the character of a tamim; every aspect of his existence, and all of his relationships, are disciplined in one direction only. To those aspects that do not comport with his goal, he instructs: Cease! Enough! To achieve this, one must “conduct” and direct his behaviour. Only then can its unity of purpose be achieved.

The symbolic act of milah serves as an ever-present reminder of this duty. Control over our physical bodies and desires is to be the basic condition of the covenant. We are to rise freely above our sensuality, to be a master over it, and to continually declare “Enough!” We are to counter it with measure and moderation, with reason and restraint. We are to circumscribe our physical selves.

While we are to circumscribe our physical drives to achieve perfection, we are not to circumscribe ourselves from the rest of humanity. Where does Avraham sit after his brit milah? In the groves of Mamre! He is still with Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre. His relationship to mankind has not changed. Moreover, he is greatly distressed that he may not have the opportunity to host guests — and he could not have expected anyone other than uncircumcised idolaters. And what a reception they received! The finest fresh food, prepared with great haste by Avraham, his wife and his son.

The juxtaposition to milah is not coincidental. The people of Avraham, although isolated by circumcision, are not to cut themselves off from the rest of humanity. While they are a contrast to the rest of the world, they are ready to realize every universal human value. Indeed, by their very self-circumscription, they become a force of moral spirit to uplift a multitude of nations. As the children of Avraham, the bnei brit, may we live up to the standard taught by brit milah, and as models of self-restraint, may we then fulfill our mandate to be a light unto the nations.

  • Commentary to Bereishet 18:1, Collected Writings II, Milah, pp. 66-80

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