October 20, 2015
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #992, Lech Lecha, Parsha Thought, brit milah


The first Mitzvah given to Avraham, the very first Jew, was that of circumcision. As recounted in this week’s parsha, Avraham was 99 years old when he received this commandment from G-d.

Why did Avraham wait so long to be circumcised? According to the Talmud, Avraham had prior knowledge of all of the commandments and performed them without waiting for G-d’s command. Why not circumcise himself at an earlier age?

Numerous answers have been offered to this question.


The most frequently cited answer is based on the counterintuitive Talmudic statement, “one who is commanded to perform a Mitzvah and does it is superior to the one who is not commanded to do the Mitzvah and performs it.”

Thus, if Avraham had circumcised himself before being commanded by G-d, he would have lost the ability to do so by a Divine command in the future. One can only be circumcised once!


Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the founder of Chabad, also known as the Alter Rebbe and the author of the classic work Tanya) writes in his work Torah Or that there are two spiritual dimensions of circumcision. While it is possible to achieve the first level by way of the physical act of circumcision without G-d’s express commandment, one cannot attain the loftier level of spiritual circumcision without G-d’s assistance, as it is channeled through His commandment.

This loftier dimension of circumcision will be fully revealed in the Messianic Age. Avraham, however, sought to experience that level in his lifetime, which could only happen with G-d’s express commandment to him after living a life of total commitment to serving G-d by performing all of the Mitzvos of his own volition. Once he had attained the ultimate level of personal growth on his own initiative, he was ready for G-d to reveal this sublime level of spiritual circumcision.


Perhaps one can offer another answer to this question. The Baal Shem Tov cited a passage in the Talmud (Menachos 43b) concerning King David’s distress when he was bathing and it dawned upon him that he was naked and therefore not engaged in any Mitzvah. When, however, he realized he was circumcised he was comforted. He then sang praise to G-d for this Mitzvah and composed Psalm 12 which begins: “For the conductor; on the Shminis (an eight-stringed instrument).” According to the Talmud, the eight-stringed instrument also alludes to the Mitzvah of circumcision which occurs on the eighth day.

The Baal Shem Tov explains further that King David’s bathing is to be understood in spiritual terms. He wanted to cleanse himself of every vestige of sin and impurity. While doing so, he reflected on his life of performance of Mitzvos and realized that he was “naked.” The Baal Shem Tov teaches that King David’s nakedness, in this context, meant that he was bereft of all the Mitzvos because he could not find any Mitzvah which was totally pure. He was concerned that there might have been a trace of an ulterior motive in every Mitzvah that he performed.

It should be noted, that while it is true, as the Talmud states, “one should always do a Mitzvah, even if it is for ulterior motives, for from the ulterior motive one will eventually come to do it for pure motives,” nevertheless, doing things for ulterior motives is certainly not the ideal. A person of the stature of King David, in pursuit of total cleansing and catharsis, cannot reach complete cleansing so long as his Mitzvos are tainted, ever so subtly, with a motive of personal gain.

King David therefore felt that, at the very least, he needed to possess one unadulterated Mitzvah. He sought a Mitzvah free of even the slightest tinge of personal gain or ulterior motive. This was the Mitzvah of circumcision.


What distinguishes this Mitzvah from all others? It is the only Mitzvah one performs as a newborn and is incapable of understanding the Mitzvah. An eight-day old baby cannot possibly do something for selfish reasons. It is the most pure Mitzvah one ever performs; as pure and innocent as the baby itself.

When King David considered the fact that he was circumcised at the age of eight days he was mollified. It was the Mitzvah that removed his spiritual nakedness.

This explains why he sang the psalm that alludes to the eighth day. This underscored the significance of circumcision occurring on the eighth day. It was not just the actual Mitzvah of circumcision that assuaged his feelings of nakedness but the eighth-day component of the Mitzvah.


We still need to clarify the Baal Shem Tov’s analysis of how King David’s concerns were allayed by the Mitzvah of circumcision. While it is true that the Mitzvah of circumcision is untainted because it is performed when a child is just eight days old, how did King David cleanse himself from his perception that all of his other Mitzvos were tainted by ulterior motives?

Just as a local infected wound can spread and wreak havoc on the entire body, so to one “perfect” Mitzvah will spread its positive G-dly power and “infect” the entire person and all of the Mitzvos that he has performed. Circumcision is the positive version of the Achilles heel that renders us “vulnerable” to the unadulterated G-dly energy within our Mitzvos.

There is, however, one proviso. This Mitzvah of circumcision must not be compromised. When we are conscientious about our moral life and our physical relationships, we carry within us the incredible power of this unmitigated, pure Mitzvah which neutralizes any negative attachment to our Mitzvos.

This might explain the Talmudic statement (Eruvin 19a) that Avraham stands at the entrance of Gehinom [the purification process the soul goes through before entering Paradise] and saves those souls who are circumcised, provided that they have not compromised the integrity of that Mitzvah. When this Mitzvah remains intact it cleanses and rehabilitates all of our other Mitzvos, which, in turn, helps remove the stains of the transgressions for which Gehinom may have been warranted.

The premise that circumcision is the only Mitzvah for which there is absolutely no ulterior motive is alluded to in the traditional blessing at a Bris: “Just as you entered into the covenant [of circumcision] so may you enter into Torah, marriage and good deeds.” What is the connection between circumcision and Torah, marriage and good deeds?

Chassidic masters have said that the underlying meaning of this blessing to the newborn infant is that just as when you were circumcised there was no ulterior motive, so too may you enter into Torah, marriage and good deeds with purist of motives.


We can now find an additional explanation for Avraham’s waiting to be commanded to circumcise himself rather than performing this Mitzvah voluntarily at an earlier stage of his life.

Avraham was keenly aware of the unique character of the Mitzvah of circumcision. He knew that it was the one Mitzvah that affects all of the other Mitzvos that one does. He had, however, a serious problem and it prevented him from voluntarily circumcising himself. He realized that what makes circumcision unique is that it is performed at the age of eight days, as explained above. Avraham was a mature adult and realized that his circumcision would not reflect the purity of the eight-day old child which “infects” all of the Mitzvos that one does with purity.

Avraham therefore had to wait for G-d to command him to be circumcised in order to endow his adult-version of it with the same measure of purity as an eight day old infant.

This explains why the Torah uses the words “Avraham was 99 when he was circumcised…” This passive way of phrasing the act of circumcision, Rashi explains, suggests that it was done to him; that G-d actually assisted him in the act of circumcision. Not only did G-d command him to do it but, moreover, G-d Himself was directly involved in this act. It, therefore, endowed the Mitzvah with the same measure of purity that an eight-day old child has when he is circumcised.


Generally speaking, for all of our history, from the time of Creation until the Final Redemption, we exist in a pre-circumcision mode. All of our Mitzvos are, by definition, incomplete; this is particularly so in the period of our exile. While, relatively speaking, circumcision does endow us with a Messianic purity, it cannot compare to the purity and integrity we will attain when Moshiach, the descendant of King David, leads us out of the tainted state of exile, which is likened to the foreskin that obstructs the purity of our souls.

Moshiach is the ultimate Mohel. He will be endowed with the most formidable G-dly power to cleanse us from our spiritual “nakedness” and usher in the age when G-d will remove the “foreskin of our hearts.”

During these last moments of Galus we must prepare ourselves for the Redemption. Since Redemption is multi-faceted, we must also prepare in multi-faceted ways. The way to prepare for the ultimate circumcision aspect of the Redemption is to fulfill this Mitzvah, literally, with great joy coupled with efforts to bring purity and refinement to this Mitzvah by living a moral life. Guarding and protecting the purity and holiness of the Bris is our way of preparing for the ultimate Bris—the true and complete Redemption.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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