Parshat Lech Lecha: Brit mila - An oath of eternal loyalty

What right do we have to throw children into this turbulent world, a jungle, causing them great anxiety and uncertainty, without giving them any clue as to its higher purpose?

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
“And the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing...” (Genesis12:1-2)
Painting by Yoram Raanan;;
God said to Avraham: “I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your descendants after you... Every male shall be circumcised at the age of eight days…” (Genesis 17:7-12) In previous generations, parents arranged marriages for their sons and daughters, convinced that the spouses they chose for their children would be ideal life partners for them. In a similar way, Jewish parents throughout the generations bring their newborn sons into a covenant with the God of Israel, eternally uniting them with their most ideal Partner. Brit mila is the act by which a Jewish child and God become engaged.
Circumcision is an eternal pledge that parents make to God. It is a promise that their child will not be an ordinary human being, but one who will live by God’s commandments and consequently help move mankind toward the final redemption. By performing a brit mila, Jewish parents proudly proclaim that their son is destined to become a light and blessing to all nations. (Genesis 12:2; Isaiah 42:6, 49:6) One may ask: What gives parents the right to bring this child into an eternal covenant without his consent? How can we commit a child to a lifelong mission that he may not choose to fulfill? The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel turns the tables on this argument: On the contrary, he says, is it not a great injustice to bring a child into the world without a higher mission? While Socrates explained that a life without thinking is not worth living, Judaism teaches us that life without a commitment to God is no life at all. The dignity of man is in direct proportion to his obligations. We pass this divine dignity on to our children when we make them contractually obligated to fulfill the covenant with God. To withhold this awesome responsibility is to deny them the opportunity to experience the highest, truest value of living in this world.
Indeed, is there anything more heartless than giving birth to children and not letting them know why they live? What right do we have to throw children into this turbulent world, a jungle, causing them great anxiety and uncertainty, without giving them any clue as to its higher purpose? Denying them this awareness prevents them from experiencing real joy and from gaining the capacity to withstand major challenges. Joy is “man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection,” said Spinoza. But it is only through hardship and discomfort that one can achieve such perfection.
The claim that it may hurt for a moment and interfere with the child’s self-determination is totally disproportionate to its infinite spiritual message.
Circumcision – the promise – is God’s seal imprinted on the human flesh. It is only proper that this sign of allegiance be imposed upon the body, for after all, it is not the soul that needs to make a commitment.
The soul is committed to its Creator. It is the body that, because of its inclination to feed its own base desires, must make a vow to compel itself to serve God.
Again, it was Prof. Heschel who gave this idea a poetic twist. Like a piece of paper that carries the buying power of a certain dollar amount, the body serves as the vessel that holds the soul. Just as the symbolic markings on the bill inform us of the value assigned to it by the treasury department, so too the “signs” we make on our bodies reveal the greatness of the souls they house. Furthermore, if the body fails to live up to its lofty responsibilities, the physical imprint of the circumcision serves as a constant reminder of what it means to reside in the presence of God; it is a testimony to one’s spiritual obligations and potential. While it is indeed surprising that no other symbolic requirement is made for our daughters when they are born, we should not make the mistake of believing that lack of it means they are less important to the divine covenant.
It would be like saying that “American citizenship applies only to those who fly the stars and stripes on their flagpoles, everyone else being a second-class citizen.” (Prof. Jon D. Levenson) Like the revelation at Sinai, a circumcision is an event that exists as a moment in the past, yet extends into the present. From man’s perspective, the brit mila happens just once; but from God’s perspective, the message conveyed by this act – the Jewish nation’s unwavering commitment to God – resounds forever.
Monuments of stone may disappear; acts of spirit will never vanish.
At Sinai the Jews committed themselves to the Torah with the words “na’aseh ve-nishma” (we shall do and we shall hear). Without yet knowing what the Torah would require of them, the Jewish people committed themselves to the uncertain task of serving the Creator of the universe. On the eighth day of a Jewish child’s life, at the time of circumcision, his parents imprint God’s seal on his body, thus bringing him into the covenant with God in the tradition of na’aseh ve-nishma. From that moment, the child begins his journey on the road of commitment to holiness that, although not yet known to him, is the most challenging and rewarding mission life can offer – to become a servant of God and a blessing to all nations.
Circumcision takes only a few seconds, but it creates eternity.
The writer is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books, and an international lecturer. This article originally appeared on September 22, 2010, on the writer’s website: