Torah Thoughts for Today
Monday, January 19, 2004
#3 The Power of Abraham’s Circumcision.
The Power of Abraham’s Circumcision
(For the Torah portion Lech Lecha (“You Go”), Genesis, Chapter 12, verse 1 – Chapter 17, verse 27. English text and commentary at http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=1&CHAPTER=12
Dedicated to my parents.)
A lot of people look at “circumcision” as a minor operation for the “health” of a boy’s life growing into manhood. There is a vocal group of people opposed to this procedure, claiming that it is a form of mutilation that a baby has not consented to. Some cultures and religions require it as a right of passage into “manhood”. Many don’t care either way; so they take the path of least resistance and don’t let the thought of “operating” on the penis enter their minds at all. Others in this world take “circumcision” to mean inclusion of females, requiring either something very, very minor; a procedure to be done as a gesture of egalitarianism, (exactly where, I am not sure), and others have reached the level of international notoriety by perpetrating gross mutilations of females’ private parts.
ABRAHAM’S CIRCUMCISION HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ANY OF THE ABOVE !!!
Abraham and his wife Sarah battled through a lot of difficult things in life. After all, Abraham is the one who “discovered” the revolutionary doctrine of MONOTHEISM, the belief in a ONE All Powerful Invisible God who Controls the Destiny of the Universe and Who calls upon Humankind to adhere to Moral Codes that are not always convenient to your average John and Jane Human-being, and who will exact Justice in the end. It did not endear him to the high and mighty that he preached this doctrine in public, gathered followers, and defied the established order of Pharaohs and kings in his times.
So much for the macrocosm.
On the more personal level, Abraham was for a long time unable to have children with his infertile wife Sarah. Out of desperation, Sarah foists a “second wife”, Hagar, on her husband and lo and behold the union is consummated and a son called Yishmael is born.
But this is not enough as far as the Divine Plan is concerned. There is a need for another, more perfect, Holy, offspring to be brought into this world, to be accomplished by the aged Abraham and the sterile Sarah, a miracle baby that is born to a HUMAN mother and father in their old age and named Yitzchak (Isaac). This is part of the microcosm.
So then, is the birth of Yitzchak (Isaac) just “another” generous gesture, a “grand prize”, that God grants a worthy old couple that has devoted their lives to “missionizing” under fire for the cause of Monotheism and Belief in the True One and Only Deity?
The answer is essentially, no, not quite, it cannot be as simple as that! There is a vast cosmic drama playing out on this puny Earth and it is Abraham who is THE pivotal character in its INCEPTION, as well as CONCEPTION according to classic Torah Judaism.
From the time of Creation, through the age of the Flood, and coming down to the times of Abraham (who was born in the Hebrew year 1948 from Creation, 1813 BCE [*1]), the world went from bad to worse. Instead of a happy “Utopia” that should have stemmed from Adam’s Eden, and Noah’s rainbow survival, surprise – surprise, the world “stinks” of murder, robbery, slavery, superstition, hedonism, paganism, and the cheapening of human life.
Along comes this person Abraham and says STOP all this stupidity and cruelty, there is a, (gulp), GOD who expects better of us! Honest ! And for this they want his scalp! But what does God do next in the narrative? He appears to Abraham in a knock-out vision and tells him that for his efforts he will become the father of many nations, and in particular have a special son : Yitzchak (Isaac).
Now what’s REALLY going on here? How does Abraham’s role on the world stage tie in with his personal life and problems? And why is his circumcision so crucial for himself and pivotal for the whole world to know forevermore as enshrined in the Book of Genesis? [*2] .
Circumcision is called the COVENANT (--“DEAL”--), “BRIT” or “BRIS” in Hebrew:
“God then said to Abraham, ‘As far as you are concerned, you must keep My covenant – you and your offspring throughout their generations. This is My covenant between me, and between you and your offspring that you must keep: You must circumcise every male. You shall be circumcised through the flesh of your foreskin. This shall be the mark of the covenant between Me and you. Throughout all generations, every male shall be circumcised when he is eight days old…This shall be My covenant in your flesh, an eternal covenant. The uncircumcised male whose foreskin has not been circumcised, shall have his soul cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant’” [*3]
It will be Abraham, NOT Adam and NOT Noah, who sets the world on it’s correct “ORBIT” in terms of where GOD wants it to go and grow. Abraham’s spiritual fame and conquests on the outside world, reflects and is in harmony with, the fact that he has also “conquered” his own inner demons (he apparently checked out all the options before he “arrived” at Monotheism) and weaknesses to the point that he is hailed as the “PILLAR” of RIGHTEOUSNESS (“Amud HaChesed”) upon which the entire world rests, and his circumcision is literally God’s “stamp and seal of approval”. And so the macrocosm and the microcosm move towards harmony.
The extent to which God wishes Abraham to be circumcised and its critical status for human existence is captured in the following Medrash:
“Abraham asked: ‘If circumcision is so precious why was it not given to Adam?’ Said the Holy One:’ It is enough that you and I are in the world. If you won’t undergo circumcision, it’s enough for My world to have existed until now, and it is enough that uncircumcision has existed until now, and it is enough for circumcision to have been forlorn until now (since none practiced it, the world must cease to exist)” [*4] And clearly Abraham consents to circumcise himself and the males in his household, since he wants the world to exist and flourish according to God’s Laws.
We clearly see that the transition of the world from a “pre-Abrahamic” world of darkness, to a “post-Abrahamic” world of light, on the microcosmic level, is focused on Abraham agreeing to HAVE his unique partnership with God cut into his male organ as the perpetual “sign” of a “Deal” – “Covenant” (“Brit” –“Bris”) between him and God forever. At the age of 99 Abraham cuts into his own flesh, some say it was Shem, Noah’s son, who helped, with the aid of a Divine Hand with a sword that appeared to cut off Abraham’s foreskin.
On the macrocosmic level: When Abraham “removes” his foreskin through the Divine Command of Circumcision he is “forcibly” (albeit “clinically”) symbolically removing the very essence of all impurity and negativity in the world by agreeing to place the “stamp” of God’s connection upon his own flesh in the male organ, denoting the submission of the natural laws and drives, and raw sexuality is the most powerful human drive, to the holy laws of God’s commandments. The Torah itself, with all its “Mitzvot” (Commandments) is called a “Covenant” – “Brit”, and life must literally ensue from a human organ carved and functioning with God’s decreed Covenant (Bris) in the flesh.
It goes much further than that: When Abraham and Sarah go down to Egypt and are confronted by Pharaoh, who actually forcibly abducts and attempts to sexually abuse Sarah who is described as a beautiful woman, Abraham obtains her release because God dumps plagues on Pharaoh (what else?). This is considered a symbolic triumph over the enormous seductive black magic powers of the Egyptian sorcerers of that time. (Remember the “curse” of King Tut ? etc). It is Abraham’s power of FAITH in God that saves him from the evil traps of ancient Egypt. And thereby also uplifts humanity from its previous levels of depravity to a more LIVABLE and enlightened moral level.
When its states: “ And Abraham went up out of Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his and Lot (his nephew) with him, to the Negev, (the south of Canaan). Abraham was very laden (rich) with livestock, silver, and gold.” [*5] The ancient sage Rabbi Shimon said: “These words have an inner meaning, and indicate to us that Abram (he was called this before his circumcision) went down to the ‘lower degrees’ in Egypt, and probed them to the bottom, but he did not cleave to them and returned to his Master. He was not like Adam, who, when he descended to a ‘certain grade’, was enticed by the serpent and brought death upon the world; nor was he like Noah, who, when he descended to a ‘certain grade’, was enticed and ‘drank of the wine and became drunk and was uncovered in the midst of his tent’ (Genesis IX, 21). Unlike them, Abram came up again and returned to his place, to the ‘upper grade’ to which he had been attached previously. This whole incident is told in order to show that he was steadfast in his attachment to ‘Wisdom’, and was not seduced, and returned to his former condition. ‘Into the South’: this is the ‘higher grade’ to which he was attached at first…” [*6]
So we learn that where Adam and Noah failed, Abraham succeeds because he is able to repel the “seductive advances” of evil as literally embodied in the Pharaoh and Egypt of his times.
In earlier times, Eve was unfortunately seduced by a cunning serpent to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and enticed Adam to do likewise, and as God had stated, it would bring death into the world. Noah’s family was ripped apart by his own folly by falling victim to the temptations of his vine with its wine, and thus splintered humanity as a result of his sons’ different roads in life, and the conflict of nations that they set into motion through the different curses and blessings that Noah gave them.
Due to their superhuman sacrifices and achievements, it is Abraham and Sarah who merit being the progenitors of many nations that will abide by Monotheism, and/or a heightened state of spiritual awareness. Their chief mission is that following Abraham’s circumcision, a culmination of their righteous CONVERSION to Ethical Monotheism, as Judaism could be labeled back then, they laid the foundation for the rise of the Children of Israel with the birth of their own son Yitzchak who in turn fathers Jacob who will be renamed Israel, the father of the Children of Israel who will in turn change the destiny and direction of the world many times over in the direction of Godliness and holiness.
Please let me know what you think and have a great Shabbat!
[*1] The Living Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, p.23. Plate 2.
[*2] Genesis, Chapter 17.
[*3] Genesis, Chapter 17, Verses 9-14. (Translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah).
[*4] Midrash Rabbah, Genesis, Volume One, Chapter XLVI, part3. (The Soncino Press, Translated into English, p. 390).
[*5] Genesis, Chapter 13, Verses 1-2.
[*6] Genesis, The Zohar, Volume I, Section on Lech Lecha, 83a. The Soncino Press, English Translation, p.276.