The Contrast Between Our Observance ofthe Mitzvos, and that of Our Patriarchs

Our Sages say1 that Avraham fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given. But2 Avraham did not circumcise himself until he was explicitly commanded to do so at the age of 99. Why did he wait to perform this mitzvah until he received G‑d’s command?

This question can be resolved by explaining the difference between the mitzvos which the Patriarchs observed before the giving of the Torah and the mitzvos which the Jewish people observe after the giving of the Torah.3 The Patriarchs observed mitzvos on their own individual initiative. They were not granted any strength from Above to enhance their observance.4 In contrast, by commanding the Jews to observe the mitzvos at Mount Sinai, G‑d empowered them with unique influence.

As such, although the Patriarchs observed the mitzvos in deed, they were not able to have the holiness of the mitzvos permeate the physical articles with which the mitzvos were performed. These material articles did not become holy.

For example, the Zohar5 explains that by setting out the staves before Lavan’s sheep,6 Yaakov drew down the same spiritual influence as we draw down through fulfilling the mitzvah of tefillin. But once he had completed his service with these staves, they remained ordinary pieces of wood.

In contrast, the mitzvos observed after the Giving of the Torah have been endowed by G‑d with the power to draw down holiness into material objects.

On the other hand, although our mitzvos possess a higher dimension than those performed by the Patriarchs, it is the observance of the mitzvos by our Patriarchs which makes it possible for us to observe mitzvos within the material realm,7 as it is said:8 “The deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants.” Their deeds blazed a path for their descendants,9 and empowered them to follow.

Since the potential for our observance of the mitzvos comes from “the deeds of the Patriarchs,” it was necessary that at least one mitzvah performed by the Patriarchs resemble the mitzvos performed after the giving of the Torah in its entirety. This mitzvah and its holiness would permeate material existence and endow it with holiness which would endure even after the observance of the mitzvah is completed.

This one mitzvah would establish a connection between all the mitzvos the Patriarchs observed even those with an effect only on the spiritual plane and the mitzvos observed after the giving of the Torah. Through this connection, all of our Patriarchs’ mitzvos empower us to draw holiness into the material world.

To cite a parallel: When G‑d wanted a prophet to convey a prophecy, He would often have the prophet perform certain physical activities, e.g., lying on his right side, or his left side.10 Why was it necessary to connect prophecy to physical activity? Our Rabbis explain11 that it is possible for prophecy to have an effect only in the spiritual realms. In order for prophecy to affect the material world, G‑d ruled that it be associated with physical activity.

Similarly, for the observance of our Patriarchs to influence our actual performance of the mitzvos, it was necessary that, at least in one instance, their observance involve material substance.

“An Eternal Bond in Your Flesh”

The one mitzvah by which our Patriarchs drew down holiness into material existence was that of circumcision. For circumcision is unique in that it brings holiness into the human body, and that holiness continues to endure, as it is written:12 “And My covenant will be an eternal bond in your flesh.”

To clarify this point: There are two dimensions to the mitzvah of circumcision: a) the onetime act of removing the foreskin, and b) the continuous effect that the person will be circumcised, and that he will not be uncircumcised.13

The latter aspect is reflected in the Rambam’s ruling14 that a person who causes the flesh of his sexual organ to appear extended15 is considered to have “abrogated the covenant of Avraham our Patriarch.”

The above reflects two concepts:

a) The intent of the mitzvah of circumcision is to affect the actual physical flesh. The physical organ is more than an intermediary through which the mitzvah is fulfilled, as are the head and the arm on which tefillin are tied. With regard to circumcision, it is not merely that the mitzvah is performed with this organ; the purpose of the mitzvah is to affect the actual flesh, so that the person be circumcised, and that he not be uncircumcised.

b) The mitzvah of circumcision extends beyond the time in which the foreskin is cut, affecting the person for his entire life.

A proof of the continuous nature of circumcision can be gleaned from the Talmud’s narrative concerning King David.16 When King David entered the bathhouse and saw himself naked, he exclaimed: “Woe is me! I am no longer clothed with Your mitzvos.” When, however, he remembered the mitzvah of circumcision, he regained his calm.

This indicates that the mitzvah of circumcision is continuous, affecting the person even after the act has been completed. This realization is what allayed David’s distress. For we cannot say that David was calmed by the recollection that he had been circumcised years ago, and that this had drawn down holiness upon him. For if this was the case, there would be no difference between the mitzvah of circumcision and mitzvos associated with other limbs of the body.17

The distinction of circumcision vis-a-vis the other mitzvos requires clarification. For after the giving of the Torah, the other mitzvos we perform also affect the limbs with which they are fulfilled. Putting on tefillin refines our heads and hands and endows them with holiness. And this holiness continues even after one removes the tefillin. Unquestionably, a hand on which tefillin have been placed is not the same as a hand on which tefillin have not, ח''ו , been placed. The distinction is that the tefillin and similarly, all the other mitzvos refine the body and induce holiness, but the mitzvah of tefillin does not continue forever. With regard to circumcision, by contrast, the mitzvah itself remains a part of the person’s body.

On this basis, we can also resolve a question asked by Tosafos :18 The Talmud derives the fact that women are not obligated to circumcise their sons from the exegesis of a Torah verse. Why is this necessary? Women are not obligated to fulfill any mitzvos whose observance is limited to a particular time. Since the mitzvah of circumcision has such a limitation it may be performed only during the day and not at night it should be obvious that women are not obligated in its observance.

Based on the above, however, this difficulty can be resolved. For although the actual observance of the mitzvah of circumcision is limited to a particular time, the mitzvah itself that a Jew is circumcised (and that he is not uncircumcised) applies at all times.

Choosing Obedience to G‑d Over Human Initiative

The abovementioned aspects of the mitzvah of circumcision that it endows physical flesh with holiness and endures continuously applied before the giving of the Torah. Therefore when Avraham wanted his servant Eliezar to take an oath and an oath must be taken while holding an article sanctified through a mitzvah19 he told him:20 “Place your hand beneath my thigh.” The holiness of the mitzvah of circumcision had continued, and therefore Eliezar could take the oath, swearing by this mitzvah.

We can thus understand why Avraham waited to perform the mitzvah of circumcision until he was commanded to do so by G‑d instead of observing it on his own initiative. Since this mitzvah resembles the mitzvos observed after the giving of the Torah, it was necessary for its observance to have been commanded by G‑d, and thus to be endowed with a measure of Divine influence.

(Adapted from Sichos Chof-Daled Teves, 5711, Yud Shvat, 5712)

Towards Refinement

The fact that G‑d chose the mitzvah of circumcision to be the mitzvah through which the deeds of the Patriarchs influence the mitzvos performed by their descendants indicates that this mitzvah has a general import relevant to all the mitzvos.

To explain: In the Guide to the Perplexed21 and many of the concepts stated in the Guide22 are based on the Zohar and other Kabbalistic sources23 the Rambam writes that one of the reasons for the mitzvah of circumcision is to weaken the power of sexual desire. This reflects a general purpose common to all mitzvos, for they were given “to perfect the created beings,”24 to refine the physical body so that it will not be dominated by desire for material pleasures. On the contrary, one’s pleasure is to come solely from the realm of holiness.

Three Dimensions of Circumcision

In addition to the general connection which circumcision shares with the other mitzvos, there are particular dimensions to circumcision which parallel comprehensive thrusts in our Divine service.

As mentioned above, there are three dimensions to the mitzvah of circumcision: a) the actual removal of the foreskin, b) that one becomes circumcised (and, as explained above, this is an ongoing quality), and c) that one is no longer uncircumcised.

Distinguishing between these dimensions is not merely a theoretical exercise; the ramifications affect the actual observance of the mitzvah. Each one of these elements is necessary in order to observe the mitzvah fully; even when two of the three have been satisfied, the observance of the mitzvah is incomplete, and Jewish law requires that the third also be satisfied.

For example when, as sometimes happens, a baby is born circumcised, two of the requirements have been met: he is circumcised, and he is not uncircumcised. Nevertheless, the third requirement that the act of circumcision be performed is lacking. And therefore it is necessary to “draw forth the blood of the covenant.”25

Similarly, when a person has been circumcised and afterwards extends the flesh of the organ in order to appear uncircumcised, two of the three requirements have been met: the act of circumcision has been performed, and he is not considered uncircumcised as reflected by the fact that he, in contrast to a person who has never been circumcised, may partake of terumah.26 He lacks, however, the continuous dimension of circumcision. As mentioned above, the Rambam refers to this as “abrogat[ing] the covenant of Avraham our Patriarch.”

And finally, when a person is born with two foreskins, and has only one of them removed, again two requirements have been met: the act of circumcision has been performed, and he is circumcised. But he is still considered as uncircumcised,27 and this must be corrected to complete the observance of the mitzvah.

The Parallel in Our Divine Service

These three dimensions of circumcision reflect three thrusts in our Divine service. As mentioned, the act of cutting the foreskin brings about a twofold result: a) that the person becomes circumcised, and b) that he not be uncircumcised. So too, our Divine service in the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos involves performing deeds that must bring about a twofold result.

“Being circumcised” refers to the service of “doing good,”28 revealing and expressing the good which every Jew possesses. More particularly, this means that each Jew should express the good within himself by having his day-to-day thoughts, words and deeds embrace the study of Torah and the observance of its mitzvos. And he should express this good by seeking always to serve as a positive influence on others.

“Not being uncircumcised” refers to the service of “turning away from evil,” not being under the dominion of “the uncircumcised,” i.e., the yetzer hora.29 This means being free from evil desires.

In particular, this is a twofold activity paralleling milah the cutting of the thick foreskin i.e., removing crass and gross desires, and priyah tearing away the thin membrane purging more sophisticated desires.

Just as in the physical sense, a person who is born circumcised is not considered to have completed the observance of the mitzvah , so too, there exists a parallel in our Divine service. In Tanya,30 the Alter Rebbe explains that there are individuals who are born with a tendency for diligent study. Thus such a person carries out the service of “do[ing] good” (i.e., being circumcised) naturally, without effort. Similarly, since he is by nature withdrawn, his pursuit of physical desires is restrained, and he is naturally careful in “turn[ing] away from evil” (i.e., not being uncircumcised).

Nevertheless, such Divine service is not sufficient. On the contrary, as the Alter Rebbe explains, such an individual is described as “one who does not serve G‑d.” Why? Because his Divine service lacks effort. It is necessary to work , to apply oneself to Divine service above and beyond what comes naturally.

A similar concept applies with regard to a person whose tendency to “turn away from evil and do good” comes as a result of efforts in the past, but which has now become second nature, as it were. As explained in Tanya, such a person cannot rely on his previous activity, but must constantly strive to reach new heights.

This is a directive for every Jew, underscoring how we must constantly labor in our Divine service, instead of remaining satisfied with the good we have already accomplished. Every Jew, even one who has not attained the level of a tzaddik , or even that of a benoni, possesses inherent positive attributes and an innate tendency to do good.31 Similarly, he possesses a natural aversion to certain negative qualities. For example, as explained in Tanya,32 no Jew is willing to deny his Jewish faith. For this, every Jew is willing, with a commitment that surpasses reason or logic, to sacrifice his life, and/or endure the most severe torment.

In light of this potential, the above lesson becomes more relevant. Bringing out the good which every Jew possesses requires effort. Not only must we work to inculcate positive qualities which we do not possess by nature, but we must work to develop even those positive qualities which are inherent to our make-up, to refine and elevate them to a higher plane of holiness.

The Entry of the G‑dly Soul

On this basis, we can also understand a halachic ruling delivered by the Alter Rebbe in his Shulchan Aruch:33 “the final and essential dimension of the entry of a man’s holy soul is at the age of 13,” at Bar Mitzvah.

[Thus our Sages34 interpret the phrase35 “An old foolish king” to refer to the yetzer hora (the evil inclination), and refer to the yetzer tov (the good inclination) with the expression: “A weak, but wise lad.” The yetzer hora is referred to as old because it comes to a person 13 years before the yetzer tov, which for that reason is referred to as a lad.]

Nevertheless, as the Alter Rebbe continues, the first stages of the entry of the G‑dly soul come during a child’s education to the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos, and more particularly, at circumcision.

The rationale for this is that the inherent nature of the body and the animal soul is to be attracted to all material entities, as indicated by the verse,36 “the spirit of the animal descends downward to the earth.” Through the mitzvah of circumcision, one weakens the excitement and enjoyment one feels in physical pursuits, as cited above. And through this act, one enhances the potential for excitement and enjoyment in the realm of holiness. Thus this is the time when the G‑dly soul enters the body’s inner dimensions.

An Inner Bond

There is no source cited for the Alter Rebbe’s ruling. It is possible to say37 that the concept is based on the decision of the Menoras HaMeor, by R. Yisrael Alnakavah,38 which accepts as halachah the opinion which states:39 “When does a child [acquire the right to] enter the World to Come? When he is circumcised.”

The World to Come refers to the Era of the Resurrection. The merit which enables the body to arise from the dead stems from the soul’s influence over it, and the fact that this influence has been internalized. The decision of the Menoras HaMeor that after circumcision, a baby merits resurrection thus serves as a source for the Alter Rebbe’s ruling that the entry of a man’s G‑dly soul into his body comes about through the mitzvah of circumcision.

Even before circumcision indeed even before birth the soul has a connection with the body, as our Sages say40 concerning a child in his mother’s womb: “A candle burns at his head,… and he is given an oath ‘Be righteous…,’ ” i.e., the soul is given an oath concerning how the body will conduct itself after birth.41 Thus we see that, even before birth, the soul shares a connection with the body. This connection, however, is external: the “candle burns at his head, ” i.e., above him. Through circumcision, by contrast, the soul’s connection to the body is internalized; and thus circumcision marks the entry of the holy soul into the body.

The Reward for this Mitzvah

The two aspects of the mitzvah mentioned above: that a Jew becomes circumcised and that he is no longer uncircumcised, are reflected in two aspects of the reward granted for the observance of this mitzvah.42

The reward granted for the positive dimension of circumcision is that one merits to enter the World to Come, as mentioned previously. The reward for the negative dimension (that one is no longer uncircumcised) is that, as our Sages say,43 Avraham sits at the entry to Gehinom, and does not allow any circumcised Jew to enter.44

Ultimately, the merit of circumcision will cause the Jews to be released from subjugation to the gentile nations which is equivalent to Gehinom45 as our Sages say,46 commenting on the phrase “Look to the covenant”: “Even if Israel does not possess any good deeds, the Holy One, blessed be He, will redeem them in the merit of the circumcision,” with the coming of Mashiach in the immediate future.