One day, while on shlichus in Bangkok, Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz was riding in a taxi stuck in heavy Bangkok traffic. Calculating that it would take less time to walk to his destination, Chezki paid the fare and got out. As he was walking down the street, a well-dressed foreigner approached him.

“Excuse me for stopping you on the street like this,” the man began. “But if have this feeling that you could advise me. My wife and I are from America, and we have a business here. We’re expecting the birth of a baby boy any day now. Where would we be able to find a mohel to perform the circumcision?”

“I am a mohel,” Rabbi Lifshitz replied with a smile, “and I’ll be happy to be of service.”

The man later told the Rabbi that the day before they had met, his wife had asked him if he had done anything more to find a mohel. Anxiously, she had questioned him: “What do you expect? Do you think you’ll bump into a mohel on the streets of Bangkok?”

Which is, of course, exactly what had happened.

Parshas Vayeira

The commentaries on this week’s Torah reading relate that there was an argument between Abraham’s two sons: Yishmael — the progenitor of the Arabs — and Isaac, from whom the Jews descend. Yishmael bragged to Isaac that he performed the circumcision when he was 13, while Isaac did so at the age of 8 days.

Yishmael was pointing out his positive quality. He had been willing to accept the circumcision at a more advanced age when the pain was greater and he was aware of what he was doing. Despite the pain, he made a conscious decision to carry out G‑d’s will. Isaac, Yishmael argued, had never made such a choice. He had been circumcised as an infant when he was not aware of what was happening to him.

Seemingly, there is merit to Yishmael’s argument. Nevertheless, the Torah commands us to circumcise our children at the more tender age. Why? The circumcision represents our covenant with G‑d, a physical sign of our bond with Him. Why is the child forced to be a passive partner in this act? Why not wait until he is older and the act becomes a conscious affirmation of G‑d’s will?

This point, however, reflects a fundamental distinction between the manner in which a Jew relates to G‑d and the manner in which humanity at large relates to Him. Ask a person in the street if he is willing to do something for G‑d. He will agree, provided, of course, he understands that G‑d exists and he knows what G‑d wants from him. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s normal and natural.

But a Jew’s relationship with G‑d goes above the normal and the natural. This difference is reflected in our Sages’ description of the giving of the Torah. They relate that before G‑d gave the Torah to the Jews, He offered it to several of the other nations. Before accepting, however, each of them questioned G‑d: “What is stated within it?” And when they received the answer that one of the Torah’s commandments ran contrary to their way of life, they graciously declined.

When G‑d offered the Torah to the Jewish people, they answered naaseh venishmah, “We will do and we will listen,” giving G‑d a blanket promise of acceptance before they even heard what was asked of them. The emphasis is not that they trusted that whatever G‑d would say would be to their benefit, but rather that they committed themselves blindly, promising to do His will because He is G‑d, no matter what He would ask.

Similarly, with regard to establishing a covenant with G‑d through circumcision, the ordinary, human approach is to wait until one understands. When the act is meaningful and significant, a person will commit himself. A Jew, by contrast, makes his commitment above knowledge; it is not dependent on his understanding.

The ultimate example of this is a child who is circumcised at eight days. He is brought into a covenant with G‑d by his parents without even realizing what is happening to him. Nevertheless, it is this covenant that nurtures his relationship with G‑d throughout his life.

Looking to the Horizon

The number eight is significant in Torah numerology. Seven reflects the natural order and eight, G‑d’s infinity that transcends nature. It is, however, emphasized that eight is seven plus one, i.e., G‑d’s transcendent oneness permeates the seven qualities of the natural order. For the Jewish concept of transcendence is not other-worldly, forgetting about our material existence. Instead, the concept is to fuse one with seven — to have G‑d’s transcendence reflected in every dimension of our material existence.

This concept relates to the coming of Mashiach, for גאולה, “redemption,” shares the same letters as גולה, “exile,” except that there is an alef "א", standing for G‑d’s infinity in the word for redemption. For the concept of redemption is not to nullify the world as it existed beforehand, but to infuse G‑d’s infinity within it.

This is alluded to by the fact that the harp to be played in the Temple in the era of Mashiach will be of eight strands. In the previous eras, the Temple’s harp had only seven strands, for the world had not reached beyond the limits of nature. In the era of Mashiach, however, those restraints will be overcome and G‑d’s transcendence will be revealed.