Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My remarks at the recent bris

It is with great joy and gratitude to Hashem that we welcome our son, [Baby], into the bris of Avraham Avinu.

While looking over this week's parsha, I came across an interesting midrash Tanchuma, cited by Rashi. The years of famine hit Egypt, and we read {Bereishit 41}:

נה  וַתִּרְעַב כָּל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וַיִּצְעַק הָעָם אֶל-פַּרְעֹה לַלָּחֶם; וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה לְכָל-מִצְרַיִם לְכוּ אֶל-יוֹסֵף, אֲשֶׁר-יֹאמַר לָכֶם תַּעֲשׂוּ.
55 And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians: 'Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do.'

What is meant by asher yomar lachem taasu? Rashi writes:

what he tells you, do: Since Joseph had ordered them to circumcise themselves, and when they came to Pharaoh and said, “This is what he said to us,” he (Pharaoh) said to them, “Why didn’t you gather grain? Didn’t he announce to you that years of famine were coming?” They replied, “We gathered much, but it rotted.” He (Pharaoh) replied,“If so, do whatever he tells you. He issued a decree upon the grain, and it rotted. What if he issues a decree upon us and we die?” - [from Mid. Tanchuma Mikeitz 7, Gen. Rabbah 91:5]

אשר יאמר לכם תעשו: לפי שהיה יוסף אומר להם שימולו, וכשבאו אצל פרעה ואומרים כך הוא אומר לנו, אמר להם למה לא צברתם בר, והלא הכריז לכם ששני הרעב באים, אמרו לו אספנו הרבה והרקיבה, אמר להם אם כן כל אשר יאמר לכם תעשו, הרי גזר על התבואה והרקיבה, מה אם יגזור עלינו ונמות:

Now, this is a bit strange. What benefit could there be for the Egyptians to be circumcised? Does this mean kabbalas ol mitzvos? Something else? This midrash means what it means, either on a surface or deeper level, but regardless, the midrash entertains the idea that Yosef ordered circumcision and the Egyptians carried it out.

We see the idea of non-Jewish people being circumcised even outside of midrash, in the text of Tanach itself. In the 9th perek of sefer Yirmiyah,

כד  הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים, נְאֻם-ה', וּפָקַדְתִּי, עַל-כָּל-מוּל בְּעָרְלָה.
24 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will punish all them that are circumcised in their uncircumcision:
כה  עַל-מִצְרַיִם וְעַל-יְהוּדָה, וְעַל-אֱדוֹם וְעַל-בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן וְעַל-מוֹאָב, וְעַל כָּל-קְצוּצֵי פֵאָה, הַיֹּשְׁבִים בַּמִּדְבָּר--כִּי כָל-הַגּוֹיִם עֲרֵלִים, וְכָל-בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל עַרְלֵי-לֵב.  {פ}
25 Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all that have the corners of their hair polled, that dwell in the wilderness; for all the nations are uncircumcised, but all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart. {P}

The implication of this, according to Shadal, Shmuel David Luzzato, is that various groups are physically circumcised, but they are uncircumcised in the heart. And that this group includes, among others, the Egyptians. But if all these nations regularly circumcised themselves, why it berit milah considered this a special mitzvah for Jews, which identifies someone as a Jewish person?

We might suggest different answers. For example, if according to the midrash, they got it from us! So it is still our identifying mark. Shadal, on the other hand, maintains that the Egyptians did not get this practice from Avraham Avinu. Rather, he claims that we got it from the Egyptians! That it was an Egyptian practice among their priests, and Hashem commanded Avraham Avinu to practice milah because of the idea that Israel is a mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh. Thus, that it was an adopted practice, adapted to its own unique meaning within Judaism -- that in Judaism, it is not the priests who have a special connection to and covenant with Hashem, but rather every Jew has this special relationship and covenant.

And, I would add, that is perhaps the idea being brought forth in the pasuk in Yirmeyah. The physical brit milah is extremely important, as a mitzvah, as a sign of Jewish identity. But the mere physical aspect is not sufficient. We are also supposed to maintain and develop this special connection with Hashem. As we hear in sefer Devarim {10:16}:

טז  וּמַלְתֶּם, אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם; וְעָרְפְּכֶם--לֹא תַקְשׁוּ, עוֹד.
16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.

Not just ancient Egyptians, but many Americans today have circumcision as medical procedure. So, what makes our bris milah special?

In the hospital, the day after Baby was born, the pediatrician came to congratulate us on Baby's birth and tell us how Baby was doing. At one point he asked whether we intended to have him circumcised in the hospital. Racheli told him that we were not, but were planning on having it done as a religious ceremony. At which point he said "Mazal Tov." Obviously, it was clear to the hospital pediatrician that giving our son a bris, as opposed to a mere circumcision, meant that being part of Klal Yisrael is central to who we are.

The difference between our brit milah and a circumcision conducted in the hospital is that ours is a true mark of identity. Not because of the physical mark, but because we do it here, as a mitzvah and part of a kahal. Because we understand that this ceremony is really about וּמַלְתֶּם, אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם, entering into the covenant of Avraham Avinu to maintain a lifelong connection to Hashem.

While on the subject of investing things with meaning, let me explain the thought behind the naming of [Baby]. [NOTE: The explanation of the name here, but edited out.] We selected a name based on some of the midot we hope our son will carry through his life....bimheira veyameinu, amein

Finally, Racheli and I would like to thank some of the many people who have helped our baby reach today's spiritual milestone -- and who have helped make the physical milestones less scary. Besides obviously our own parents who have helped us in infinite ways through all of our own milestones, I would particularly like to thank Janet Hershkowitz, who provided incredible emotional support from the time we came into the hospital up until the time she delivered the baby into this world. And I would like to thank Rabbi Paysach Krohn for his work today in bringing the baby into the covenant of Avraham Avinu, just as he did for me, and baby's big brother [Junior]. Now our own work starts to raise him to be a caring and dedicated member of klal yisrael.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Mazal Tov.

How do you think this connects (your explanation as well as the simple pshat in rashi) to the other medrash, that when Yosef revealed himself, his brothers only believed him once he showed them his bris mila?


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