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Circumcision: The Individual's Covenant With God

Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Portion(1) ends with the command for Abraham to perform bris mila (circumcision). The Sefer Hachinuch notes a unique aspect of this mitzvah. There are a significant number of negative mitzvot for which transgression incurs the onesh (punishment) of karet.(2) However, there are only two positive mitzvot for which the punishment is karet for one who fails to observe them; bris mila and Korban Pesach (known as the Pascal lamb), the offering that is given in Temple times on the festival of Pesach. What is the significance of these two mitzvot that makes them unique in this aspect?

In order to answer this question, it is first necessary to explain why negative mitzvot are more associated with karet than positive mitzvot. In a relationship between two people such as marriage, there are certain actions that can damage the relationship but not cause it to be completely destroyed. However, there are things that are so serious that they could indeed end the relationship. Similarly, committing a sin causes a breach in the relationship between a person and God. The significance of the breach is determined by the seriousness of the sin.(3) There are some sins which damage the relationship to such a degree that they cause irrevocable harm. These often incur the onesh of karet.(4)

In contrast, neglecting to perform a positive mitzvah can damage a relationship in that it prevents possible ways of increasing one's closeness to God. However, it is very difficult to envisage how a lack of positive actions can irrevocably damage one's relationship with God. This explains why failure to carry out most positive mitzvot does not incur karet. What makes bris mila and korban Pesach different? In order to begin a marriage a person must undertake a commitment to join in unity with his wife. Without such a commitment there is no genuine relationship - one can do all kinds of nice deeds but, in the Torah's eyes, they are not married until they perform the wedding ceremony prescribed by the Torah. In a similar way, a person needs to make a commitment to God to undertake his relationship with Him. Without such a commitment he cannot begin to have a true relationship.(5) Bris mila and korban Pesach are both types of covenants with God, whereby a Jew commits to keeping the Torah.

This connection is demonstrated by a verse in the book of Ezekiel. The Prophet reminds the Jewish people of the time that they were helpless slaves in Egypt, and how God brought them out. He does this through an analogy of a stranded baby being saved. The verse states "And I (6) passed over you and I saw you covered in blood, and I said to you, "by your blood you shall live, by your blood you shall live." (7) The Rabbis explain that these two mentions of blood, refer to the blood of bris mila and korban Pesach. Through the merit of these two mitzvot, the Jews were redeemed from slavery and brought to Sinai to receive the Torah. It seems that it is no coincidence that it was these two mitzvot that God commanded the people to perform. They represented the people's willingness to commit to becoming the Nation of God.

Another connection between these two mitzvot is that there are two occasions when the Prophet Elijah visits the Jewish people; at a bris mila and on Seder night, the night when we remember the korban Pesach. This is because Elijah, exasperated at the Jewish people's continued sinning, declared that there was no hope for them.(8) In response, God ordered him to visit every bris mila which would show that, no matter how much the people may sin they still keep the covenant between them and God. Similarly, Elijah comes at Seder night, to see the Jewish people celebrate their birth as a nation.(9)

The question remains, why is it necessary for there to be two mitzvot that involve the basic commitment to doing God's will, why wouldn't it be sufficient for one mitzvah to fulfill this role?

The answer is that the two mitzvot represent different aspects of a commitment. Bris mila was first commanded to a single individual, Abraham, to form his covenant with God. Thus, bris mila represents a person's commitment to his individual relationship with God and all that entails. The korban Pesach represents our commitment to God as part of the Jewish people. The laws of the korban Pesach emphasize the importance of fulfilling the mitzvah in groups, stressing the national aspect of the mitzvah. Accordingly, it is necessary to have two forms of covenants; one between the individual and God and one between a person as a member of the Jewish people, and God.

This understanding can help us explain an unusual law pertaining to the korban Pesach. It is forbidden for an uncircumcised Jew to participate in the korban Pesach.(10) Why is this the case - the fact that a person does not keep one mitzvah, in no way exempts him from keeping the other mitzvot!(11) The answer is that a person cannot genuinely commit to God as part of a nation when has had made no such commitment on an individual basis.

This teaches us an essential lesson. Many people identify strongly as Jews, and as part of the Jewish people. They commit to the state of Israel, and would willingly give up time and effort, and perhaps even risk their lives, for the Jewish people. They stand up to defend Israel when it comes under verbal attack from the numerous anti-Semitic forces in the world. However, on an individual basis, there is far less commitment.(12) One may identify as being part of the Jewish nation, but he must also strive to commit to his individual relationship with God. The exact way in which to apply this lesson varies according to each person, however, in a general sense it seems that everyone should see in what way he can increase his personal commitment to his relationship with God. It could involve speaking to God,(13) learning more of His Torah, striving to keep more aspects of Shabbat or kosher food, and so on. The main point is to try something. It is vital to remember that God wants a relationship with each and every individual, in his own right.



1. Many of the ideas in this essay are based on a class given by Rabbi Uziel Milevsky.

2. Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvo 2. Karet is translated as spiritual excision - there is much discussion as to what exactly this entails but, as its name implies, it involves some form of losing a connection with God. Transgressions that incur karet include, eating bread on Pesach, eating certain forbidden fats, various types of forbidden relations. It should be noted that a person who commits one of these forbidden actions due to a lack of knowledge does not suffer from karet.

3. There are other factors that do come into effect with regard to the level of punishment. For example, as we said above, one's awareness of Jewish law is very significant in determining the onesh one receives.

4. It should be noted that teshuva (repentance) can always rectify the damage caused by sins (although in some cases, a degree of suffering may also be necessary).

5. Of course, this does not mean that he is exempt from keeping Mitzvot, rather it means that he is spiritually hindered in a very serious way.

6. This is God speaking in the words of the Prophet.

7. Ezekiel, 16:6.

8. Melachim 1, Ch. 19:10.

9. It is interesting to note, that two of the most well-observed Mitzvot amongst secular Jews, are bris mila and Seder night.

10. Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzva 17.

11. Or of course, that Mitzva itself.

12. It should be noted that, whilst the actual Mitzva of bris mila applies to men, the lessons derived from it, apply equally to women.

13. Whilst there are standard prayer services, it is also highly recommended for a person to speak to Hashem in his own language, in his own time, and share his feelings, needs and desires with His Creator.


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