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The Test of the Bris

Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )

by Rabbi Zvi Belovski

Toward the end of the parsha, God instructed Avraham to perform bris milah (circumcision) on himself, on Yishmael his son, and on all the other males in his household. God promised that if Avraham was to perform the milah, then he would achieve a great level of perfection:

God appeared to Avram and said to him, "I am Keil Shakkai. Walk before Me and be perfect." (Bereishis 17:1).

As a man of intense spiritual desires, always striving to fulfill God's wish, we would have expected Avraham to circumcise himself without further consideration. Instead, a very intriguing midrash tells us:

Avraham had three close friends, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamrei. When God told him to perform the milah, he went to ask their advice. He told them what God had instructed him to do. Aner asked him whether he wanted to maim himself and risk that the relatives of the kings he had slain would take advantage of him and kill him. Eshkol remarked that Avraham was old and that he might die from the operation. Mamrei advised him to go ahead; after all, Avraham's God had saved him from all manner of troubles. The correct thing, said Mamrei, was to do God's bidding. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeira 3)

This is astonishing. Why did Avraham ask his friends' opinions on this mitzvah? Are we to understand that if he had received no positive advice he would not have done God's command? This is made even harder to understand by another, apparently contradictory midrash:

Sarah died in Kiryas Arba (Bereishis 23:2) - why was the place called "Kiryas Arba"? Because four tzaddikim (righteous people) lived there: Aner, Eshkol, Mamrei, and Avraham, and these four tzaddikim performed milah there. (Bereishis Rabbah 58:4)

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Before answering, we need to appreciate the spiritual struggle that Avraham encountered after he was commanded to circumcise himself. It is well known that Avraham was given ten tests in which he demonstrated his spiritual greatness. It follows that the tests must have increased in difficulty; there is no point in testing someone, finding that they pass the test, and then afterwards giving them an easier test. So the mitzvah of circumcision must have been harder for Avraham to accomplish than all of his previous tests. His earlier tests included being prepared to sacrifice his life for God when he was thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nimrod. Similarly, in the War of the Kings, he was prepared to lay down his life in an apparently hopeless campaign against powerful opposition. How could bris milah be considered a harder test than these? After all, it involves only a small, albeit painful, operation on one area of the body.

We have already seen that God promised Avraham perfection for circumcising himself. This would establish a unique link between God and Avraham forevermore. This was, of course, what Avraham had sought his whole life. But it had a flip side: once the circumcision was done, Avraham would be different from everyone else. Not just physically different but spiritually different; he would be taken from ordinary life and launched into a distinct spiritual orbit.

In this lay Avraham's problem. My holy father, Rabbi Avraham Bornstein, explained that Avraham's whole life was channeled toward developing not just his relationship with God, but to helping others appreciate the presence of God in their lives. He could only achieve this if he had some sort of relationship with those people whom he strove to draw near to his way of thinking. It was only possible for a contemporary of Avraham to be attracted to him if he felt that Avraham was in some way like him. And therein lay the test of circumcision.. Avraham was concerned that if he went ahead with the operation, he would lose touch with the common man. He would become so different, so exalted, that he would have no hope of reaching out and spreading the light of God to the uninitiated. Indeed, the slight traces of the mundane that still remained within Avraham would be expunged through the milah, leaving him bereft of his whole life's purpose. Avraham had to choose between fulfilling God's word and continuing to spread it. The Midrash tells us:

Avraham said, "While I was still uncircumcised, travelers came to me, but now that I am to be circumcised, are You to say they won't come to me anymore?" (Bereishis Rabbah 47:10)

For a man on the spiritual level of Avraham, this was a test of far greater magnitude than any previous one that he had encountered.

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We can now understand why Avraham took advice from his three friends. He needed them to become partners in his action! They represented the rest of humankind. If he could get them to accept intellectually the value of what he was about to do, then he would still have some association with them. Avraham would be able to continue his outreach work after all!

Although Aner and Eshkol claimed that Avraham's milah would be destructive to himself, we saw in another midrash that all three friends actually performed the operation on themselves. They were really saying that in normal life milah has no place. Someone who circumcises himself to fulfill God's directive will propel himself into a spiritual world which has no relationship with the common man. This did not stop Aner and Eshkol from performing the circumcision, as they themselves were prepared to act in a way beyond the natural. But they confirmed Avraham's fears about his future relationship with the rest of humanity. Only Mamrei was able to assuage Avraham's fears and recommend that he go ahead with it. By doing so, he was able to preserve some intellectual connection with Avraham's actions, enabling humankind to retain some link with him, even after the circumcision.

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This explanation should help us to understand another difficult midrash:

Avraham took Yishmael his son and all those males born in his household (Bereishis 47:7) - Rabbi Ayvu said, "When Avraham circumcised the males of his household, they made a pile of foreskins. The sun shone upon them and they putrefied. Their odor went up to God just like the incense and the burnt offering, which is totally consumed by the fire. God said, 'When their children sin and perform wicked acts, I will recall this smell for them, and I will be filled with mercy for them, and I will act mercifully.' " (Ibid., 7)

Rashi explains that one of the hidden meanings of the ketores (incense) is that it represents all of the mitzvos of the Torah. Indeed, its numerical value is 613, the number of mitzvos in the Torah - 248 positive mitzvos and 365 prohibitions - encompassing the whole range of good and bad activities of human life. Similarly, the ketores included a foul-smelling spice called chelbenah (galbanum), whose absence invalidated the compound. The all-encompassing nature of the ketores demanded that all elements of klal Yisrael, the nation of Israel, be represented, even the bad ones. This was the symbolic purpose of the chelbenah. It is as if the ketores rose above the mundane, taking both the tzaddikim and everyone else, down to the most wicked person, into the spiritual domain of God. When Avraham performed circumcision on all of his household, Yishmael and the others included, he brought everyone, at every level of spiritual development, into the klal. Hence the comparison to the ketores, which was intended to fulfill the same purpose.

Excerpted from Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe, rendered into English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, published by Targum Press. Click here to order.


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