Covenant of the Land – A Weekly Letter from Rabbi Davis – April 20, 2018
I recently officiated at a brit milah. It was a wonderful simcha full of love, family and tradition. After the ceremony, a guest asked to talk privately saying that he was having trouble understanding the need for circumcision. It seemed unnecessary and potentially cruel in his eyes.
The question is a good one and he is not alone in asking. In Europe, concerns about circumcision have led to debates about banning the practice. And in parts of the American Jewish community, some parents are choosing to forgo this mitzvah.
I will leave the debate over the medical effects of circumcision to doctors. But I’d like to share a teaching based on this week’s parasha about the meaning behind circumcision.
We read in Midrash Tanchuma on this week’s Torah portion a debate between a Roman ruler named Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva*. In a contrarian tone, Turnus Rufus said, “If God had wanted boys circumcised, God would have made them born that way!” Rabbi Akiva answered with a parable. He brought some wheat and some cake and asked, “Which would you rather eat?” “Obviously, the cake,” Turnus Rufus responded. “The same message applies to brit milah,” Rabbi Akiva replied. “Mitzvot were given for humans to perfect ourselves.”
God gave us the raw material of the world and wants us to use our talent, creativity and drive to improve it. In the words of my teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein from the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, “The world is a work in progress, and we are God’s partners. Only through our activity, guided by Torah, can we and it be refined, beautified, and perfected.”
This week we celebrated Israel’s 70th Independence Day. That celebration is directly tied to this topic. Abraham was told, “Establish this covenant and I will give you a land flowing with milk and honey” (Gen. 17:7). Which covenant? The rabbis teach that the Torah is referring to brit milah. And indeed, circumcision becomes a condition that must be fulfilled to settle the land. Therefore, the first thing Joshua does when entering Israel is circumcise the men.
Why is this of all things a condition for establishing a homeland? Because, as we saw in the answer to Turnus Rufus, brit milah symbolizes the commandment to perfect the world. Like wheat turned to cake, Israel has made the desert bloom. And though it is not perfect (what country is?), I believe this remains the mission and hope of our people in our land. To paraphrase Rabbi Silverstein, Israel is a work in progress and we are God’s covenantal partners. Through our activity, guided by Torah, can it be refined, beautified, and perfected.
Rabbi Alexander Davis
*To learn more about Rabbi Akiva, come to The Well’s author talk on May 15, 7:00 pm where we will tune in to hear Dr. Barry Holtz discuss his new book, Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud.