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The Message of Mila

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




The Message of Mila

Summarized by Ramon Widmonte


"And God appeared to him [Avraham] at Elonei Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day." (Bereishit 18:1)


Both Ramban and Rashi connect this to the previous parasha, "On this selfsame day, Avraham was circumcised..." (Bereishit 17:26). In other words, God's revelation to Avraham was a direct result of brit mila (the covenant of circumcision). How so?


The Midrash Rabba, in our parasha, describes how Avraham complained to God that after his mila, he could no longer receive guests. Avraham's nature and destiny was to be "Av hamon goyim" (the father of many nations), to spread the idea of monotheism to the world at large. However, the mila prevented him from doing this, since it made him tangibly different from everyone else. Avraham felt that he had lost his ability to connect with other human beings, to be involved with other nations.


Basing itself on various verses, the Midrash Rabba compares Avraham to a mountain, Yitzchak to a field and Yaakov to a house. This very suggestive midrash has been subject to many interpretations. Let me offer just one. A mountain can be seen from afar - and this was Avraham. Everyone saw him; his message spread through the entire world. Yitzchak was like a field - only those nearby can see it and benefit from its goodness. Yaakov was a house - the most introverted, the loneliest, the most self-contained. On the face of it, the person to whom the mitzva of mila is most appropriate is Yaakov, who was distant and separate in any case.


The Midrash Tanchuma in our parasha quotes the famous polemic between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus regarding mila. Turnus Rufus claimed that if God wanted man to be circumcised, He would have created man like that. He believed that God's creations were better than mankind's, i.e. that man's natural state is best. Today, too, may people believe that that which is natural is most perfect and most desirable. How can it be that there is a flaw in nature? So not only is the natural world, external to mankind, perfect and beautiful, but man's internal natural world is also perfect, including all of his most banal instincts and feelings.


This is the message of the brit mila. Despite the fact that we recognise the hand of God as constantly guiding and energising the entire natural scheme, we must also realize that there is ugliness and cruelty in nature; there are things against which we have to struggle and which we have to overpower in order to perfect the world and ourselves.


Avraham opposed the mila because it externalised this qualitative shift away from the world's thinking at the time. Was he not too different to make a difference to the world? Initially, he did not understand that only through the uniqueness and distinctness of Am Yisrael would it be possible to have an eternal influence on the world. God came that day to enlighten him on this matter.


And so, the Torah describes that even after the brit, Avraham indeed received guests, and the Midrash describes further that he received others - people who did not come and go, returning to their original faiths, but people who came, and saw, and stayed. Avraham's influence was not diminished, but magnified - reaching down to us in this generation.

(This sicha was originally delivered on Leil Shabbat, Parashat Vayera 5757 [1996].)



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