In honor of the brit mila of our great grandson,
Moshe ben Yehoshua Solomon
19th Adar 5771, 23 February 2011
In previous generations, parents arranged marriages for their sons and daughters, convinced that the spouses they chose for their children would be ideal life partners for them. In a similar way, Jewish parents throughout the generations bring their newborn sons into a covenant with the God of Israel, eternally uniting them with their most ideal Partner. Brit mila is the act by which a Jewish child and God become engaged.
Circumcision is an eternal pledge that parents make to God. It is a promise that their child will not be an ordinary human being, but one who will live by God’s commandments and consequently help move mankind towards the final redemption. By performing a brit mila, Jewish parents proudly proclaim that their son is destined to become a light and blessing to all nations. (1)
One may ask: What gives parents the right to bring this child into an eternal covenant without his consent? How can we commit a child to a lifelong mission that he may not choose to fulfill?
Judaism turns the tables on this argument with a remarkable response: On the contrary, would it not be unjust to bring a child into the world without a higher mission? While Socrates explained that a life without thinking is not worth living, Judaism teaches us that life without a commitment to God is no life at all. The dignity of man stands in proportion to his obligations. We pass on this divine dignity to our children when we make them contractually obligated to fulfill the covenant with God. To withhold this awesome responsibility is to deny them the opportunity to experience the highest, truest value of living in this world.
The circumcision – the promise – is God’s seal imprinted on the human flesh. And it is only proper that this sign of allegiance be imposed upon the body, for after all, it is not the soul that needs to make a commitment. The soul is committed to its Creator. It is the body that, because of its inclination to feed its own base desires, must make a vow to compel itself to serve God. Like a piece of paper that carries the buying power of a certain dollar amount, the body serves as the vessel that holds the soul. Just as the symbolic markings on the bill inform us of the value assigned to it by the treasury department, so too the ‘signs’ we make on our bodies reveal the greatness of the souls they house. Furthermore, if the body fails to live up to its lofty responsibilities, the physical imprint of the circumcision serves as a constant reminder of what it means to reside in the presence of God; it is a testimony to one’s spiritual obligations and potential.
Like the revelation at Sinai, a circumcision is an event that exists as a moment in the past, yet extends into the present. From man’s perspective the brit mila happens just once, but from God’s perspective the message conveyed by this act – the Jewish nation’s unwavering commitment to God – resounds forever. Monuments of stone may disappear; acts of spirit will never vanish.
At Sinai the Jews committed themselves to the Torah with the words na’aseh ve-nishma, “We shall do and we shall hear.” Without yet knowing what the Torah would require of them, the Jewish people committed themselves to the uncertain task of serving the Creator of the universe. On the eighth day of a Jewish child’s life, at the time of circumcision, his parents imprint God’s seal on his body, thus bringing him into the covenant with God in the tradition of na’aseh ve-nishma. From that moment, the child begins his journey on the road of commitment to holiness that, although not yet known, is the most challenging and most rewarding mission life can offer – to become a servant of God, and a blessing to all nations. (2)
(1) Bereshit 12:2; Yeshayahu 42:6; Yeshayahu 49:6.
(2) Inspired by Abraham Joshua Heschel.