This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
The latest article is posted here once a week. You can search the archive for past articles.
Parshat Lech-Lecha (5767)
In this week's Torah portion we learn about nine of the ten trials G-d tested Abraham with (Pirkei Avot 5:3) in order to make him the first Jew.
One of the most difficult of them was circumcising himself, at the age of ninety nine! [After seeing many circumcisions of older Jews I can't imagine how Abraham could have performed such a major operation on himself.]
What is most strange is that G-d prefaces this commandment to remove the foreskin by telling Abraham that through it he will be 'complete'! (17:1)
How can removing a G-d given, part of the body (through a painful, bloody operation no less!) possibly bring completion?!
It's also not understood why G-d had to test Abraham to make him the first Jew. G-d knows everything; he certainly knew that Abraham would pass the test; why torture him? And, even more, what is so special about being a Jew? So what if he wouldn't have passed?
To understand this, here is a story that took place some nine hundred years ago.
The tables were set for twenty-thirty people with a few meager pieces of fish, cucumbers, onions and potatoes and two loaves of bread. But the two candles, the white tablecloth and the bottle of wine betrayed that something festive was happening.
It was a brit; the festival of circumcision the Jews had been making on their eighth day old male babies since the days of Abraham. But this was not just any brit.
It was the brit of the first born child of a simple, poor Jew by the name of Reb Yitzchak (Isaac) after twenty years of barrenness!!
That's right! For twenty years G-d had not answered his and his wife's prayers - until now! But for some reason Reb Yitzchak wouldn't allow the event to begin. The crowd was getting impatient but hour after hour passed and he kept telling everyone to wait for just a few more minutes.
An older man, a stranger with old, patched up garments entered the door and looked around. He was obviously some sort of vagabond or wanderer and looked like someone who needed a meal and a handout. But as soon as he entered Reb Yitzchak smiled with joy and yelled out "Let us begin".
He escorted the fellow to the center of the room where there had been placed a large chair and sat him down. He was to give him the honor of being 'Sandek' (the one who holds the child at the time of circumcision) an honor usually reserved for either the father of the child or the most honorable person present.
After the circumcision was finished and the name Shlomo (Solomon) had been given to the child, they all sat down and began the 'festive' meal at which point the disheveled 'Sandek' stood and began to speak.
He spoke simply about how the name 'Shlomo' was reminiscent of how king Solomon was offered one wish by G-d and he chose wisdom (Kings 3:5-9). So also, he concluded, this child will be wise and teach the Jews wisdom.
After the meal everyone asked Reb Yitzchak who the old fellow was and he answered.
"The story is a long one but I will make it short.
"For years my wife and I lived at the edge of poverty. Our house was, and still is, a one-room ruin and many nights we had to go to sleep hungry. But what bothered us most was that we had not been blessed with children. We prayed, did good deeds, everything possible with no results.
"Well, one day I happened to be wandering aimlessly at the edge of the river praying to G-d for some sort of miracle when suddenly a glimmering in the mud caught my eye,
"I bent down and picked it up and.. lo and behold it was what looked like a large precious stone. Huge!! I ran to the jeweler and after looking at it for a minute or so declared that not only was it a genuine diamond but it was the largest stone he had ever seen in his life and was worth …. a fortune!!
"I excitedly ran home to tell my wife about our amazing blessing and we decided to sell it as soon as possible … it was dangerous keeping it in the house and give a large portion of the money to charity.
"I left for a few moments to see if I could find a buyer and just after I left the jeweler arrived. He excitedly produced a bag of golden coins, poured them on the table and offered my wife a small fortune for the gem.
She almost took the money then and there, but he happened to blurt out in glee that the priest would probably be overjoyed! He had been searching for months for a diamond like to be used as one of the eyes in the massive statue in……the church!!
"When my wife heard that she almost fainted. The stone would be used for idolatry, she would be supporting idolatry!!! But she hid her surprise and calmly answered that she would have to ask me.
"Of course when I came home and heard the story I refused. I was sure that if G-d wanted us to be rich He would do it in a completely permissible way.
And sure enough He did!!! (or so I thought at the time).
"The next day there was a knock at my door and when I opened it there stood the local duke with a job for me. He wanted me to accompany him, at a very high wage, for a week on a sea journey to buy some things for his business. He said that he would be dealing with Jews and needed a Jew with him to help. He heard that I was honest etc. and even paid me something in advance.
"Needless to say I took the offer and the next day we set sail. But after a few days at sea he pulled out an even larger bag of coins than the jeweler did and offered it all for the diamond. He too wanted it to donate to the Church. He must have known that I would be afraid to leave the stone at home with only my wife to guard it. He said that if I refused it wouldn't be good for me and my wife… and he was dead serious.
I was stuck!
There was no where to run. And the duke kept stressing that it was enough money to make me a rich man for the rest of my life and that he could have just killed me and taken it so I sort-of owed him a favor!
"I had to think fast I could not give him the stone… so I pretended to be happy and told him I agreed.
"Then I kissed the diamond as though saying good bye, held it up the sun and declared 'Ahhh, just look at this beautiful gift from heaven but what won't a man do to save his life!!'" and suddenly 'slipped' on the deck and 'accidentally' tossed the diamond from my upraised hand over the railing of the ship and into the churning sea below us.
"I even screamed in horror and began weeping so convincingly that the duke actually began to comfort and console me. But inside I was rejoicing that I avoided being a partner to idolatry.
"At that moment suddenly everything became silent, I didn't hear anything around me rather a voice, like an echo, issued from heaven and said: 'Rejoice Reb Yitzchak. Because you lost riches to avoid idolatry you will have a son that will illuminate the Torah like a precious gem'
"A year later my wife gave birth to our son and the very night she gave birth I had a dream. A holy Jew with a long white beard and joyous eyes appeared and said,
"'Ask what you want the child to be blessed with and it will be given; perhaps riches, perhaps long life, perhaps wisdom'.
"Immediately I yelled out 'Wisdom!
"'The old man smiled and said, 'Because you requested wisdom as did Melech Shlomo (King Solomon) so your son should be called Shlomo and he will enlighten the Jewish people with his wisdom in the written and oral Torah.' Then he added, 'Tomorrow wait for me. I want to hold the child at the time of circumcision.'
"That man," continued Reb Yitzchak, "was the one that we waited for, I recognized him when he entered the door. I'm certain that he must be none other than Elijah the prophet" (who attends every Jewish brit but is rarely seen or recognized.)"
The child, Shlomo ben Yitzchak was none other than the great Rash'i' whose genius commentaries, found on every page of the Pentateuch and Talmud have made the Torah clear and helped keep Judaism alive for the last almost one thousand years.
This answers our questions.
The message of the commandment of circumcision is that G-d created the world in order that we should change it.
Namely that nature (and what is natural) is not necessary true or good. In fact what is 'natural' can often conceal the truth (like idolatry conceals the nearness and goodness of the Creator) and must, as the foreskin, (or the gem in our story) be removed.
That was the discovery of Abraham and why he was the first Jew.
He was the first human to openly defy idolatry and advertise, with no concern for himself, that G-d is One and that man must live according to His Torah (There already were the seven Noahide Commandments and Abraham, as the first Jew, was aware of and observed, in a certain sense, all of the laws of the Torah hundreds of years before Mount Sinai).
This will be, in a big way, the goal of Moshiach; to inspire all the Jews to begin to 'Circumcise the foreskins of their hearts (Deut. 10:16) and eventually bring G-d to completely 'Circumcise our Hearts' (Deut. 30:6).
Then, in the final redemption just as in the circumcision today and in our story, Elijah the prophet will prepare the scene.
But in the final redemption all the promises G-d made to Abraham will come true; all mankind will be blessed (Gen. 22:18) and the world will be filled with all the things G-d promised King Solomon: wisdom, power, riches and peace.
It's all up to us to 'circumcise our hearts' and change our natures to do all we can to bring....
Copyright © 1999-2018 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.