Fixing ourselves, fixing the world
“And on the eighth day, a boy child should be circumcised” (Vayikra 12:3)
This week’s portion includes the command that every Jewish boy should be circumcised. The Hebrew term from circumcision is brit milah, literally “the covenant of circumcision”. The connection between the mitzvah of circumcision and the notion of a covenant goes back to God’s command to Abraham: “You shall be circumcised; this will be the sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11).
To this day, of all the commandments given to the people of Israel, only this one, the command of circumcision, is described as being a brit or covenant. Why, if the Covenant with the people of Israel comprises 613 commandments, should this particular command be singled out as the symbol of the covenant?
A clue to the answer to this question can be found, of all places, in the attack of an anti-Semitic leader on the practice of circumcision.
As recounted in the Midrash Tanchuma, the wicked roman General Tarnus Rufus tried to catch Rabbi Akiva out. As the Midrash recounts:
Tarnus Rufus asked Akiva: “Whose works are better, those of God or those of creatures of flesh and blood?” Akiva answered: “The works of flesh and blood are better.” To which Tarnus Rufus retorted: “Is that why you Jews circumcise, to prove that you’re better than God?” To which Akiva replied: “I anticipated your second question in your first. God has given us commandments for the sole purpose of enabling us to perfect the divine work of creation, as God’s partners.”
For Rabbi Akiva, circumcision reflects a radical departure from ancient attitudes to religion. In contrast to a world view in which man is powerless, and subject to the whims of the deities, Akiva sees in Judaism a powerful message that Man is not a helpless creature subject to divine forces, but actually plays a role in the work of creation. And what symbol could be more powerful than requiring man to complete the work of creating himself, as an eternal symbol of a covenant which requires mankind to go on and undertake the task of tikkun olam, working to perfect the world.
The act of circumcision is a uniquely appropriate symbol of the covenant because of this twofold message: first that the covenant of Israel is an obligation to engage in fixing the world. And second, that this act of working to improve society must begin with improving ourselves.
In others’ words
“Israel will arrive at peace because it is the nature of our people to build a better world for our future generations. Whether through our personal conduct, or the policy of our nation, we practice one of Judaism’s most noble values, tikkun olam – repairing the world.”
Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, Akiva Academy Commencement Address, 2003
On a lighter note
Even such a sensitive issue as circumcision has given rise to its fair share of Jewish jokes. Here’s one classic:
A man was once walking and noticed a little store with a bunch of watches and clocks hanging in the window. The man walked in and said “Can you please fix my watch?”
The man behind the counter quickly responded “Sorry but I don’t repair watches.”
The confused customer said back, “You don’t repair watches? What do you do?”
“I’m a Mohel.”
Now even more confused, the man asked, “If you are a Mohel, then why do you have watches hanging in the store front?”
“What do you want me to put in the window?”