Parshat Tazria details many laws of purity and impurity which, for the most part, are not relevant today. However, it begins with the laws of childbirth and the mitzvah of brit milah, of circumcising Jewish males on the eighth day. What is the purpose of the brit milah? Literally, the words mean covenant (brit) of circumcision (milah). What type of covenant is meant, and how is it created through the act of circumcising?
The Torah does not elaborate on the nature of this mitzvah here, since it was discussed at great length when God commanded it to Abraham. There it is made clear that the circumcision is not the covenant itself, but a sign or a symbol of a covenant between man and God: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout all generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto you and to your seed after you… And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (Gen.17:9,11). The covenant is then nothing less than the chosenness of the Jewish people – God’s commitment to have a special relationship with us, to “be a God unto you.” But the question remains: why is circumcision chosen as the sign of the this covenant?
I believe that this question can be answered with another question. A covenant is a contract between two parties. As such, it is two-sided. We know what God’s commitment is to us, but what is our side of the covenant? What is our commitment to God? The simple answer is to lead a life of serving God and observing his mitzvot as the Torah prescribes. But I believe that the bilateral nature of the covenant goes beyond that. It is not merely tit-for-tat, we serve God, God is close to us. The idea of covenant reflects a partnership. God makes us His people, not just the people He is close to, but the people that will unite with Him to help Him achieve His purpose on earth.
This concept of being partners with God, as bold as it may sound, is already indicated in God’s first communication with man. After creating the world for six days, God creates man and says to him, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing the creeps upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28). In other words, God says to man, “I have created a world for you, now you continue – take charge of it, fill it, build it up. Be my partner in creation.” This idea is carried through in the commandment of keeping the Sabbath: “Six days you shall work … and on the seventh day … you shall not do any manner of work… for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth… and rested on the seventh day.” (Ex. 20:9-11). The command to work for six days is part of the commandment of the Sabbath! Be partners with God: work and create and build the world for six days of the week.
This relationship, this partnership, with God is the true nature of the covenant. It begins with building the world in the physical sphere and ends in the spiritual sphere. It is true that it is our obligation to serve God and observe His mitzvot, but we err if we construe this as merely an obligation. God has a plan to achieve and he calls upon us to be partners in His plan. By giving us His mitzvot, He gives us an unparalleled opportunity, the opportunity to be His assistants in making this a better world – physically, ethically, and spiritually.
This, then, is the symbolism of the circumcision. The Greeks thought circumcision to be illogical, even abhorrent. For them, it was a desecration of the perfect human body. Judaism teaches otherwise. Although the body was created by God, it is not yet perfect. It, like the rest of the world, is given to man to complete its perfection. By performing this surgery immediately after a child is born, we show that although God has given us a beautiful child, we have the responsibility, nay, the opportunity, to make this child even more perfect.
The cutting off of the foreskin, although perhaps not serving a clear medical benefit, is profoundly significant in terms of its religious symbolism. The male organ represents the sex drive, perhaps the most powerful drive in man. Just as the Greeks believed the body to be perfect, many people today believe that man’s drives are, by definition, good. This idea of the noble savage is counter to the teachings of Judaism. The sex drive has great potential – for good and for bad. To channel it for good, we must be sure that we are in control of it, and not that it is in control of us. This is symbolized by circumcision. We control our organs, we control our drives. God gives us a world – we can destroy it, or we can improve on it. God makes us partners in His mission, it is up to us to see if we will make our world a better place to live and our selves better people to live in it.