Parshat Lech Lecha
Meanings and Applications
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The mitzvah of Brit Milah is found in this Torah portion of Lech Lecha (Gen. chapter 17). In the section about the Brit Milah, the word בְּרִית brit (covenant) appears 13 times in Chapter 17, verse 2 to verse 21). In reference to this, the Mishnah (Nedarim 31b) says, רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל אוֹמֵר גְּדוֹלָה מִילָה שֶׁנִּכְרְתוּ עָלֶיהָ שְׁלֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה בְּרִיתוֹת “Rabbi Yishmael says, ‘The mitzvah of circumcision is so great that thirteen covenants were sealed in regards to it.’” See Tosfot (D.H. Shenichretu) Rosh and the Ran that this is referring to the thirteen times it says brit as mentioned above. The Rambam (Laws of Milah 3:9) lists these.
The plain meaning of the Talmud is that since the word brit is mentioned 13 times, this alludes to the fact that G-d made 13 covenants with Avraham (and his descendants) concerning this mitzvah.
As Important as 13 Britot
The Tosfot Yom Tov (on the Mishnah Nedarim 3:11) points out that, in some of the verses, the word brit is describing a covenant G-d had already made rather than describing a covenant he was now making. (See verse 11 “and it will be a sign of a covenant” and verse 14 “he has broken my covenant.”)
He explains that the meaning of the Mishnah is that the covenant that G-d made with us regarding the Brit Milah is as important as the 13 Attributes of Mercy. (The 13 Attributes of Mercy are found in Exodus 34:6-7 and are recited in Viduy and Selichot.)
Just as when we pray using these attributes it never fails to trigger G-d’s positive response, so, too, the merit of the Brit Milah always triggers a positive Divine response (See Rosh Hashanah 17b).
Corresponds to the 13 Attributes
The Tosfot Yom Tov points out that the 13 Attributes of Mercy and the 13 britot in this parsha are similar in the following way:
The first three of the 13 Attributes of Mercy differ from the others in that they are names of G-d. So, too, the last three britot differ from the first 10 in that they appear in a separate paragraph after the first 10 britot that are mentioned.
The reason that in the case of the Attributes it is the first three that are different, whereas in the case of the britot it is the last three words that are different is that Moshe prayed using the holiest Attribute first and then prayed with the others. This is because he was trying to elicit the blessings from the highest source and draw it down, through all the spiritual realms, to this world. Avraham, however, was trying to ascend from level to level by doing the mitzvah of Brit Milah. It is thus appropriate that he begin with the lower levels of brit and then go on to the higher levels. (See below in the explanation of the Sefat Emet.)
The Significance of 13
The commentaries give different explanations as to the deeper meaning as to why there are 13 britot. (I found these commentaries in the Meforshei Ha’Otzer of the Otzar HaChochma as well as in the commentaries on the Metivta Shas.)
Unity of G-d
Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, known as the Ben Ish Chai, explains (in Ben Yehoyadah) that 13 is the gematriyah (numerical value) of אחד (echad) which means one. This indicates that the mitzvah of Brit Milah is related to the unity of G-d.
The Ben Ish Chai explains this by citing a story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) that a certain idolatrous priest once said to Ameimar, “The upper part of your body is associated with the g-d of good (whom he called Hurmiz) while the bottom half of your body is associated with the g-d of evil (whom he called Ahurmiz).” Ameimar responded that if that is the case, why does Ahurmiz allow Hurmiz to urinate in his territory? I.e., If there are two distinct powers controlling the body, why is the water that one drinks in the top half of the body urinated from the bottom half?
The idea behind this conversation is that the pagan perspective is that the animal instinct is essentially evil and only a human being’s more exalted functions (intellect and emotions) can be considered good. The Torah perspective, on the other hand, is that every part of the human being can be good and included in the realm of holiness.
This is exemplified by the mitzvah of brit milah, where we do a mitzvah with the reproductive organ and thus sanctify it and thereby sanctify the act of procreation. This mitzvah is therefore a sign of Divine unity in the world.
A Deeper Connection
The Sefat Emet (Lech Lecha 5658) explains the deeper connection between the 13 Attributes of Mercy and the 13 britot as follows. Our sages say (Shabbat 133b) that we are to cleave to G-d’s attributes. Just as He is merciful, so should we be. Just as He is gracious, so, too, should we be etc. When we emulate G-d’s Attributes in this manner we activate those attributes and can receive the blessings and revelations associated with them.
The question is, how does a human being get the power for his (or her) actions to trigger a Divine revelation? It is through the Brit Milah and the intense holiness which it embeds in our physical bodies that we have the power to accomplish this.
As far as women are concerned, although they do not have a Brit Milah per se, our sages say that they have the same spiritual benefits of circumcision. See Avodah Zarah 27a that אשה כמאן דמיהלא – “A (Jewish) woman is considered to be [halachically] circumcised.”
Rabbi Yisroel Hopstein, the Kozhnitzer Maggid, (in Bait Yisrael on Nedarim ibid) explains that as long as the impurity of the foreskin (and the negative character traits associated with it) are present in a person, one cannot emulate the Divine properly. As such, the Brit Milah is a prerequisite to be able to emulate and to receive the blessing of the 13 Divine Attributes.
The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi) explains (Torah Ohr, page yud gimmel, side D) that the Brit Milah reaches even higher than the essential name of G-d – Havayah. This is because the name Havayah denotes the revelations of G-d which must be limited in order to reach this world, whereas the Brit Milah represents a connection to G-d that is beyond anything in this world. As such, it is associated with the 13 Divine Attributes which are also beyond any G-dly revelations that are normally revealed in this world. This is why the 13 Divine Attributes effect forgiveness from sin as they represent a level that is even beyond the rules of the Torah and the entire concept of sin.
Sign of the Jewish People’s Uniqueness
The Ben Ish Chai gives another reason as to why the Brit Milah signifies oneness (as explained above). He says that the Brit Milah makes us unique among the nations of the world since no other nation is willing to circumcise themselves to the same degree as are the Jewish people.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) tells the following story in this regard:
Rabbi Tanchum, the Caesar, the Heretic and the Wild Animals
“Caesar once said to Rabbi Tanchum, ‘Come, let us all be one people.’ Rabbi Tanchum said, ‘Very well. But we, who are circumcised, cannot become uncircumcised as you are. So, instead you should all circumcise yourselves and become like us.’
The emperor said to Rabbi Tanchum, ‘In terms of the logic of your statement, what you are saying is true. But anyone who bests the king [in a debate] is thrown to the enclosure of wild animals.’ They threw Rabbi Tanchum into the enclosure, but the animals did not eat him [as G-d protected him]. A certain heretic said to the emperor, ‘The reason the animals did not eat him is because they are not hungry.’ They took the heretic and threw him into the enclosure, and the animals ate him.
Since the Brit Milah makes us a unique nation in the world, it is appropriate that there be 13 britot which signify oneness and uniqueness.
The Maharal of Prague (in Chidushei Agadot on Nedarim ibid) offers another reason as to why the Brit Milah is associated with unity. He explains that a true brit (covenant) can only be made between the individual making the brit and one (other) party. If one makes a brit with two (or more) parties, these individuals cannot be truly unified (as there will be a lingering question as to whom one has a greater allegiance).
As such the Brit Milah can only be between G-d and one nation, i.e., the Jewish people. Thus the Brit Milah is all about oneness.
In addition, he points out that the foreskin resembles a peel. When one removes a peel, the fruit is automatically revealed. Similarly the Brit Milah ceremony represents the fact that the Jewish people are already in a state of unity with G-d. There may be some external factors, behaviours or tendencies that mask this connection. But when we remove these (or correct them), we reveal that the connection to G-d was there all along.
This is a true brit (covenant) as it signifies that the two parties were in fact one all along.
Countering the Negative Energy
Rabbi Yitzchak Yadler (in Tiferet Tziyon al HaShas) points out that, in the Mishnah, Rabbi Yishmael’s teaching about the 13 britot follows the teaching of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariyah who denigrates the foreskin quite strongly, as he says, מְאוּסָה הִיא הָעׇרְלָה שֶׁנִּתְגַּנּוּ בָּהּ רְשָׁעִים שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר כִּי כׇל הַגּוֹיִם עֲרֵלִים – The foreskin is repulsive, as is evident from the fact that the wicked are disgraced through it, as it is stated (Yirmiyahu 9:25) “for all the nations are uncircumcised…”
As such, one might wonder why G-d created (male) human beings with a foreskin in the first place. So Rabbi Yishmael explains that by having this negative energy and potential within us and by overcoming it (by doing the brit milah and subsequently guarding our moral purity), we can achieve the great spiritual heights associated with the 13 Attributes of Mercy.
Why Rabbi Yishmael?
It is significant that Rabbi Yishmael is the one who teaches us about the 13 britot as he is also the one who taught about the 13 ways in which the Torah is expounded (see the section of korbanot in the morning prayers). Those 13 ways correspond to the 13 Attributes of Mercy as do these 13 britot (Yatzev Avraham by Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Gintzler).
Rabbi Yaakov Reisha (in the Iyun Yaakov) adds that the 13 britot also correspond to the 13 principles of faith. (Perhaps this means that when the Rambam formulated the 13 principles of faith in the 12th Century he intended that they correspond to these 13 britot.)
May we merit a revelation of the deepest love between G-d and the Jewish People!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!