Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, Chaya Sarah bat Reb Yechezkel Shraga, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh and Jersey City, and the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, Moshe ben Itta Golda, Yocheved Dafneh bat Dinah Zehavah, Reuven Shmuel ben Leah and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
Parashat Tazria contains a pasuk (verse) that references the mitzvah of brit milah: “And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Sefer Vayikra 12:3, this and all Bible translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach) At first blush, there seems to be little basis for this pasuk, since Sefer Bereishit 17:9-12 has already clearly presented many of the parameters of this mitzvah:
And G-d said to Abraham, “And you shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and between you and between your seed after you, that every male among you be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be as the sign of a covenant between Me and between you. And at the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations…”
Why, then, does the Torah reiterate this commandment in our parasha? One answer to this problem is offered in a rhetorical question found in Talmud Yerushalmi, Moed Katan III:5: “L’maidin davar kodem l’matan Torah? — Is it possible to learn anything regarding normative halachic practice from Torah passages that were stated prior to receiving the Torah?” In a commentary on this statement, the Chatam Sofer zatzal (1762-1839) alerts us to the analysis of Tosafot in Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 20a (s.v. mah chag). According to their interpretation, the Talmud Yerushalmi is clearly suggesting that we cannot learn any halachic obligations from Torah portions that preceded the Revelation at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai). Therefore, in addition to Hashem’s charge to Avraham in Sefer Bereishit, we need a restatement of the obligation of brit milah in order to transform it into an eternally binding mitzvah.
I believe that Tosafot’s interpretation clarifies why we have two brachot (blessings) during the brit milah ceremony. The first bracha, “vitzivanu al hamilah — Who has commanded us regarding the mitzvah of brit milah,” references the normative halachic status of this commandment as stated in our parasha. In contrast, the second bracha of “l’hachniso b’brito shel Avraham Avinu — to bring him [the child] into the Covenant of our Patriarch Avraham,” signifies the transhistorical connection that now obtains between the eight-day-old baby boy and all Jews for all time, as epitomized by Hashem’s words to Avraham.
In his own unique way, my rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (1903-1993), known as “the Rav” by his students and followers, analyzes the essential nature of brit milah. In so doing, he presents his own understanding of the fundamental nature of this mitzvah, and the rationale for the dual brachot during its performance. He begins by noting a similarity between brit milah and other mitzvot, as well as a singular difference:
There are two fulfillments in the mitzvah of milah, circumcision. On the one hand, the act of circumcision is conceptually similar to many other mitzvos: there is a mitzvah to circumcise one’s son, just as there is a mitzvah to hold a lulav. On the other hand, a new status is conferred upon the person through the milah. One who takes the a lulav is the same person before and after the mitzvah — his status has not changed. After milah, however, the child becomes a ben bris, and only then can he enter the Mikdash or bring sacrifices…
In sum, although the mitzvah of brit milah is like any other Torah-based commandment that must be performed in congruence with the Almighty’s will, unlike most other mitzvot, it is transformative; it endows the baby boy with a completely new status, that of a ben bris who may now enjoy the rights, privileges and obligations associated with the Beit HaMikdash.
In the Rav’s view, these two ideas are given powerful voice in the two brachot associated with this mitzvah: “… The first berachah, Blessed are You…Who has commanded us concerning circumcision, refers to the act of milah. According to Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafos, Pesachim 7a), the second berachah, Who has commanded us to bring him into the covenant of Abraham our forefather, refers to the change of status resulting from the act of milah.” (Anton Holzer Notes, Mesorah Vol 15, p. 52)
Brit milah thus emerges as a category-changing mitzvah wherein the status of the baby boy is raised to that of a new halachic being, namely, a ben bris. While most mitzvot are not able to affect this type of transformation, with Hashem’s help and our fervent desire, they all can lead us to new spiritual heights and profound appreciation of His unparalleled majesty. V’chane yihi ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom and may Hashem in His great mercy remove the magafah from klal Yisrael and the entire world.
Past drashot may be found at my blog-website: http://reparashathashavuah.org
They may also be found on http://www.yutorah.org using the search criteria Etengoff and the parasha’s name.
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*** My audio shiurim on the topics of Tefilah and Tanach may be found at: http://tinyurl.com/8hsdpyd
*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language audio shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. Please click on the highlighted link.
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal