At the age of one hundred, Abraham finally merits a successor. His wife, Sarah, miraculously becomes pregnant at the age of ninety and gives birth to a healthy son, Isaac, exactly as G-d had promised. Abraham participates in the first recorded bris of a baby son [Bereishit 21:4]: “Abraham circumcised his son, Isaac, when he was eight days old, as G-d had commanded him”. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev asks what the Torah is alluding to with the words “as G-d had commanded him”. G-d had already commanded Abraham to circumcise all of his male children four chapters earlier. It should come as no surprise that Abraham circumcised Isaac. What is the innovation here?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak answers his own question with an esoteric explanation based on the different levels of prophecy that a prophet can attain. A less mysterious explanation would have been appreciated because his question opens up a can of worms. After G-d first commands Abraham to circumcise all of the males in his household, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 17:23] “Abraham took Ishmael his son …every male of the people of Abraham’s household, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin …as G-d had spoken with him”. Why, when Abraham circumcises Ishmael, does he do so “as G-d had spoken with him (diber ito)” while when he circumcises Isaac, he does so “as G-d had commanded him (tziva oto)”? Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s answer does not address this problem, so we must dig deeper.
Let’s start at the beginning. The Talmud in Tractate Yoma [28b], commenting on the verse [Bereishit 26:5] “Because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My instructions”, asserts that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob kept all of the commandments in the Torah, hundreds of years before the Torah was given at Sinai. The adherence of the forefathers to the Torah is nearly axiomatic. In certain cases, the commentators bend over backwards trying to explain an instance in which one of the forefathers flagrantly disobeys the Torah. For instance, the Torah explicitly forbids a person from marrying two sisters [Vayikra 18:18]: “You shall not take a woman with her sister [in marriage] as rivals, to uncover the nakedness of one upon the other, in her lifetime.” Yet, for some reason Jacob marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel. The Ramban, a famous medieval commentator, explains that Jacob was simultaneously married to two sisters only when he was living in Aram Naharayim, outside of Israel. The moment Jacob reached the Israeli border, one of his wives, Rachel, died. The Ramban deduces from this that the only reason we are required to keep the commandments of the Torah outside of the Land of Israel is in order to prevent ourselves from forgetting them. But make no mistake, the Torah was meant to be kept specifically in the Land of Israel. I often ask myself if the Ramban would have reached the same conclusion had it not been accepted that the forefathers kept the Torah. There would have been no problem with Jacob marrying two sisters. Who knows?
Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that the forefathers did indeed keep all 613 commandments in the Torah and perhaps all of the later Rabbinic decrees, as well. How did they know what to do? How did they know to wait six hours between meat and milk? How did they know not to marry two sisters? The Talmud in Tractate Yoma does not address this question but Rabbi Haim Sabato does. Rabbi Sabato, writing in “Ani LeDodi”, explains why after the Akeida (binding of Isaac), G-d refers to Abraham as [Bereishit 22:12] “one who fears G-d”. One would have thought that after nearly sacrificing his own child simply because G-d asked him to, Abraham would merit the title of “one who loves G-d”. After all, isn’t the love of G-d on a higher level than the fear of G-d? Rabbi Sabato explains that Abraham loved G-d so much, he connected with G-d at such a high level, he understood G-d so perfectly, that he always knew precisely what G-d wanted from him. As the Torah is essentially the projection of the will of G-d in our corporeal world, Abraham did not require the Torah to tell him how to act. He already fully understood G-d’s will. Performance of G-d’s commandments was as natural to him as breathing. Only at the Akeida, when Abraham acquiesced to G-d’s will even though it went against everything he believed in, could he truly be called “one who fears G-d” – one who obeys even though he does not understand.
Now we understand how the forefathers could have kept the Torah. But wait a minute. If Abraham knew what G-d wanted of him, why didn’t he circumcise himself before he was commanded to do so? Why didn’t he understand that this was also G-d’s will? This is classic question, one asked by so many people that the gamut of answers is simply astounding. For instance, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, answers that until Abraham was explicitly commanded to circumcise himself, he was forbidden from doing so because he would have been spilling blood. Rabbi Isaac the son of Asher of Speyer explains that circumcision is a commandment that can only be performed once in a person’s lifetime. As the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [31a] concludes that it is preferable to perform a commandment out of obligation rather than voluntarily, Abraham waited until he was commanded to circumcise himself in order to perform the commandment in the best way possible. Rabbi Yossef Dov Soloveichik, also known as the “Beit HaLevi”, proposes a logical explanation: G-d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself as part of a covenant – as the sign of the covenant. Indeed, the word “brit” means “covenant”. Had Abraham circumcised himself before G-d commanded him, the act would have been rendered meaningless as no covenant was being entered and no treaty was being signed.
The explanation of the Beit HaLevi can answer the questions we asked earlier. When Abraham first circumcises himself, he does so willingly in order to enter a covenant with the Divine. Ergo, the Torah tells us that Abraham, along with everyone else who was circumcised at the time, including his son Yishmael, did so “as G-d had spoken with him”. Once Abraham had entered the covenant, the circumcision took on a new meaning. It was different from any and every other commandment that Abraham took upon himself. As opposed to other commandments, Abraham circumcised Isaac because he was commanded to do so and only because he was commanded to do so. It did not matter whether or not it felt right. Abraham performed the circumcision not out of love, but out of obedience.
What does it mean to be a Jew? The answer is clearly not trivial. Judaism stands for so many critical concepts: social justice, liberal democracy, purity, and sanctity, just to name a few. I suggest that if we want to distil Judaism into one sentence, we need to look back at the first Jew, Abraham, and to his first mitzvah, circumcision. In only one place in the Torah does G-d explain why He chose particularly Abraham [Bereishit 18:19] “I love him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of G-d”. Judaism means accepting upon ourselves unswerving obedience to something greater than ourselves. It means doing as we are commanded. This runs counter to our twenty-first century post-modern culture. We do not easily accept things that we cannot “get our heads around” or things we cannot “connect with”. Abraham would suggest that we have a problem.
Today we attended a ceremony in which our son completed eight months of infantry training and received his beret. From the ceremony, he went straight up to the Syrian border, where he will be protecting us from Syria, the Hezbollah, and Iran. We did not send him to fight because it felt right or even because we are idealists. We handed over our precious child to the IDF because we had to, because we know that in every generation they stand against us to destroy us and G-d saves us from their hands. May G-d protect our son, along with all the other sons of Israel serving in the IDF, and may He bless them with victory.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.
 Similar to the way in which a person learns to predict what his spouse likes and does not like.
 The children of Noach are expressly forbidden from spilling blood, including their own blood.
 This was the great-grandfather of the twentieth century Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik.
 My wife, Tova, proposed the same explanation.