Brit Milah, The Covenant of Abraham

Last Friday I went to a Brit Milah, a Jewish circumcision ceremony, of a good friend’s first grandchild.  There are so many worries in the world, especially for the Jewish people so it’s always nice when sadness and fear are crowded out of one’s mind, even if only for a moment in time, by joyous celebration.

Rabbis in the Mishna and Talmud (volumes of legal discussions and commentary dating back over 1500 years) in Nedarim 31b and 32a said, “Great is circumcision, because even after all our forefather Avraham, Abraham, had done, he was not considered perfect or complete until he was circumcised.  (And) great is circumcision, because it equals all the Torah commandments combined.”

Avraham was not considered whole until he actually made his body less whole.  This seems contradictory but until he entered into a covenant with God, a solemn bond, Avraham could not fulfill his destiny and could not create the destiny of his descendants.

As I explained in a previous column, every Hebrew letter has a numerical value and so, every Hebrew word has a cumulative numerical value.  Many Jewish commentators have used these as teaching tools.  There are 613 commandments in the Torah.  The numerical value of the word Brit is 612, and so, some say, the ritual of the Brit is equal to all the other commandments combined.

The happy and proud families and friends were present to witness the baby’s entry into the covenant of Avraham, as was Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the prophet).  In fact, the honorary Kiseh Shel Eliyahu, Chair of Eliyahu, was present at the ceremony.

According to tradition, there are two reasons the Midrash (a collection of ancient biblical commentaries) gives for this custom.  First, when the evil king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel forbade Brit Milah, Eliyahu risked his life by proclaiming there would be no rain till the evil decree was abolished.  For that concern, the prophet was rewarded by being an honorary attendee at every Brit for all eternity.

Another reason, one I included in a column about the Pesach (Passover) Seder, was actually a rebuke.  Because Eliyahu felt many of those who could insure Brit Milah of their children were not doing so when they actually were, God told him he would have to be at each Brit in perpetuity to witness that the very important Mitzvah, commandment, was indeed being performed.  Whatever the reason, it was nice having Eliyahu spiritually there, and in fact, as was customary, the baby was momentarily placed on Eliyahu‘s chair.

After the ceremony, considering how turbulent things are in the world especially for Israel and the Jewish people, I was tempted to whisper to the baby, “Good luck, buddy.”  But then again, I thought, maybe this child will make the world a better place.

Maybe he will become heroic, perhaps saving many people.  Maybe he will cure a terrible disease, or create a company that employs thousands, or do something that brings cheers or smiles to the faces of millions.  Or maybe he will contribute in a less grand, but no less monumental, way by being a fine engineer or teacher or lawyer or doctor, or by simply being a decent family man giving the chance and promise of life and happiness to his own children.

But a child – any child boy or girl, Jewish or of some other faith – can only succeed when taught the proper values.  Success is dependent on foundation.  Foundation includes the influence of those around a growing boy or girl.  They learn by being told what is right, and by example.  And as children grow they need to know two sides of the same values coin, when it is proper to be rigid and when that toughness is to be tempered.

Coincidentally, a type of Milah, circumcision, was mentioned the very next day in the Torah reading for Shabbat, in Parshat (the portion of) Eikev 10:16.  It included the words, “You should circumcise the foreskin of your heart.”  Huh?  Circumcise the heart’s foreskin?

Rashi, the preeminent Jewish medieval commentator, says it means you should remove that which is obstructing your heart.  The Ibn Ezra, another great Jewish medieval commentator, says it could mean, to purify your heart so as to understand that which is true or correct.

Removing the obstruction to do what?  Understanding which correct things?  I think we can know the answer from what follows.  Verse 17 states that God is great and mighty, and will show no favoritism and take no bribes.  Verses 18 and 19 say, “God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and He loves the stranger to give him bread and clothing.  You should love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

On the one hand, by God’s example, we are taught to be dispassionate, to show no bias because of feelings or corruption.  On the other hand we are taught to be compassionate, to care for those less fortunate, and those who may be different.  Values.

The baby’s grandfather became one of my and my brother-in-law’s coaches when his son joined our Little League baseball team about fifteen years ago.  And we went from co-coaches to good friends after I taught that same boy his Bar Mitzvah a few years later.  I know very well, that this man, his wife and his children have tremendous character, and are very much conscious of their duties to society, their Jewish heritage and people, and to their community and country.  I understand that the newborn child’s father and his family are the same.

The parents of the boy who just entered into the Brit shel Avraham Avinu, the Covenant of Abraham our Father, have been taught well.  And they will teach the same virtues they learned to their young son.

To the new father and mother, through the merit of Avraham, the first to become complete by entering into the covenant, and Eliyahu, who ensured its continuance, and through the merit of your families and friends who joined together to celebrate the holy ritual comparable to all the commandments combined, as was proclaimed in the ceremony, “May your little boy become great.  May his heart be open, to learn and to teach, to observe and to perform.”

Mazal Tov!

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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