Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
The Spiritual Aim of Circumcision
The subject of circumcision has engendered much controversy over the past few years. Should we or should we not, as a Jewish people, continue to honor this millennia old tradition that is said to originate with Abraham, or is it a barbaric practice that ought to be discarded? The marking of the flesh for spiritual purposes has been with humanity for millennia. The renaissance of body tattoos and piercings in our time are the latest manifestation of this age-old yearning. Some tattoos are an expression of love, some of allegiance, some of religious or spiritual beliefs. Circumcision’s purpose, I believe, includes — at least — all three expressions connected to modern tattooing. But our tradition brings yet an added dimension to this ritual; a teaching that runs deeper still. For where tattooing and piercing add something, in contradistinction, circumcision takes something away.
This deeper understanding is connected to the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion: “The Eternal appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of his tent.” [Gen. 18:1] At first our rabbis are puzzled by this verse: how could Abraham be “sitting” as God “appeared” to him? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for him to prostrate himself to the ground or stand? Rashi explains that the reason Abraham was sitting is that this was the third day since Abraham’s self-circumcision — which took place at the end of last week’s reading — the most painful day in the recovery process, and pain immobilized him. God appeared to Abraham as a consequence of the circumcision. Abraham awoke to the Divine Presence because of the circumcision.
Abraham was “advanced in days” [Gen. 18:11] at the time he circumcised himself. He was said to be 99 in fact. Pirkei Avot — Ethics of the Fathers — states that: “When a man is a hundred, it is as if he were already dead and passed away and removed from the world” [Pir.Av. 5:22] Rabbi M.M. Schneerson explains: “In other words, at such point in age or spirit… the world no longer masks the Divine…” [Torah Studies, p.16] What the rebbe is describing is a state of awareness wherein the ego and its preoccupations have fallen away, where worldly concerns no longer overpower us and our consciousness opens up to the now revealed Presence of the Divine. Such ego-free consciousness is commonly associated with the wisdom that comes with old-age. But Abraham was 99, not one hundred and, therefore, not yet “removed from the world.” How is it possible then that “The Eternal appeared to [Abraham]”? The answer is: circumcision. Here again, however, the circumcision of the flesh — the ritual on the “outside” — is but a reflection of a process that is to take place on the inside. What is being removed, as R. Schneerson teaches, is “the foreskin of the world.” What is being removed is the veil of unending ego-centric pleasures, preoccupations and distractions that conceal the True Nature of Reality. And this can be achieved at any time, as the rebbe tells us: “in age or spirit.”