“The sign of circumcision is, as I think, so important, that I could persuade myself that it alone would preserve the [Jewish] nation forever.” – Spinoza
In this week’s parashah, Tazria, we are entering a new section of Vayikra (Leviticus) dealing with the laws of man. The previous parshiot dealt with the laws pertaining to animals. This follows the order of creation; man (ish) was created last. Rav Samlai explains that the order is such not because man was created last, but for the reason that man was created last.
It’s simpler to understand the sanctification of the animal world. It’s natural for us to make important distinctions between the clean and unclean, taharah (purity) and tumah (impurity), in the animal world. Man’s struggle with himself, however, and the work we have to do to sanctify ourselves, is far more complex. The Zohar compares man to animals in the regards of the korban (sacrifice), deducing from the verse “and the eighth day the skin of the orlah should be circumcised”1 being amidst the verses that deal with taharah and tumah of the woman giving birth. What we see in these readings in their proximity and importance is the sanctification of time (Shabbat) of man (brit milah) and of place (the korban). Hashem is kadosh (holy) as it says, “for I am Kadosh.”2 We, on the other hand, have the constant struggle to attain kedushah. All of this comes to teach us how to free ourselves from our slavery to that which is not holy and to take actions towards holiness, freedom, spirituality and oneness.
If we are all in the image of God, but have no actual image of God, then how do we become a semblance of the Infinite Light that is Hashem in the finite that surrounds us? The answer is found in the Alter Rebbe’s teaching of the basis and root purpose of the entire Torah– to elevate and exalt the soul high above the body to Hashem, the source and root of all worlds, and to draw down the Ein Sof (Infinite Light). This is done through using the body below to elevate the soul on high.3
As we know, Hashem created the world through words, speaking it into existence. Each Hebrew letter composes the building blocks of our reality. The Arizal teaches that within the four letters of Hashem’s name, the havayah (the tetragrammaton), written out as yud-hei-vav-hei, the yud and vav represent aspects of masculinity (Ish) and the two hei’s represent aspects of femininity (Ishah). Kabbalah teaches that the world was created through the letters and energies that compose the four letters of this Divine name. This clearly demonstrates that the male-female dynamic is the spiritual structure that our physical universe depends upon. And since the world and everything in it was composed and is sustained through the name, this dynamic permeates our entire reality.
The ten Sefirot, Divine channels in which the world was created and are manifested in all aspects of creation, are associated with the four letters of the Tetragrammaton. The first Sefira that relates to our conscious self, Chochmah (Wisdom), is associated with the first yud (י), the masculine, of the the Havayah, while the second Sefira, Binah (Understanding), is associated with the first hei (ה), the upper hei (ה), the feminine. The next six Sefirot of the emotions are associated with the third letter, the vav (ו), the masculine, that also sits between the upper and lower yud (ו) in the letter Aleph. While the tenth Sefirah, Malchut (Kingdom), is associated with the second or lower hei (ה), the feminine.
How purpose is sown
In Talmud Sotah, the Gemara describes the battle between David and Goliath. What is implied by the name Goliath? Rabbi Yoḥanan says that the verse indicates that he stood before the Holy One, Blessed be He, with brazenness (gilui panim), as it is stated: “Choose yourselves a man (ish, and let him come down to me,”4 ish is referring to none other than the Holy One, Blessed be He, as it’s written, “The Lord is a man (ish) of war.”5 The Holy One, Blessed be He, said, “I will hereby fell him by the son of a man (ben ish), as it’s written, “Now David was the son of that man (ben ish) of Ephrath.”67
We find the etymological source for the term Ishah (woman, wife) in the verse, “This one shall be called ishah, because this one was taken out of ish.”8 Each person and the sefirot have masculine and feminine aspects and qualities, The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that on the level of ishah one must occupy oneself with the aspect of tazria (sowing). Sowing is specifically done down here on and in the earth, if one were to sow even three spans above the earth, nothing will sprout. It is the same with mitzvot, it must be done here on earth, as it’s written, “And I will sow her for Me in the earth,”9 and “For you shall be a land of delight.”10 This is all intended below, not simply in the intellect or emotions, but in actual practice in actual deed.
As we have covered previously, Hashem desires the heart, but it is the heart that must be put into action for elevation to take place. The mitzvah of tzedakah is the comprehensive principle of all the mitzvot and it is not one that could be limited to the heart, for the poor can’t be sustained with love only, but by action in concrete ways. Shedding tears for the poor, while not acting and keeping all resources to oneself won’t save a life, it is only through the action that we could complete the purpose of creation and our purpose of being created. The Rebbe teaches that this is the meaning of the verse, “a woman that will conceive,” because with ishah there needs to be tazria – sowing on earth below. Reaching exalted levels of the soul is not enough when we are tasked to use the body here on earth elevating it, this is how we bring about the future redemption.11
As we jump into this week’s opening pasuk (verse), we read about the deeply mystical and mysterious rituals of childbirth and the cleansing of blood impurities. And the Torah connects them to one of the most important mitzvot in all of Judaism– the brit milah, the covenant of circumcision:
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת: וּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ. דְּותָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day, the flesh of the boy’s foreskin shall be circumcised.12
As we covered last week, the number seven in Judaism always represents completeness of the natural world, the finite world. The number eight is that one step beyond nature, something more than human, more than finititude– something holy. A boy’s circumcision happens on his eighth day, representing the commitment of his life to something beyond nature, a covenant with Hashem. The eighth day represents a taste beyond this world, and it is this ancient ritual that connects a Jewish man to Hashem in an infinite way. Incidentally, having the ritual on the eighth day of the boy’s life gives him the opportunity to experience at least one Shabbat prior to his circumcision, preparing him for that moment of transcendence.
Women’s parallel covenant to the brit milah is to fulfill the laws of niddah, the rituals of cleansing connected to the menstrual cycle and childbirth. Chazal (our Sages of blessed memory) teach that these purity rituals are ultimately a consequence of disobeying Hashem’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. One of G-d’s punishments for this sin was that Eve, and all women after her, experience the blood of virginal relations and of cyclical menstruation, in addition to the pain and blood loss of childbirth. The Kli Yakar understands this when the Torah says, “she shall become pure from the source of her blood.”13
The Arizal expounds on this as a part of Adam and Eve’s primordial sin and the constant battle we were forced into as humanity, always torn between opposing physical and spiritual inclinations. We are often driven by the one organ that can bring the potential of the Divine Femine into creation itself or can, God forbid, do the opposite.
Steps toward the Edenic state
The Gaon of Lutzk explains that when a man wants to enter into the covenant of Avraham, it’s done by both tevilah in the mikveh (ritual bath immersion) and by brit milah (circumcision). This is the case when a non-Jew converts to Judaism– he does both rituals himself. When a son is born to a Jewish mother, it is she who goes to the mikveh, while the son undergoes the brit milah. It is taught that both the mother and male child are spiritually impure in the time following childbirth and have to take action to ascend and become spiritually clean again. The Tzadik of Kotzk says that giving birth lies in the hands of Hashem, which we see in Bereishit: “And Hashem opened her womb”14 It’s said that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, is there, actually part of the physical process of the child’s birth. But when the child is born, this Shechinah and this influence depart, and so the mother and child, now at a distance from Hashem, fall into seven days of impurity. Only on the eighth day can either of them become clean again. Eight representing a return to a pure Edenic connection to Hashem.
In essence, brit milah is the very first and most fundamental Jewish commandment. In Bereishit, Hashem tells Abraham, “This is My covenant which you shall keep…every manchild among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise… and it shall be a token of the covenant.”15 In this sense, Brit Milah is the most everlasting, strongest sign of our commitment to God and our heritage.
The Radak’s take on circumcision, much like other mitzvot, is as a remembrance of our fundamental commitment to Hashem. In the Talmud it says that when King David was naked in a bathhouse, he first thought to himself, “Woe is me, for I stand naked without a single commandment to myself”, but then he remembered the circumcision in his flesh and he was comforted.16
Brit milah is also obviously the most fundamentally physical of all the commandments. It’s performed on the particular organ which is commonly used for sin and lust; but this is to teach us an essential tenet of Torah– that out of our darkest physical potential comes the highest spiritual light. This is what distinguishes us from animals. Whereas the animal is stuck in nature and acts only within the laws of reality, our task is to reach beyond nature into the realm of the infinite soul. That is the truest part of our being and why all natural creation preceded our creation. It is precisely because we struggle with what we are that we are able to attain the highest possible level of any of Hashem’s creations.
On Shabbat morning, we read the pasuk, לא ישכנו ערלים, “the uncircumsized shall not abide [in the contentment of Shabbat].” Chazal teach that the brit milah is on such a high level that even on Shabbat one can perform a brit milah, removing the ערלה (foreskin). It is taught that so long as the infant remains without a brit milah, he is unable to fully absorb the sanctity of Shabbat.17
In Sefer Yetzirah, the Kabbalistic Book of Creation, it says that the six days of the week are masculine and are six directions pointing outwards. But the Sabbath is feminine, the center point which draws all six points together. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan says that this teaches us that when we look at ourselves in terms of our external relationships, we are looking at our masculine identity, but when we look at our Self, our inner core, that is a feminine identity. All week long our struggle to gain spirituality is on a male level, but on Shabbat we are on a female level, absorbing the fruits of all that we have done during the week. Without the Sabbath there would be no way of receiving the blessings we create for ourselves. The same relationship is true in biology: the man gives over a million sperm cells, out of which the woman receives only one. She receives a whole multitude of creation, and then gives back completeness. If masculinity is giving, femininity is receiving and completing.18 We see again the parallel to this week’s learning about rituals around childbirth. The Torah is teaching us how essential the sanctification of our sexuality is– the ultimate form and the highest level of emulating Hashem is actually perpetuating humanity ourselves. And, therefore, something that we would want to treat with the utmost level of spiritual care.
The laws surrounding both birth and circumcision are meant to manifest spiritual transcendence. They keep us from getting stuck connecting only to our physical impulses and remind us to continue seeking connection to the Infinite.
Receive through giving
There’s a beautiful chassidic story that was told at a meal following a brit milah celebration. Reb Yitchak Meir of Ger asked one of the chassidim present to share a story of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. The chassid jumped at the chance to share how one of Reb Levi Yitzchak’s disciples was a dealer of oxen. At the time, the price for cattle had dropped significantly, which was horrible news for this chassid, as he had a lot of cattle at the time and was depending on the sales as a way to provide for his family. Realizing the tremendous financial loss that he was about to incur, he set off for Berditchev to ask his Reb Levi Yitchak for advice and a blessing.
When he arrived, the Rebbe asked him if there was a particular mitzvah that he engaged in that stood out above all others.
He thought to himself, and replied, “Yes, I am a mohel.“
The Rebbe replied, “And what do you do if, God forbid, the bleeding doesn’t stop after you have circumcised the infant?”
The mohel/merchant began to list various medications that he has used in the past.
The Rebbe replied, “I will give you a special herb, so that if, God forbid, you are in a similar predicament, you can apply this herb to the source of the bleeding and, with Hashem’s help, it will heal at once.”
The merchant took it with pleasure, but still a bit perplexed, looked to the Rebbe and asked, “And what should I do about the cattle business?”
The Rebbe simply looked back at him and said, “But I have already told you– whenever a newly circumcised child bleeds profusely you should apply this herb, and with Hashem’s help the incision will heal immediately.”
So, the merchant set to travel back home.
Reb Yitchak Meir stopped the chassid in the midst of telling the story, suggesting, “From this it’s clear that the merchant was a chassid, since he didn’t persist with advice for the cattle business, which had weighed on him the most, instead believing that his Rebbe’s words must include an answer to the question that had brought him there, even without understanding how it could possibly be so.”
The chassid nodded his head and continued with the tale: “On his way home, the merchant stopped at an inn, where he heard that the innkeeper’s son was not circumcised. So, he had asked the innkeeper, ‘Why have you not yet had your son circumcised?’
The father looked saddened by the inquiry and replied that previously, two of his sons had died as a result of circumcision, because the bleeding could not be stopped. The merchant recalled the words of the tzaddik of Berditchev and looked to the innkeeper asking, “What would you give if a solution were to be found for this problem?”
The innkeeper was intrigued and answered, “If it were possible to circumcise my son without danger, I would be prepared to pay four hundred silver rubles.”
“I will circumcise him on my responsibility, depositing my own four hundred rubles to be forfeited in case, God forbid, of misfortune,” answered the merchant.
The innkeeper, eager to circumcise his son without worry, agreed, provided that the mohel/merchant remained with them for four weeks until the child was out of harm’s way. The mohel went on with the circumcision as promised, and the infant bled heavily, but immediately the mohel applied the herb that the tzadik had given him and the bleeding stopped immediately.
After a few days, news reached the merchant that the price of oxen had risen again, and he wanted so badly to hurry home to sell his livestock, but the innkeeper held him to his word of staying in the village for the four weeks following the procedure. After a few more days, he heard that the price of livestock had soared even more than before, and he pleaded to be allowed to leave and take care of his other business. But the innkeeper ignored his pleas. Only after the full four weeks had passed did the innkeeper allow the merchant to take leave, but not before paying him both the four hundred silver rubles for the successful brit milah and four hundred rubles that he was holding as collateral.
When the merchant finally returned home, he immediately ran to sell his oxen and found that he could sell them for a far greater amount than he could have imagined, even more than he had heard rumored. He couldn’t believe the turn of events and fortune. Right then, he knew he had to travel back to Reb Levi Yitchak in Berditchev.
Upon his arrival, he greeted the Rebbe and said, “Rebbe, the fee of four hundred rubles belongs to you without a question, and a portion of the profit I made on the sale of my livestock rightly belongs to you as well.”19 He then understood that all along the Rebbe was telling him, “tap into the mitzvah that you connect with, and if you elevate yourself and your family spiritually through that, your physical well being will be blessed.”
One of my favorite lessons from Reb Simcha Bunim is: “Everyone must have two pockets and a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket and there find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam— “The world was created for me.”20 But when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer – “I am but dust and ashes.”21
Kabbalah teaches that the world was created as a broken vessel; Hashem constricted himself and hid His good in the brokenness of the world. Reb Natan of Breslov says that our highest task is to choose to see His Light, to choose to let in and partner with Hashem, even when he is hidden. Our laws and customs, in ways so mysterious and in ways very obvious– literally turning our physical bodies into ritual spiritual objects– are the most powerful reminders we have to keep making that choice to strive for something higher. To not let ourselves believe that we are only creatures, that we are only animals, driven only by physical instincts. The Torah teaches us how to free ourselves from our self-imposed slavery, to take actions towards holiness, freedom, ultimate oneness.
Man is but dust of the earth, Adamah, but through the struggle and fight to spiritualize reality we become Adameh la-Elyon, a semblance of God.
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Notes & Sources
- Leviticus 12:3
- Ibid 19:2
- Tanya, Likkutei Amarim
- I Samuel 17:8
- Exodus 15:3
- I Samuel 17:12
- Talmud Sotah 42b
- Rashi on Genesis 2:23
- Hosea 2:25
- Malachi 3:12
- An Anthology of Talks, Likkutei Sichos p. 83-85
- Leviticus 14:1
- Leviticus 12:7
- Leviticus 29:31
- Genesis 17:10-11
- Menahot 43b
- Torat Moshe ד״ה דרש
- R’ Aryeh Kaplan, “Inner Space”, p. 76
- A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Torah p. 341-343
- Sanhedrin 37b
- Genesis 18:27