Learning the lessons of brit milah, twice over


The first time we are introduced to the mitzvah of brit milah is the 17th chapter of Sefer Bereshit. This mitzvah is found once again in the first of our parshiot, Parashat Tazria. This repetition creates a classic exegetical problem: if the Torah gave us this mitzvah in Sefer Bereshit, why is it reiterated in Sefer Vayikra?

An approach to this problem is offered by a rhetorical question found in Talmud Yerushalmi, Moed Katan III:5: “L’maidin davar kodem l’Matan Torah? (Is it possible to learn normative halachic practice from a Torah passage that was stated prior to receiving the Torah?)”

Tosafot’s use of this question in Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 20a, strongly suggests that we cannot learn any halachic obligations from Torah portions that preceded Matan Torah. Therefore, in addition to Hashem’s charge to Avraham in Sefer Bereishit, we must have a post-Matan Torah repetition of the mitzvah of brit milah if it is to be a permanent obligation.

The Rambam further elaborates upon the non-binding character of a pre-Matan Torah mitzvah in the first halacha of Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avel: “For once the Torah was given, and the halacha was stated anew, at that point Moshe Rabbeinu established the practice for them [the Jewish people].”

The repetition of mitzvat brit milah post-Matan Torah is an indication of its singular halachic import. As such, what is its meaning?

The anonymous author of the Sefer HaChinuch, one of the most celebrated works of mitzvot exploration, suggests that a physical sign is needed to distinguish klal Yisrael from the rest of mankind. In addition, he opines that brit milah symbolically represents the vast spiritual differences that obtain between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds:

“One root reason for this precept is that the Eternal L-rd wished to affix in the people that He set apart to be called by His name a permanent sign in their bodies to differentiate them from the other nations in their bodily form, just as they are differentiated in their spiritual form, their very ‘exits and entrances’ [their purpose and way in the world] not being the same.”

Basing himself upon a variety of midrashic sources, the Sefer HaChinuch notes that brit milah brings us to physical perfection, a mark of completion (hashlamah) that enables us to join Hashem as partners both in Ma’aseh Bereishit (the act of Creation) and the perfection of the world. As such, this mitzvah teaches us that just as a person can perfect their physical being, so, too, they can perfect their spiritual being.

The Sefer HaChinuch concludes with an analytical tour de force:

“The Eternal L-rd desired to perfect the [physical] character of the Chosen People; and He wished that man would effect this perfection. [Therefore,] He did not create him complete and perfect from the womb, in order to hint to him that just as the perfection of his physical form is by his own hand, so does it lie within his means and power to complete his spiritual form through the worthiness of his actions.”

With Hashem’s help and our fervent desire, may the worthiness of our actions bring us to greater spiritual heights as we strive to draw near to Hashem. V’chane yihi ratzon.