With the opening of Lech Lecha, I realize again how difficult it is to go beyond these two not-so-simple words. Go. Go where? What constitutes a journey, especially in our minds? How do we hear the voice of God: Commanding as in the domain of the Leviathan, or insistent as a mosquito? And how do we understand Lech lecha in the context of understanding the mitzvah of circumcision, brit milah?
I am without that marker of covenant that so concerns God. I am a woman, so covenant holds differently for me; it is not engraved so much on, but in, my body. Covenant is not a marker on my body; I am, in the language of prayer, circumcised on my heart, and thus my soul. Perhaps, for women, our menses can be regarded as a covenant of blood, allowing us to bring children into this world. Yet, that act of begetting, as Bible often references generational continuity, is more an act of physiology than covenant. And, of course, many women do not bear children.
Creation, copulation, castration, and now circumcision and covenant – these “c” words all carry a heavy weight, a kaved, of relationship. These words demand: They demand other becomes as-one, they demand an action that is transformative, changing what was to what is, and now, a cutting that mysteriously becomes covenant. God has demanded this “ot,” as a sign of love, not just of body, but of soul.
Let’s consider that moment of first circumcision we read about in this parashah: Abraham takes a knife, or perhaps a very sharp stone, and then must bring that sharpened edge to his foreskin. It is an almost unimaginable act. I have seen the hands of grown men cup their own genitals, as they wept whilst attending a bris. This act summons another moment, a memory of Avraham holding a knife – the Akedah. Is brit milah, the removing of the orlah, perhaps a foreshadowing of that equally unimaginable act – a father sacrificing his own son – summoned by that same demanding voice of God?
Our Sages had their own questions. Bereshit Rabbah 49.1 suggests that God helped Abraham with this deed, stretching Abraham’s foreskin so that Abraham could make the cut. In another reading from Tanhuma Ye’lammedenu, Lekh lekha 17, a scorpion bit Abraham on his foreskin, thereby conveniently circumcising him. One can feel the squirming, if not to say severe discomfort of these male readers – who ask themselves just how did Avraham manage to accomplish this act?
And so once again, I will return to Don Isaac Abarvanel, who cites Rambam, (not by name, but by idea), when he says that “the nature of the quarry ought to be evident in what was hewn from it,” in reference to Isaac as a descendant of Avraham. Circumcision might be the ultimate identifier, the ultimate mark of Jewish continuity. Abarvanel knew that in his day, many Jews were choosing conversion to Christianity; conversion enabled them to live, circumcision was a signifier of danger. Questions of authenticity hung over them, like that knife in Avraham’s hand, hovering over his beloved son Yitzhak. Were their vows truly authentic? What was hewn from the quarry was now in mortal danger.This question cannot help but bring up the “disappeared” in Argentina, the search for brit milah by vicious Nazi’s. And we must ask – did the mark of Cain become brit milah?
Today, the ritual of brit milah is found to be in question by the very community that has held this “ot” or sign of covenant for millennia. Circumcision has oddly also become a question of authenticity. The word “intactness” is used by those opposed to brit milah, implying a greater authenticity of body, at the very least for those who have not been circumcised. But who has an intact body – are we not all marred (or perhaps mirrored) by the vicissitudes of life?
Evolving new traditions is an oxymoron for many. Yet, we must listen to the many modern-day would-be conversosin our midst. Ferdinand and Isabella are not on the throne, but the lure of Gentility remains. How will we respond? Judaism is a culture of reminders; the function of our mitzvot is to draw our attention to that larger vision that Abarvanel and our Sages sought. One-ness of body and soul with God. How will we pack this vision of authentic covenant with us on our journeys? Lech Lecha. Go.
And, don’t forget to pack the mohel jokes.