As we have discussed in this series, the story of Israel represents the human story – the exile from the Garden of Eden and the future return to the Garden. In this letter, we will begin to explore how the “tikun” – fixing – of male sexuality is a major step on our journey back to the Garden. And we shall discuss a “mitzvah” – Divine mandate – which helps us to do this tikun.
The People of Israel were given a special mitzvah known as "Bris Milah" - the Covenant of Circumcision. This covenant was first made with Avraham, our father, when he was ninety-nine years old. The Compassionate One appeared to him and said:
“I am the All Sufficient One; walk before me and become whole. I will set My covenant between Me and you, and I will increase you most exceedingly.” (Genesis 17:1,2)
And what is the nature of this covenant? The Torah records:
“This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days, every male among you shall be circumcised…” (Genesis 17:9-12)
The mitzvah concerning circumcision concludes with this statement: "An uncircumcised male who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin - his soul shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My Covenant" (17:14).
We will begin our discussion with the following question: The Compassionate One introduces Bris Milah with the words, “Walk before Me and become whole.” In what way does the removal of the foreskin lead to wholeness?
As we shall explain, Avraham was being asked to return to the "wholeness" of the first human being in the Garden of Eden. Before we can elaborate on this idea, we need to be aware that one aspect of this wholeness was the unity between the “male” and the “female” - the harmonious interaction between masculine and feminine energies. In fact, our tradition teaches that the “adam” - human being - was originally created as an androgynous being with two sides - one male and one female. Our sages found an allusion to the androgynous nature of the first human being in the following verse:
"So the Just One created the adam in His image, in the image of the Just One He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:27)
The first half of the verse implies that the Creator formed a single human being, while the concluding half of the verse implies that the Creator formed two human beings - one male and one female. The verse is therefore revealing to us that the adam was first created as a single androgynous being with two sides, and the Creator later separated the two sides so that they could be separate beings - male and female. (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 8:1)
According to our tradition, the male side of the adam was created without a foreskin. Our sages find an allusion to this idea in the verse which describes the creation of the adam in the Divine image. The sages state:
Adam came into the world circumcised, as it is said, “And the Just One created the adam in His image” (Avos D'Rabbi Nosan 2:5).
The sages learn that the male component of the adam was circumcised, because the verse tells us that the adam was created in the Divine image! What is the connection between being circumcised and the Divine image? To be created in the Divine image means that the human being has the cacacity to emulate the Divine Giver. The human being is to be an altruist; thus, the Chafetz Chaim, a leading sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, offers the following interpretation of "in His image":
“The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One - to do good and act with lovingkindness with others, as Scripture states: ‘Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works’ (Psalm 145:9). (From “Loving Kindness” by the Chafetz Chaim, chapter 2)
The Torah reveals that when the adam was created, all the human drives were dedicated to an altruistic goal, as it is written: “And the Compassionate and Just One placed the adam in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). But when the adam began to view the Garden as being created for human gratification, the adam decided to become a “taker” and eat from the forbidden tree. As a result, the drives of the human being, including the sexual drive, became devoted to selfish desires. According to tradition, when the human being descended to this lower spiritual level, the physiognomy of the male underwent a change, and the male sexual organ was no longer circumcised.
In what way does the foreskin represent a lower spiritual level? The Hebrew word for foreskin is “orla” - a biblical term that usually refers to a restriction or blockage which is preventing us from using an object for the purpose it was created for. The following can serve as examples:
1. We are forbidden to eat the fruit of a tree during the first three years of a tree's life, and during this period, the forbidden fruit is called “orla” (Leviticus 19:23). The fruit was created to be eaten, but during the first three years there is a restriction – “orla” - which prevents us from eating the fruit.
2. When the ear is blocked and cannot be used for listening - its main purpose, the Prophet calls it an ear of “orla” (Jeremiah 6:10).
3. When the heart is blocked and cannot feel what it was created to feel, it called a heart of “orla” - an uncircumcised heart (Ezekiel 44:9).
When the male sexual organ became controlled by selfish drives and was no longer devoted to the loving and giving purpose it was created for, it developed an orlah. This development serves as a sign that there is a spiritual blockage which is preventing this organ from fulfilling its true purpose within the creation. Through the Covenant of Circumcision, we remove this orla, so that the male organ can once again become fully dedicated to loving and giving. Through the removal of this restriction, the male can strive to become physically and spiritually whole like the first male in the Garden of Eden - when all his drives were expressing the Divine image.
The above teachings lead to the following question: Should not the Torah have provided women with some kind of physical symbol which would convey to them the same spiritual message that Bris Milah conveys to men? We shall respond to this question in our next letter.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen