“The mitzvos were given in order to refine human beings” (A teaching of the sage, Rav, cited in Genesis Rabbah 44:1).
The mitzvos of the Torah were given for our benefit – to enable us to become the refined and elevated human beings that we are meant to be. Although most of the mitzvos of the Torah are binding on both men and women, there are some mitzvos, like Bris Milah, which only men have an obligation to do. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, if women were not given certain mitzvos to perform, it is because they do not need the particular form of refinement and purification that these mitzvos are supposed to bring. As a number of Torah teachings indicate, women tend to have greater fervor and enthusiasm for the call to serve the Compassionate One. (A source is cited at the end of this letter.) Men, however, require repeated exhortation to remain true to this call; thus, they are given certain mitzvos, such as Bris Milah, which serve as a reminder of the Divine calling. (Rabbi Hirsch's commentary to Leviticus 23:43)
The following personal story helped me to understand why men need the reminder of Bris Milah: During the 1970's and early 80's, I was connected to a network of young Jewish men and women who were exploring their Jewish roots. They were progressive individuals who were concerned about the issues of the day and how Judaism would address these issues. Once, the women demanded a meeting to discuss the issue of male sexual exploitation. At the meeting, the women complained that many “idealistic” men in the group became very friendly with them, slept with them, and as soon as the men get the sex they wanted, the women never heard from them again. I discovered that women in other progressive groups were voicing the same complaint about their “idealistic” male colleagues. The public discussion of this issue helped me to realize that the majority of women associate sex with love, nurturing, and a close relationship, while the majority of men tend to think of sex without necessarily associating it with love, nurturing, and a close relationship. Promiscuous sexual behavior tends to be more prevalent among men than among women, and one does not have to be a sociologist to realize this.
Why do the majority of women tend to be more loving and caring then the majority of men with regard to their sexual relationships? It is because they are closer to the Shechinah - the Divine Presence. As we discussed in previous letters, the Shechinah expresses the “feminine” attributes of the Creator; thus, She provides us with motherly love, compassion, empathy, nurturing, and protection. We also mentioned that the Shechinah is called “tzedek” - a biblical term for “justice” (Ramban’s commentary to Genesis 14:18). Why is the Shechinah called “tzedek”? According to Rabbi Hirsch, tzedek refers to the Divine goal where every creature is entitled to receive the nurturing and caring it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within the creation (Commentary to Genesis 15:6.) This nurturing and caring is the goal of the Shechinah.
The feminine attributes within women make it easier for them to emulate the feminine attributes of the Shechinah and to thereby achieve the life-affirming goal of the Shechinah: tzedek. The Torah, however, wants men to also serve the life-affirming goal of the Shechinah. In this spirit, the Midrash teaches that before the Bris Milah can take place, the male baby must first honor the Shechinah! The Midrash teaches that Shabbos - the sacred seventh day - represents the Shechinah, and each male baby must first experience a Shabbos before we can bring the “offering” of his Bris Milah. In this way, the baby will have the opportunity to greet and honor the Shechinah - the Shabbos Queen. This is why, explains the Midrash, circumcision takes place on the eighth day, for an eight day period has at least one Shabbos. The Midrash conveys this teaching with the following parable:
“There was a king who decreed that before anyone could enter his presence, one would first have to see the queen. So too, the Holy One, Blessed He, said: 'Do not bring before Me the offering until a Shabbos has passed. For each week contains a Shabbos, so there can be no Bris Milah (on the 8th day) without a Shabbos.” (Leviticus Rabbah 27:10 – in some editions, 27:9)
Ashkenazi Jews have a custom to have a celebration in honor of a newborn baby boy on the first Friday night of his life (Yorah Deah 265, Rama). According to a noted commentary on Torah law, known as the Taz, the reason for this celebration is found in the above Midrash. On Shabbos, the male baby is greeting the Shabbos Queen - the Shechinah - before his Bris Milah takes place, and this is cause for celebration!
Right after Abraham fulfilled the Covenant of Circumcision, the Torah states:
“The Compassionate One appeared to him” (Genesis 18:1).
The Midrash states that the Shechinah appeared to him; moreover, this was in merit of the Bris Milah (Genesis Rabbah 48:1,2.) According to Rabbenu Bachya, a noted 13th century sage and biblical commentator, the above verse is conveying the following message: “By virtue of the mitzvah of circumcision, man receives the Shechinah” (Kad HaKemach - Bris Milah).
Masculine energy tends to be outgoing and assertive, as this energy enables the male to “plant” the seed; however, this energy can also be used in an aggressive manner which hurts or exploits others. Through Bris Milah, masculine energy is dedicated to serving the Shechinah. This covenant is therefore a reminder that masculine energy must be used for loving, nurturing, and protecting others. In this way, masculine energy joins with feminine energy in serving and protecting God's creation.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. The Compassionate One proclaimed to Moshe before the giving of the Torah: “So shall you say to the House of Jacob and relate to the Children of Israel” (Exodus 19:3). The Midrash Rabbah explains that “the House of Jacob” refers to the women, and “the Children of Israel” refers to the men. The wording of the verse indicates that Moshe was to first speak to the “House of Jacob” - the women. Why were the women given this honor? The following is one of the answers given by the Midrash: It is because women are zealous to perform the mitzvos. (Exodus Rabbah 28:2)
2. The Talmud states in the name of Rabbi Shilo: Women tend to be compassionate. (Megillah 14b).
3. A previous letter in this series - “The Motherly Shechinah” - discusses some related aspects of the Shechinah. This letter appears in the archive on our website. A direct link is: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/motherly.htm