“The Two Covenants”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we learn of two covenants, the Covenant Between the Pieces and the Covenant of Circumcision in the flesh of man.

In Genesis 15, we read of the mysterious vision that Abram has (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham), in which G-d promises that, after several generations of exile, Abram’s descendants will return to the land of Caanan and claim it as their own. In this mutual covenant between Abram and G-d, G-d promises that the descendants of Abram will have a special destiny. Abram, in return, promises that he will be a faithful and obedient servant to G-d, and will teach his descendants to be faithful as well.

In Genesis 17, a second covenant is recorded. Thirteen years have passed since the Covenant Between the Pieces, but nothing has been fulfilled. Suddenly, G-d appears to Abram, reintroducing himself as “El Shaddai,” and beseeching Abram (Genesis 17:1), ”Hit’ha’lech l’fah’nie veh’yay tamim,” Walk before Me and be perfect. G-d then assures Abram that He will establish His covenant with Abram, and will make Abram exceedingly numerous. G-d tells Abram (Genesis 17:9): “V’ah’tah eht b’ree’tee tish’mor, ah’tah v’zar’ah’cha ah’chah’reh’chah l’doh’roh’tahm,” and as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. G-d informs Abram that every male in his family must be circumcised, and that by removing the flesh of the foreskin, the sign of the covenant between G-d and Abram will be upon him and his children.

Not only must every male child born in Abram’s house be circumcised on the 8th day after birth, but even those men purchased with money from a stranger, who are not Abram’s offspring, must also be circumcised. G-d warns that any male who is not circumcised, his soul will be cut off from his people, for he has invalidated G-d’s covenant.

It is during this vision that G-d changes Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah.

Scripture records that Abraham took his son, Ishmael, and all the members of his household, and on that very day circumcised them, as G-d had instructed him. Abraham was 99 years old when he was circumcised, and Ishmael was 13 years old.

The ritual of circumcision is one of the most basic and fundamental of all the practices of Judaism. Circumcision does not make a child Jewish, but confirms the relationship between the child and G-d. The Zohar considers the ritual of circumcision to be of such vital importance that it states that “as long as Israel observes the custom of circumcision, heaven and earth will go on their appointed courses. But if Israel neglects the covenant, heaven and earth are disturbed.”  Even the controversial Dutch Jewish philosopher, Benedict Spinoza, said that as long as Jews practice circumcision they will survive as a separate people. Until very recently, circumcision was virtually universally practiced among Jews, and is still one of the most highly adhered-to rituals of Judaism.

Recently, however, ritual circumcision has come under vigorous attack by those who consider it physically abusive, comparing it to clitoral circumcision of girls in Africa. A referendum was even recently proposed in the city of San Francisco to outlaw its practice. The California courts and the state legislature, however, declared the referendum unconstitutional and illegal.

Medical opinion has wavered back and forth regarding the practice of circumcision. For most of the last century, doctors approved and recommended it, and most American men were circumcised. However, by the mid to late 20th century, opinions of many medical professionals changed, and some medical experts declared it unnecessary. Others suggested that it may reduce the sexual pleasure of men. Ironically, Maimonides posits that this is precisely the purpose of circumcision, to weaken the sex drive of men, so that they will not be excessively stimulated.

Researchers working with the AIDS virus have discovered that male circumcision reduces the chances of AIDS infection, in some instances by more than 60 percent. This apparent health benefit  has changed the medical profession’s perspective regarding circumcision, increasing circumcision’s popularity, at least among certain segments of society.

The Midrash states that in his day as well, Abraham was concerned about the impact of his circumcision on his neighbors. He was uncertain about how to properly go about fulfilling G-d’s command, whether to sanctify G-d’s name publicly by circumcising himself during the day, or possibly circumcising himself secretly at night to avoid becoming a spectacle to scoffers, and to avoid possible assault by his enemies.

According to the Midrash, Abraham went to consult with his three Amorite compatriots, Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Both Aner and Eshkol were not favorably disposed. Alarmed by the prospect, Aner warned Abraham, “You are a man 100 years old and you would inflict such a pain upon yourself?” Eshkol, too, was concerned that it might endanger Abraham and cautioned his friend, “Why should you go and thereby make yourself distinguishable to your enemies?” Mamre, however, was fully supportive: “Was there ever a circumstance in which G-d did not fully stand by you–in the fiery furnace, in famine, in the war with the kings? Would you not obey Him then in this matter!?” As a reward, G-d later appeared to Abraham (Genesis 18:1) only in the fields of Mamre.

Although there are opinions that it was Shem, the son of Noah, who circumcised Abraham or that G-d Himself circumcised Abraham, most commentators maintain that Abraham circumcised himself. The author of the May’am Lo’ez points out that the reason that Abraham was not born circumcised was in order for him to personally make a sacrifice for G-d. That is apparently why Abraham decided to circumcise himself during the day, so that others could see and know what he was doing. In fact, according to the Midrash, a river of blood flowed from Abraham’s house after he circumcised all 318 men who were members of his household.

This powerful commitment to the mitzvah of circumcision on Abraham’s part has resulted in a passionate devotion on the part of Abraham’s descendants to the ritual of circumcision.

May G-d’s covenant remain strong with the Jewish people, despite the contemporary challenges. May the many wonderful promises of the Covenant Between the Pieces, which is reaffirmed through the rite of circumcision, be fulfilled speedily in our day.

May you be blessed.