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29 Adar II 5763 - April 2, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
"Man is Born an Untamed Donkey"

by R' Yerachmiel Kram

"If He desires circumcision, why doesn't the infant emerge [from the womb] already circumcised?"

"And on the eighth day he shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin" (Vayikra 12:9).

The essence of the commandment of milah is the perfection of Creation and bringing it to a state that completes it with finality. The foreskin is considered a defect, a flaw. We learn from the text in Bereishis that when Avrohom Ovinu was commanded concerning the miloh, he was told, "Walk before Me and be perfect" (Bereishis 17:1). Rashi explains, "According to the Midrash, this means: Walk before Me with mitzvas miloh and in this thing you will become perfect, for so long as you have a foreskin, you are considered blemished before Me."

An uncircumcised person is considered handicapped, a blemished creature, and when a father initiates his son into the covenant of Avrohom Ovinu, he is correcting and improving the body of his son and bringing him to physical completion. Gentiles cannot grasp the deep impact of this concept and think that man has no business tampering with nature or correcting it. The hatred of gentiles towards our Torah has made circumcision a perennial subject of discussion, one argument of which is dealt with by the Midrash.

"The wicked Turnusrufus once asked R' Akiva: `Whose deeds are more pleasant -- those of Hashem or those of flesh-and- blood?' He replied: `Those of mortals.' Asked Turnusrufus: `What about heaven and earth? Can man create the likes of those?'

"Said R' Akiva: `Don't tell me things that are beyond the capacity of mankind, things they are incapable of. Give me an example that they can accomplish as mortals.'

"He asked: `Why do you circumcise yourselves?'

"`I knew you would ask that. That's why I started off by saying that man's actions are better than Hashem's.' He then brought some wheat stalks and some pastries and said: `These are the products of Hashem and those are manmade products. Aren't those [cakes] better than these stalks?'

"Said Turnusrufus: `But if He desired circumcision, why doesn't the newborn emerge from the womb already circumcised?'

"Said R' Akiva: `Why does his umbilical cord come attached to his mother, requiring it to be severed? And as for your asking why he is not born circumcised, this is because Hashem specifically provided us with commandments in order to purify us through them. This is why Dovid said: `The word of Hashem is perfect,' " (Tanchuma Tazria, piska 5).

This dialogue is one of many which took place during that period and through which the Romans attempted to explain the motives behind the religious decrees [prohibiting circumcision] which they passed against the Jewish remnant still living in Eretz Yisroel after Churban Bayis Sheini.

The Mitzvos Were Given to Israel in Order to Purify Them

If we read with the proper attention the debate between the wicked Roman and one of the prime tanoim, we will note that there are two parts to this discussion. At first, he argued that Hashem's handiwork is perfect and pleasant and there is no call for man to improve or amend them in any way.

This argument was forthwith dismissed by R' Akiva who easily disproved it by laying out wheat stalks as raw material and delicious pastries in contrast, as the manmade finished product. This showed how much is still lacking before kernels are transformed into edible delicacies. Creation is not complete, in its raw, natural state, and man is called upon to improve and modify its forces, to intervene and bring nature to its perfected form whereby he can derive the utmost benefit from it.

But Turnusrufus was not satisfied with that. For even if man is permitted to intervene with nature, to cook and bake what grows, this is only by way of license or permission. It is an option, not an obligation, whereas circumcision is a commandment which must be obeyed. It is not optional.

If man wishes to eat cake, he must process the wheat and produce it; but he is at liberty to eat the kernel as is, without the extensive preparation. The Roman was incapable of understanding why man should be commanded to improve on nature when he could have been born already circumcised.

In his gentile-Roman way of thinking, the commissioner misunderstood that the mitzvos came to `assist' Hashem to carry out His aspirations. This is what was believed in Roman and Greek philosophical circles. This puzzled them, and he asked, "If this is what He wishes, why can't He arrange it Himself?"

He really sought to arrive at the simple conclusion that Hashem wasn't even interested in circumcision at all and that this commandment was really a manmade innovation.

R' Akiva set him straight and explained that the commandments were not devised to supply the Creator with something that He lacked beforehand, as it were. "Hashem gave the commandments to Jewry for the sole purpose of purifying them."

A gentile is incapable of understanding this. His misconception stems from his ancestor, the wicked Eisov, who refused to have himself circumcised when he grew up. Yitzchok had not circumcised him on the eighth day because of his ruddiness, which was thought to be a medical risk and later, Eisov refused to allow it.

This suits his name, as well. Eisov stems from osui -- made, completed, finished. According to his world outlook, nature has taken care of everything and there is no room to improve on Hashem's handiwork of creation.

Yaakov, however, knows that he is only holding on to the heel. He is at the beginning of the improvement which he is obligated to make as his mission in life. For tikkun, improvement and self perfection, is Yaakov's goal in this world.

The Obligation of Miloh Hints to the Obligation of Character Improvement

Let us try to understand one of the ways in which the commandment of miloh purifies a Jew. To be sure, the reasons for the mitzvos are esoteric secrets beyond our grasp, but we are permitted to study them somewhat and see what the Rishonim said about them. This, then, is what the Sefer Hachinuch writes:

"Hashem wishes to complete His design for Creation through the Chosen People, and He desires this perfection to be executed by man. He did not create him perfect from the womb to signify that just as he perfects the form of his body by himself, so too will he be able to perfect the form of his soul by modifying his actions" (Mitzva 2).

Man was created with a defect in his body to signify that he is also defective in his spiritual makeup. The commandment to repair his body comes to indicate that he must also perfect and improve his spiritual makeup and stature.

And in this aspect, man is different from other creations which do not need to attain any further perfection. And the Jew, having been born physically flawed and incomplete, is required to cut his foreskin and also to work on his spiritual stature for as long as he has breath in his body and has days in this world.

Regarding the Creation of Man, the Torah Does Not Say that Hashem, `Saw That it was Good'

A man's obligation to perfect his spiritual stature is implied already in the genesis of the world. At the end of the account of the creation of all the creatures in this world, the Torah notes, "Hashem saw that they were good." We see this first with the creation of light: "And Elokim saw the light that it was good." (4) Again, with the creation of birds and beast, "And Elokim saw that it was good." (21) Man is different in that his creation is not accompanied by this description.

The ancient Jewish philosopher R' Yosef Albo, explains in his Sefer HoIkrim that all the creations in the world, from the inanimate, vegetable and animal kingdoms, attain their perfection or ultimate purpose through their very being, for nothing is demanded of them beyond their existence. They serve their reason for creation as is. And this perfection expresses itself through the word "good." It teaches that the light, the birds and the beasts reached the pinnacle of their service, purpose and function, as was expected of them. From the moment it came into being, a fish satisfied its raison d'etre and satisfied its Creator. This is why the Torah states, "And Elokim saw that it was good."

But with man it was different. He does not fulfill his purpose just by being, by existing, by appearing on the stage of this world. On the contrary, he is born wild, untamed, full of base drives, animal desires and negative tendencies. He must toil hard to mold his character and build a spiritual edifice. He is far from complete at birth, at the time of his creation. And just as he must circumcise himself to perfect his physical state, so must he take steps to perfect himself as a human creation in the spiritual sense.

An elephant will be the same entity when it dies as when it was born: no more or less than an elephant. It cannot become more. But man can rise to the very heavens, as did Moshe Rabbenu, or forfeit his divine image and become like Yerovom ben Nevot.

Let Us Make Man in Our Form and in Our Image

The Yismach Moshe, one of the giants of Chassidus, elaborated and expanded on this idea. He opens with the questions asked by Chazal, mentioned in the Midrash: "Why does it state by the creation of man: Let us make man in our form and in our image"? Why the plural form? Is Hashem not One and Only in the universe? Which `partner' did He have to consult, as it were? Why doesn't it simply state, "Let Me make a man"?

There is a message here in man's being a partner in his own creation, when he, together with Hashem, molds and builds his spiritual stature. Animals are totally passive in their own creation; they are wholly a product of the A-mighty. An animal has no role, no intervention in its own creation.

But man must struggle and toil to create himself, to attain any spiritual stature of worth. As Chazal said, "A man's evil inclination renews itself each day against him, and were it not that Hashem helped him, he would never be able to overcome it" (Kiddushin 30). Together with Hashem, man works to construct his edifice, his form and image. Hashem says to him, as it were: "Let us make a man, you and Me. Together we will form the potential man within you . . . "

For, "All is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven" (Brochos 33b).

Man Must Repair the Works of Creation and Bring it to its Perfection

Just as Hashem wanted man to toil upon his image and form as a human, so would He like him to toil in the works of Creation to sustain and improve them. Even though the world and all that is on it was created for a specified purpose and defined goal, this is not sufficient to justify it or bring it to its ultimate design. Man must intervene and toil.

The end purpose of wheat is to produce bread and baked goods, but Hashem did not create the world so that it produced a finished baked product. The earth brings forth only wheat and man must process it through many steps before he can smell the mouthwatering aroma of freshly baked bread being removed from a hot oven.

Flax was created to supply clothing, an elementary human need. Still, clothing does not grow on trees or stalks. Man must take the flax through many stages before he can clothe himself in linen garments.

Why didn't Hashem create the world in such a manner that man could immediately obtain the finished product without prodigious effort on his part to produce it from the raw resources? Why couldn't He have made a world in which the earth brings forth loaves of bread, cakes, suits and dresses?

Because He did not wish this. It is man's job to occupy himself in the perfection and completion of the work of Creation. Hashem wants man to take what is given to him and complete the form of the state of nature to the state he requires and desires. It is up to him to grow, grind and bake the wheat into bread, to grow, beat and weave the flax into cloth and clothing. Regarding this activity, the Torah says, "For then [on the seventh day] He rested from all the work which Elokim created to be done." Hashem created the world in such a manner that man would have to complete what was left for him to be done so that each raw material be efficiently used for its respective end product.

Shakkai [the Name of Hashem which denotes] -- "I am He Who Said to My World: Enough!"

R' Yehonosson Eibshitz interprets what is written in the gemora in this vein. "Hashem said `dai - - enough' to His world. Said R' Yehuda in the name of Rav: At the time that Hashem created the world, it continued to expand and accelerate until He rebuked it and forced its growth to a standstill. This is what Reish Lokish said: Why is it written `I am Keil Shakkai'? I am the One Who said to My world: Dai -- Enough" (Chagigah 12a).

How can we understand that the world wished to expand and keep on growing? If Hashem created it according to certain preordained rules and laws, to a set nature and order, why did it seek to expand beyond that?

Apparently, this does not mean that it was proliferating in magnitude, from a small planet to a larger one, taking up more space in the universe. Rather, it means that it continued to develop in quality, what we term "sophistication." When the world achieved the initial will of Hashem to produce wheat as a raw product and flax as a growing resource for potential use of man, it continued to improve its performance by producing finished products, upon its own initiative. This is the expansion referred to above.

But this was an error on the part of the earth, a self designation that was unwarranted and not part of the original design. Therefore, Hashem rebuked the earth and said to it: Enough! I wish to create a world that is not perfectly complete or completely perfect. It is up to man to fill in the gaps, to round out the work and bring each thing from its raw state to its manmade perfection through his human effort and input (Tiferes Yehonosson).

It is from this episode and this command that His name `Shakkai' is derived -- `She'omarti le'olomi Dai -- Who said to My world: Enough!'

Hashem Revealed Himself to Avrohom With the Name `Shakkai' When He Commanded Him Regarding Circumcision

We can now better understand why Hashem revealed Himself to Avrohom Ovinu precisely with this name when He commanded him regarding miloh. We read: "And Avrom was ninety-nine years old, and Hashem appeared to Avrom and said to him: I am Keil Shakkai; walk before Me and be perfect and I will give My covenant between Me and between you, and I will increase you most exceedingly" (Bereishis 17:1-2). Why did Hashem reveal Himself to Avrom precisely at this time with this particular Name?

There is a direct correlation between the idea behind the commandment of circumcision and what this particular name of Hashem represents. When Hashem commanded Avrom regarding miloh, the question, which was to repeat itself throughout history, first presented itself: "If He desires circumcision, why does He not produce a circumcised male infant in the womb?" The Measure of Justice presented the question that Turnusrufus was later to repeat, a poignant question that pierces the very crux of our faith in Divine wisdom.

This is why Hashem chose to appear with this particular name: "I am Keil Shakkai." I said `Stop! Suffice it!' to My world when it continued to expand and improve itself to reach the perfect state of completion. This is because it is My will that man bring Creation to its optimum state through the execution of My will via the commandments.

This is precisely the reply to the question that is posed by the commandment of miloh. To begin with, man was created with a flaw, a foreskin, which he is commanded to remove, himself, in order to perfect the design of his own physicality. Hashem wants man to do this of his own accord, his own free will, in the same manner as He expects man to take wheat and transform it into the finished product of baked goods.

When Hashem reminds Avrom, "It is I Who said to My world: Suffice!" He is obviating the question of, "If He desires circumcision, why didn't He take care of it Himself?" The mention of the concept behind this particular name of Hashem is the very rebuttal to those who argue against the Divine origin of the commandment of miloh.

His Divine Wisdom Decreed to Let Man Perfect His Own Self

Man was created flawed and defective in order that he perfect himself and repair his own physical form. This principle was well expressed in the work of the Ramchal, Daas Tevunos.

"Hashem could undoubtedly have created man and all of Creation with perfect completeness. This should logically have been so for He, Himself, is perfect in every way and all of His deeds should ostensibly be perfect and complete in every way. But when His Divine wisdom decreed that man be given the opportunity to perfect and complete his own design, He created mankind lacking this perfection. It is as if He actually arrested His measure of perfection, His measure of great goodness, precisely at the point where man must complete this final stamp and carry out the Divine design according to the end which was conceived and desired in His unfathomable thought" (Chapter 26).

In other words, to begin with, "His Divine wisdom decreed to leave it up to man to complete and perfect his own self" and to mold his own form. This is because Hashem wanted man to toil and exert himself so that he could justifiably claim his reward.

It is shameful for the soul to enjoy that reward reserved for the righteous without its having exerted itself to rightfully deserve it. The soul does not want `shameful bread,' a handout. Therefore, man was created in such a way that he would feel that he was claiming his reward with justification and not as an outright, undeserved gift.

The commandment of miloh is the first in the life of man, the first opportunity to repair a flaw. It is like a signpost that announces to man: All of your days must be spent in toiling to continually improve and repair, more and more.

This is why we bless the newborn immediately after he has entered the covenant of Avrohom Ovinu: "Just as he entered the bris, so shall he continue on to Torah, chuppah and good deeds."

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