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Parshas Lech Lecha

B'rit Milah and Karet

By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom



"This is My covenant that you shall keep...circumcise all of your males. The male that does not circumcise his flesh, that soul shall be cut off from its nation..." (B'resheet 17:10,14). For the first time, the Torah introduces us to the punishment known as "Karet"-excision from the nation.

In an earlier essay, in discussing the Flood, I introduced the notion of "Inherence": the idea that God's rewards and punishments are "built in" to the scheme of this world and are not a suspension of the natural order. We found that to be an acceptable approach to the Flood; can we go one step further and apply "Inherence" to prescribed punishments, such as Karet? I believe that we can.

The punishment of Karet (the meaning of which is the source of dispute both in the Gemara and among the Rishonim) can be found later on in the Torah as the consequence of violating any one of a number of prohibitions (notably in the areas of Mikdash and Arayot [sexual taboos]); however, there is something almost unique about its application in the case of B'rit Milah - and therein may lie the solution to the "Inherence" perspective here.



All Mitzvot can be broken down, binary-fashion, in a number of ways. We are familiar with the division of "Mitzvot Bein Adam laMakom" (Mitzvot whose realm is exclusive to the relationship between man and God) and "Mitzvot Bein Adam laHavero" (Mitzvot affecting interpersonal relationships); we are also familiar with "Mitzvot haT'luyot ba'Aretz" (Mitzvot which are agriculturally-driven) and "Mitzvot she'Einan T'luyot ba'Aretz" (Mitzvot which are independent of land); we also recognize the division of "Mitzvot 'Aseh shehaZ'man G'rama" (Mitzvot of commission which can only be fulfilled at a set time) and "Mitzvot 'Aseh sheLo haZ'man G'rama" (Mitzvot of commission whose fulfillment is not limited by time constraints). The most basic division with which we are familiar is, of course, "Mitzvot 'Aseh" (Mitzvot of commission, e.g. eating Matza, shaking a Lulav, giving Tz'dakah) and "Mitzvot Lo Ta'aseh' (Mitzvot of omission; e.g. avoiding mixing milk and meat, avoiding "M'lakhah" on Shabbat, not turning a deaf ear to a fellow in need).

It is a rule of thumb that punishments - whether administered by an earthly tribunal or by the Heavenely Court - are only meted out for a specific violation of a Mitzvat Lo Ta'aseh. (see, for instance, MT Sanhedrin 19:3). This is true in a "technical" sense, even though we do not have "inside information" as to how each individual is judged by God; within the framework of Heavenly punishments (Karet, Mitah biY'dei Shamayim), this rule generally holds true - only violations of Mitzvot Lo Ta'aseh carry the consequence of punishment.

[one clarification: It is clear that failing to fulfill a Mitzvat 'Aseh demands Kapparah - atonement - which is the purpose of the 'Olat N'davah. Note MT Ma'aseh haKorbanot 3:14]




There are only two Mitzvot 'Aseh whose non-fulfillment results in a formal punishment: B'rit Milah and partaking of the Pessach offering (Bamidbar 9:13). In both cases, the punishment is "Karet".

When two Mitzvot command their own category, sui generis, two questions are raised:

1) What makes them unique and

2) What features do they have in common?

By investigating the special nature of 'Am Yisra'el, we can, hopefully, discover the nature of these two "exceptional" Mitzvot.



Membership in any group provides companionship and a sense of shared purpose. In return, the members occasionally must sacrifice their individual desires and needs. There is invariably an equation between the extent to which one negates one's self towards the group and the sense of sharedness with that group.

The Torah makes demands upon the individual in his daily life: a multitude of restrictions, a higher business ethic and a theocentric sensitivity. In order to claim membership in 'Am Yisra'el, however, it is not sufficient to be an ethically aware and theologically oriented individual. To be a Jew means joining the Jewish Nation. That means sharing the goals, dreams, joys and sorrows of an age-old and forever-young people. It means a shared history and a common destiny. Imagine someone living a life of Halakha today, insensitive, on the one hand, to the glorious rebirth of the State of Israel; while apathetic to the high rate of assimilation right here in America. They would be missing the central, crowning feature of Am Yisrael: Community. Note Rambam's formulation regarding someone who is not involved in communal concerns:

"Someone who separates himself from the community (even though he does not transgress any violations), who isolates himself from the congregation of Yisra'el, not fulfilling Mitzvot among them, not involving himself in their troubles and not fasting during their fast days; rather, he goes his merry way like one of the non-Jews, as if he were not one of them - has no portion in the World to Come" (MT T'shuvah 3:11)

Indeed, all of our fixed liturgical petitions are in the plural number, indicating a communal request: "Grant us knowledge, redeem us, heal us..." Until we are all healed, no one of us is truly healed; a member of our groups suffers and we suffer along with him. A friend is bereaved, we are sad; not just for his loss, for it is our loss too (and therein lies his greatest comfort.)

(According to the RAN in Rosh haShanah, this same reasoning may be applied to the justification for reciting B'rakhot on behalf of others - see the sugya there at 29a).

One who refuses to participate in the rituals that define one as a member of the group, is surely "cut off" from the group. This is the natural result of his actions: non-participation in the most fundamental group rite is active denial of membership.





There are two elements of sharedness that are central to membership in Am Yisrael:

1) A Shared Past (i.e. a common history ) and

2) A Shared Future (i.e. a common destiny).

(Rav Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik zt"l referred to "common history" as "B'rit Goral"; he coined the term "B'rit Yi'ud" as an expression of "common destiny".)

Membership in the nation demands both - our bonds are rooted in a sense of common past; whereas our national venture, our joint project and mission is sourced in a sense of common destiny.

We propose that each of these unique Mitzvot 'Aseh, B'rit Milah and Korban Pesach, represents one of these perspectives.

That the Korban Pesach, is symbolic of a common history is self-evident - and will be explored in greater detail in our shiur on Parashat Bo.

That the covenant of circumcision symbolizes common destiny needs some explanation.



The Midrash relates a conversation between R. Akiva and a Roman philosopher, Tornus Rufus. Tornus Rufus asked R. Akiva whose deeds were greater, man's or God's. R. Akiva answered that man's were greater.

Tornus Rufus further asked R. Akiva why Jews circumcise their males. R. Akiva explained "I knew that you would ask that, and that is why I first answered that man's deeds are greater than God's." R. Akiva then produced wheat stalks and cakes and demonstrated: "These are God's deeds (stalks) and these are man's (cakes)-aren't these cakes finer than the stalks?" Tornus Rufus then asked: "If God desires circumcision, why isn't the child born circumcised?" to which R. Akiva responded: "and why does the umbilicus come out with him which his mother has to cut? As for what you asked, why isn't the child born circumcised, because God gave Yisrael the Mitzvot for the sole purpose of their participation. (Midrash Tanhuma, Tazria).

Although R. Akiva and Tornus Rufus were arguing about circumcision (a sore point from the perspective of the Greco-Roman culture of the gymnsasium), their dispute cut much deeper. The underlying challenge to the reigning culture (then AND now) implicit in the Mitzvah of B'rit Milah is a statement about the role of Man and the relationship between Man and God.



The Greco-Roman perspective, represented by Tornus Rufus, understands Man as a creature of God (or, in their parlance "the gods"), another (more highly evolved) link in the chain of creation. However, the creation, as such, is Divine and not subject to Man's interference. The cult of "hedones" maintains that Man's job is to enjoy the world on its own terms - it is not Man's role to tamper with Creation or to try to better it, that approach presuming some kinship with the Creator.

This was not only the source of much of the "pleasure principle" inherent in that culture; it was also the weltanschauung supporting the pedestal of athletic competition and physical beauty. As one writer put it: The Greeks found holiness in beauty (whereas the Jews found beauty in holiness!).



R. Akiva obviously represents the Jewish perspective: Man is not just another creature. Man is, potentially and actually, made in the image of the Creator; hence, Man is a creator. The Mitzvot were given so that 'Am Yisra'el can realize the Torah's goal for all of Mankind: To be partners with God in the ongoing process of Creation.

"Any judge who executes a perfectly true judgement is considered as if he were made a partner with God in the act of Creation" (BT Shabbat 10a).

Proper judgement is a continuation of the proper balance achieved in Creation; the judge is carrying on the Divine mandate of Creation. As we explained in last week's discussion, when Manking sufficiently blurred the distinctions and mangled the order of Creation - that order itself was reversed, allowing the Supernal Waters and the Nether Waters to comingle, producing a Flood.

The most integral and constant expression of that destiny - of our mission to improve on "Ma'aseh B'resheet" and to continiue to bring order into the chaotic world around us - is circumcision. It is as if we are introducing the young child to his life goal by way of example:

"Your job is to create! Be not satisfied with Creation as you find it! Imitate God, for it is in His image that you were made. Create, build and achieve mastery over the world. And, by the way, you'd best start with achieving mastery over yourself."

This is the destiny of 'Am Yisra'el. Active participants in ongoing creation, we do not rest from our socio-religious goal: Tikkun Olam. Befriending the heart with no companion, mending the torn fences of Creation; this is our mandate. The covenant obligates us to work with our Partner; the circumcision symbolizes the nature of that work.

One who refuses to participate in the rituals that define one as a member of the group, is surely "cut off" from the group. This is the effect of his actions: non-participation in the most fundamental group rite is active denial of membership. "Karet" is not an arbitrarily designed punishment; it is the natural result of one's rejection of full membership in 'Am Yisra'el.

Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.



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