This week’s parsha, which relates Avraham’s physical and spiritual journey from the paganist and idolatrous ways of his birthplace and ancestors, culminates in Avraham receiving the mitzvah of brit milah, circumcision. The centrality of brit milah to Judaism both philosophically and practically cannot be exaggerated. There are two positive mitzvot (i.e on the list of do’s rather than dont’s) that are considered of particular significance, such that failing to do them essentially renders one devoid of the most fundamental relationship to Judaism....

One of them is participation in the annual Pesach experience (expressed in the times of the Temple through the slaughtering and festive eating of a lamb every Pesach).

This seems pretty straightforward – Pesach represents our very formation as a people and is the basis of our uniquely direct relationship to G-d. It is not surprising that a relationship to Pesach and its message of Jewish identity are a prerequisite of a healthy relationship to a Jewish life. The other mitzvah is that of Brit Milah. What is the fundamental message of this mitzvah that gives it this standing as a central pillar of Jewish philosophy and practice? The notion that it ‘marks us as different’ will not be a sufficient answer alone. We do many things that make us stand out from the crowd; wearing a kippa, tzitztit etc, and an extensive list of dietary requirements all of which are more outwardly noticeable than brit milah. The mitzvah of brit milah involves taking a human body and perfecting it through the act of removing an extraneous and unnecessary part of it[1]. This is a rather radical notion – the human body was created imperfect, incomplete and we, human beings, perfect it through the act of brit milah! A number of immediate questions present themselves: 1) Surely this is irreconcilable with the existence of an Infinite, Perfect G-d? If G-d is Infinitely Perfect then it follows that none of His creations could be imperfect. To put it simply, G-d doesn’t, or shouldn’t, make mistakes. If so, how can a Perfect G-d have created an imperfect being? And if then we are not imperfect, why are we tampering with a perfect creation? 2)

Further, even if we are able to come to terms with our imperfection, why is brit milah, the mitzvah which draws attention to this imperfection, so central to all Jewish belief and practice? 3) And we go even further …. We turn a brit milah into a joyous occasion celebrated with a festive meal? To resolve these questions we need to distinguish between something being imperfect and incomplete. We are prefect creations, but we are also incomplete creations. That means that somehow we need to be incomplete in order to be perfect. And we even consider this ‘lacking’ as something central to our whole belief system and a cause for great joy and celebration. What we are celebrating is what makes us uniquely human.

Only human beings are created with character flaws and destructive drives which, through a lifetime’s work we can, through the use of free will and our positive drives, rectify and perfect. It is this challenge – the challenge of life – to create ourselves, that we embrace through the mitzvah of brit milah. How, though, can we relate to this challenge, or life-long struggle, as a positive one that we should celebrate and embrace?

Why didn’t G-d just create us complete i.e. lacking any possible deficiencies to struggle with?

Had He done so, none of the destructive traits – the drive for power, honour, money, jealousy etc. which are responsible for so much suffering, war and death would be so prevalent? Ultimately the extent to which one is able to take pride in his/her achievements is directly proportional to the amount of effort, or self, invested in achieving it. It is for this reason that every parent tries to minimise the number of pieces of a jigsaw they help their 4-yr old child with.

The less they help, the greater the joy of the proud child when s/he places the final piece and the greater the joy of the parent. For the same reason, self-made millionaires who worked 20 hour days for years before they finally made it tend to have a far easier time enjoying their wealth than lottery winners. To have been born complete would have made life boring and unfulfilling.

All of our failures along the way, and the pain they bring, are a prize worth paying to take up the challenge of life. The act of brit milah then is not a ceremonial act of initiation into an aging club.

It is an acceptance and celebration of the challenge that life as human beings, with free will and struggles, offers and demands of us. Its place in Judaism is thus so fundamental, important and centra

[1] See Sefer haChinuch,

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