The mystery of the delayed Brit Milah

There is a change in gears towards the end of this week's Torah reading.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism ברית. אילוסטרציה
ברית. אילוסטרציה
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

The appearance of the mitzvah of Brit Milah, circumcision, is very perplexing. Brit Milah is so central to the identity and message of Avraham Avinu (the Patriarch Abraham) and signals his commitment to God and God’s commitment to him, yet it is absent from the story of Avraham until the final aliyah of our parshah, when Avraham, then 99 years old, is commanded to circumcise himself and the males of his household. Why the delay?

The Torah and Chazal (the Sages) narrate the various Tests (Nisyonot) of Avraham which commenced decades prior, designed to fortify and express Avraham’s commitment to God, but why is Brit Milah, the most fundamental expression of this commitment, seemingly postponed until much later? Why was Brit Milah not commanded from the outset, and why is it delayed until near the end of our parshah?

While it is true that Brit Milah represents dedication to God and the binding nature of our relationship with Him, there is a different, foundational element of Brit Milah which needs some focus. In order to do this, we need to address another glaring question that emerges when learning this week’s parshah.

God had already promised Avraham at the time that He spoke with him at the commencement of the parhsah, in Charan, that Avraham would have multitudes of progeny, and that this progeny would inherit Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. This message seems to be repeated, albeit in more detail, in the latter section of the parshah, where, at the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim, the Covenant Between the Parts, God promises Avraham that his descendants will be subjugated in a foreign land and that they would later ascend and inherit Eretz Yisrael. Likewise does God promise Avraham near the end of the parshah that Sarah would bear Yitzchak, whose progeny would be many and who would carry forth Avraham’s legacy.

Is there anything materially different between this latter set of promises of God and those articulated at the beginning of the parshah, with the exception of the added details?

Yes, there is a huge difference, for the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim and God’s promise of Yitzchak and his progeny represent a major new aspect to the identity and mission of Avraham. Until now, Avraham enjoyed a special relationship with God, and he was told of the future rewards of that relationship:  numerous descendants and the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael.

However, the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim and the birth of Yitzchak redefine Avraham’s destiny and depict the emergence of a unique nation with a special calling – a nation unlike any other, which would take the lead in serving God and communing with Him. Avraham’s progeny would form a distinct and extraordinary new nation, who would not merely be one of the many cultures and clans that inhabit the earth and have a homeland; on the contrary, this nation would undergo unusual and sanctified cultivation and would emerge as the world’s preeminent spiritual movement, as it would bear God’s message and execute His mandate for humanity.

Brit Milah represents the distinctive national devotional identity and message of the Jew and is not merely a symbol of private commitment to God. This crucial concept, of Brit Milah reflecting the national spiritual character of the Jewish People, is described in detail by Sefer Ha-Chinuch (mitzvah 2).

Thus, the answer as to why Avraham was not given the commandment of Brit Milah until the latter section of our parshah is that this later section switches gears, so to say, and presents the emergence and mission of Avraham’s progeny not merely as a great nation, but as a novel and spectacular spiritual force, serving as God’s emissaries for mankind. It is in this special context that Brit Milah must be presented and understood. This is likewise why the names of Avram and Sarai are changed at the end of our parshah, as the personae of Avraham and Sarah ascend to positions of immense and distinctive spiritual leadership.

May we emulate the ways of Avraham and Sarah and do our utmost to fulfill the national mission of closeness to God and sanctification of His Name that they commenced.