Friday, October 19, 2007

avraham, lot, and the ishbitzer on mitzvas milah

I want to expand on the idea I threw out in an earlier post that the point of telling us that G-d visited Avraham davka “acharei hipared Lot”, after Lot had left, is not to stress the wickedness of Lot, but to highlight the charity of Avraham in giving up communication with G-d for the sake of trying to live in harmony with Lot. Only when Lot proved to be a danger to Avraham’s neighbors was Avraham forced to make a break with him but not before, and not for his own “selfish” religious development.

Why, asks the Ishbitzer, did Avraham wait for G-d’s command before performing the mitzvah of milah, as end of our parsha records? Why did he not take the initiative and do the mitzvah earlier, before receiving an explicit command? The Ishbitzer offers a unique answer to the classic question. Milah makes a statement: G-d created man in an imperfect state, and man must take action to remove the orlah and correct the defect. Such a statement can be seen as audacious, even sacrilegious – who are we to call G-d’s creation imperfect, flawed, in need of our correction?

The command of milah was preceded by the birth of Yishmael to show Avraham that indeed it would be audacious to charge G-d with creating an imperfect world if not for the fact that G-d himself creates Yishmaels even among the children of Avraham, if not for the fact that G-d himself told us the world is imperfect and in need of our repair.

I wonder, coming full circle, if perhaps Lot as a character is a symbolic “orlah”, an “orlah” which Avraham was loathe to abandon and forsake without a commandment to do so. Avraham had been told to abandon his home, "lech lecha m’artzecha, m’moldtecha, m’bais avicha" – could it be that this command was necessary to prevent Avraham from becoming bogged down by other potential “Lots” in his neighborhood and family, ultimately retarding his own growth? Is there perhaps a progression from “lech lecha”, Avraham having to be ordered to abandon a bad situation, to "acharei hipared Lot", G-d waiting until Avraham himself was forced to drive Lot away somewhat unwillingly, to G-d's finally showing Avraham that removing “orlah” is also part of the mission of religion and not every situation or person can be “saved”? I’m just thinking out loud – feel free to add your 2 cents.

Even if you don't buy the Lot connection, the Ishbitzer makes a powerful point. Every teacher today is told to make kids feel good, accentuate the positive, find something done right to focus on. Who does not like to hear that they are a great and wonderful person! But the reality is that true growth is possible only is we are willing to face up to the imperfections in the world and in ourselves and choose to do something about them.


  1. Too bad the Tikkun Olam theme has been co-opted by the non-observant.

    Anyway, since I haven't posted on Havolim since certain unfortunate events, let me share what I have on this topic.

    His’haleich lefonai ve’heyei somim. The Bais Halevi asks, why is this name, Shaddai, introduced here? He says that the idea that Hashem said “dai” has two aspects, quantitative and qualitative. When the Universe was expanding, Hashem said dai and it stopped expanding. And as gashmius improved and came closer to perfection, Hashem said dai. Wheat sprouts, grows a stalk, then grows husks, and then grows a kernel. We, however, have to take the kernel and further process it to the point that it is perfect for us to eat. If Hashem hadn’t said dai, the ultimate product of the wheat plant would be perfectly ready for us to consume. The Gemora says that le’osid lavo the wheat in Eretz Yisroel will produce “gluska’os”. This means that nature will reach the perfection Hashem witheld by saying dai. Until that time comes, Hashem wants us to work to perfect the world, and so He made it imperfect, and gave us the charge of following His path by improving and perfecting an imperfect world. Turnusrufus asked Reb Akiva (Tanchuma Tazria 5), which is more perfect, that which God creates or that which man creates. Reb Akiva, knowing that he meant to question mila, answered, “that which man creates”, and he brought him “shibolim vegluska’os” for proof. Still, not being put off by Reb Akiva having anticipated his argument, Turnusrufus asked, if your God wants mila, why doesn’t He create man mahul? The answer, as we see from the Beis Halevi, is the Shem Hashem in this passuk— Hashem said dai, in order that we find purpose and spiritual growth by perfecting ruchnius and gashmius. And this is exactly what Reb Akiva answered; he said “Shelo nosan Hakadosh Baruch Hu hamitzvos ella letzaref ho’odom bohem.” We are given the obligation to refine and improve ourselves by refining and improving the world. Similarly, the Medrash here in 11:6 and 41 and Tanchuma Shemini 9 says that “Kol ma’asei sheishes yemei Breishis tzrichim asi’ah acheres, like wheat needing grinding and baking, and turmus needing sweetening.” The Maharal in Tiferes Yisroel 2 explains that for animals, which are merely ‘tiv’i’, the teva suffices perfectly. But for man, who is ‘sichli’ and ruchni, teva does not suffice, and man needs to improve it beyond its natural state, “sheyi’hye tziruf le’odom ahd sheyi’hye bilti tiv’i.” Through mila, we learn that we are obligated to raise ourselves above, and perfect ourselves beyond the teva.
    (See the Sfas Emes in the beginning of Parshas Tazria, who talks about the idea that the imperfections of this world were created to enable us to correct them, and talks about bringing the ohr hagonuz to this world, etc.)

  2. Thanks for the comment, and I hope whatever the unfortunate event was passes and you can resume Havolim.

  3. >>>Why, asks the Ishbitzer, did Avraham wait for G-d’s command before performing the mitzvah of milah, as end of our parsha records

    so how many answers do you have to this question. My daughter came home last week with this question and she was supposed to ask me for an answer.

    The Ishbitzer's teretz reminds me of the Brisker Rav's teretz that before the commandment there was no bris between HKBH and B'nei Yisroel and therefore there was no shem orlah.

  4. I don't know how happy the Ishbitzer and Brisker Rav would be about being put together : )

    Is the orlah a sibah of mitzvah milah, or just a siman that the child is mechusar bris?