The First Jewish Mitzvah in the Torah
September 7, 2012
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
[While this appears in written form, with the congregation I am doing this opening in a Q & A style.]
What is the first specifically Jewish mitzvah in the Torah?
Some might think that since the Torah is "Jewish" book then every mitzvah in it is Jewish. Not true. It is a "Jewish" book, but the opening of the Torah is really universal narratives. The creation of the world and the chapter about Noah are not part of the particular story of the Jewish people. They are our narratives about the beginning of human existence.
By this point everyone knows that the answer is brit milah. Now I have another question.
When you are going to the event, how do you usually refer to it?
Except for my Hebrew speakers, most others will say: "I'm going to a bris." I think that most people associate that word with the English "circumcision," but it isn't.
Milah means circumcision. Bris means ---- covenant. The ritual is called Brit Milah. Herein lies the tale.
When we think about Judaism and the most central observances, the core mitzvot that define the faith and identify the faithful, you can suggest:
the holidays soon to be upon us, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur;
Shabbat the most frequent holy day, reminding us of God as creator & redeemer;
Kashrut, an observance that clearly differentiates us from our neighbors; or,
Objects such as mezuzah, kipah, talit and tefilin.
As important as all of these are, they are all derivatives - none are the heart of Judaism.
The central, core and first Jewish mitzvah of the Torah is the commandment by God to Abraham to circumcise himself, the males of his household and his son Yishmael, as the Israelite/Jewish component of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants.
Only for the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews, is this physical procedure the core religious practice. Because it defined the faith and identified the faithful, it was the singular observance banned by the civilizations that sought to obliterate Judaism, namely the Greek and Roman world. While Hanukkah became focused on the Menorah, the original and core edict against the Jews was not to stop Temple worship. They just wanted to erect other altars in the sacred space. The main edict was to stop brit milah.
In this ritual we Israel.
In this ritual generations of Jews are tied to each other.
In this ritual we are tied to the generations, family bonded one to another.
They wanted to get rid of us by getting rid of brit milah.
At a brit milah there are four central participants: (1) the baby, (2) the father [and mother], (3) the mohel, if it isn't the father, and (4) the sandek. Who is this? What is this strange word? It comes from the Greek, sinetiknos, which means "helper to the infant." The sandek is the protector of the baby in this difficult moment of its new life. He is the "protector" of the baby. When Menachem was born, Ruby and I asked my brother to be his sandek. Seven years ago, upon Moshe Tzvi's birth, our grandson, Menachem asked me to be the sandek, and to wear this, my father's talit. With the generations present, he was entered into the brit, the eternal covenant between God and Israel. Such a moment transcends times and bonds the generations together, back to Abraham, and forward forever.
There is one special item present at a brit milah invoking one special presence. It is kesay shel Eliyahu, Elijah's chair. Elijah, prophet in the Bible accused the Israelites of not being faithful to the covenant. The Rabbis bring together different elements in his life and imagine God saying to Elijah that he will have to be present at every brit milah so he can see that we are faithful to the covenant. Eliyahu is also the harbinger of the Messiah, the announcer of the time when wars will cease violence end, and humanity live according to the moral dictates of God. For those who want to get rid of Brit milah, they also want to get rid of the messenger and our message.
With all the other current events usurping our attention, you might have missed the attempts in Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Germany to ban all circumcision, without exception, even for religious observance. In today's paper there was a small blurb that a court in Berlin had to intervene to permit brit milah. Of course you see the irony: in the capital of the country that once did everything to eradicate us, a court intervened to preserve the one ritual that creates us. Strange. You might have thought that it was just a bunch ultra-God-knows-whats in San Francisco who wanted to ban brit milah in California. If they had succeeded, it would have been the springboard for such efforts across the nation.
I don't hear them going crazy over tattoos and piercings of every nature and location. Why focus on milah and not the others which serve no ultimate purpose? Perhaps they know, like the Greeks and Romans, that milah only stands in connection to brit. For us, it stands us next to God.
In the liturgy of brit milah, the part that I often recite, it quotes the prophet Ezekiel: "In your blood shall you live, in your blood shall you live!" It is through the mitzvah of brit milah that we live. Even as a people that has been wounded and bloodied, through the blood of this mitzvah, we the Jewish people live. And as Helen Zimm says: "Forever and ever."
We live so that we can celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Shabbat, Kashrut and all the rest of Judaism, to proclaim our unique Jewish messages to the world. There are times that we must arise to defend, nationally and internationally, our Judaism, our Jewish people, the State of Israel and its capital. With the internet it is easy to join these efforts, raise our electronic voices, band together and change the world. Are we less courageous than the generations before us?
In the week to come when we stand here before God asking Him to remember us, let us remember Abraham and all the generations ever after, that bound themselves in blood to God, to Torah and to the destiny of the Jewish people. Let us remember so that we shall be remembered for our devotion and our dignity.