Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In response to a question I received with regard to my essay about bris mila being on the 8th day - The source of the Chazal about mila versus Shabbos is the Yalkut, Yeremyahu, Ch.33, Simun 325, quoted in Michtav M'Eliyahu, Chelek 1, p.226-7. (I do have footnotes for all my essays - it is timeconsuming to put them on the blog as well. Anyone who would like to see my Divrei Torah with the footnotes can email me on: Gefen123@smile.net.il and I can put you on my email list which has all the footnotes.


The mitzvo of bris mila involves cutting off the orlah (foreskin). The Torah views the orlah as more than merely an unnecessary part of the body, rather it represents a very negative aspect of human nature. For example, in Parshas Lech Lecha, Hashem tells Avraham Avinu, "Go before me and be complete". The Medrash tells us that Hashem was commanding Avraham to perform bris mila, because until he would remove the orlah he was considered as being spiritually blemished. What exact flaw does orlah represent and how does removing it, rectify the problem?
Rav Dessler zt"l explains that orlah represents how a person's bodily desires, or unbridled character traits, are covered up by his intellect. He can use his mind to justify any form of immorality and negative character traits. Cutting off the orlah means removing the warped way of thinking that validates following one's base desires. In this vein, Rav Dessler brings a Zohar that calls the Greek nation the name 'orlah'. This is because they used their sechel (intellect) to validate various forms of immorality and cruel behavior. Chanukah saw the battle of this philosophy with that of the Torah, whereby the intellect is guided by the Torah and thereby reveals the truth, rather than cover it up. This explains why the Greeks made a particular effort to forbid bris mila. They placed great value on the ability of the intellect without the need for any objective sense of right and wrong. Accordingly, the lesson of bris mila, that one should not use his mind to validate immoral behavior, was particularly threatening to them.

The contrast between the Torah attitude to using one's sechel and that of the secular world is beautifully illustrated by the Malbim in Parshas Vayeira. Avraham Avinu travels to the land of the Plishtim (Philistines). Fearing that the people would kill him in order to take his wife, Sarah, he says that she is his sister. The King of the Plishim, Avimelech takes Sarah for himself. That night, Hashem appears to him in a dream, strongly warning him to return to her husband. A furious Avimelech confronts Avraham, demanding to know why Avraham felt it necessary to lie about Sarah's true identity. Avraham answers him, saying, ".. Because I said, 'only there is no fear of G-d in this place and they will slay me because of my wife.'"

The Malbim explains the underlying debate between Avimilech and Avraham. Avimelech expressed his distaste at being suspected by Avraham of unethical behavior such as murdering a man in order to take his wife. He pointed out that the Plishtim were moral people who had a code of ethical behavior. Avraham answered that it was true that the Plishtim were philosophers who espoused virtuous conduct. However, the Malbim adds, Avraham also pointed out that "one who attains good character traits through his own intellect, and he performs justice and kind deeds, completely as a result of his intellect; despite all this, we cannot trust such a man or such a nation, at such a time when his desires persuade him to do evil, that his intellect will overcome his lust. The opposite will happen, because at the time that the fire of lust burns in him, then his intellect will cause him to murder, commit adultery and do all kinds of evil."

Avraham recognized that an ideology that was purely guided by intellect may express admirable values. However, when the desires of a person who espoused such an ideology would overcome him, he would use his intellect to justify all kinds of immoral behavior. Accordingly, Avraham feared that were the Plishtim to see a woman who attracted them, they would easily find a justification to kill her husband. Avraham continued that only an outlook that was guided by an objective morality as defined by G-d, could avoid this terrible phenomena. A person with this outlook would never be at risk of rationalizing immoral behavior because of his desires. His sechel would be constantly guided by the Torah's objective value system.

The Malbim's distinction between the philosophy of the Plishtim and of Avraham, fits perfectly with Rav Dessler's explanation of the detrimental nature of orlah and how it epitomizes the misuse of sechel. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the only times in which the word orlah is associated directly with another nation, is in connection with the Plishtim. David HaMelech describes Goliath as "the uncircumcised Plishti."

We have seen the significance of removing the orlah. It is not merely a physical act, rather it represents avoiding the misuse of sechel as a justification for immoral behavior. This is a very relevant lesson to every Jew, no matter what level of his observance. The yetser hara is ingenious at creating rationalizations to justify actions that contradict the absolute values espoused in the Torah. We must strive to use our intellect to help us adhere to the Torah's values, not to get around them. May we all merit to learn and live the lessons of bris mila.

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