Bris Milah is Painful. This Is The Secret of Its Celebration.
This week we merited to bring our son into the Bris between Hashem and His people. For Aliza and I, this was a particularly emotional mitzvah – Our son is the first child born in the family since the passing of my father-in-law. As such, our boy will merit to carry (most of) his grandfather's name, as we named him Alter Yehuda Yudel. (Don't worry mom – We're calling him Yehuda.)
The night before the bris, in preparation for this mitzvah, I spend time thinking and learning while holding our new son. (Some of these ideas were shared at the Bris, some are written here for the first time.)
Bris Milah is a uniquely important mitzvah on many levels. From a cultural and historical perspective, the mitzvah of Milah was almost always outlawed by out enemies. And yet, it was almost always performed with great mesirus nefesh, even in the worst of circumstances. From a halachik perspective, Bris Milah is the only positive mitzvah that we fulfill today that would incurs kares for non-fulfillment. And from an emotional perspective, the Talmud tells us that the mitzvah of Milah is imbued with Simcha – joy – that enables this mitzvah to be performed joyfully throughout our generations.
The enduring commitment of Klal Yisrael to this mitzvah while awe-inspiring is noticeably peculiar. It is no secret that Bris Milah is an inherently painful and uncomfortable mitzvah. Despite the cries of babies and tears of mothers and fathers, the great mitzvah of Milah enjoys widespread observance – even amongst those who are not otherwise observant. Reasonably, none of us should enjoy it any more than taking our kids to the pediatrician to get their shots. The deepest desire of parents is to save our children from pain, and yet we willingly submit our infant sons to public surgery – and we celebrate it! What is it about this mitzvah that speak so deeply to the soul of our nation?
The Vilna Gaon (פירוש לס׳ יצירה פ״א מ״ח) explains that the concept of a Bris is to provide a solution to the problem of distance.
“When two people love each other, and never want to be away from each other, and yet, cannot always be together... They give each other something to which they are deeply connected. That way, even when they are apart, their thoughts and feelings will never cease to dwell on each other. To achieve this, there is a כריתה – something is removed. Each one gives over a part of themselves to the other, so that they now hold a part of each other.”
In the mitzvah of Milah, what exactly are we giving over? Nothing more and nothing less than our eternity. From the beginning of a new baby boy's life, we are connecting him to that relationship with Hashem. We place on him the sign of our personal and national Ahavas Hashem and we indicate this commitment in that place on the human body that holds the future of our people. When we give a baby a Bris Milah, we are giving Hashem our future.
In return, Hashem gives us His future. Hashem promises Avraham Avinu that He will never abandon us, never exchange us for another people. He will wait for us, and us alone to fulfill His vision and purpose for this world. No matter how many times we fail, He will ensure that we continue to rise from the ashes and try again.
Indeed, when Hashem gives the Mitzvah of Bris Milah to Avraham – וְאֶתְּנָה בְרִיתִי בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ – “I will give my Bris between Me and You”, Rashi comments that this is the ברית של אהבה – the Commitment of Love.
Moshe Rabbeinu himself notes that this love is the reason that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim (דברים ד:לט):
וְיָדַעְתָּ כִּי י״י אֱלֹקיךָ הוּא הָאֱלֹקים הָאֵל הַנֶּאֱמָן שֹׁמֵר הַבְּרִית וְהַחֶסֶד לְאֹהֲבָיו... Know that Hashem your God, He is God, the faithful God, who Keeps the Bris and does Chessed with those whom He loves...
The Maharal (נתיב העבודה ז) explains that there are two types of love, both of which we refer to in our davening: אהבה רבה (great love) which is said in the morning, and אהבת עולם (eternal love) which is said at night. Hashem's Great Love is the experience of feeling connected and loved when life is going well. But Hashem's Eternal Love is that which holds us over until the morning. (We note this in the Musaf of Rosh Chodesh: אהבת עולם תביא להם וברית אבות לבנים תזכור.) That's the feeling of never letting go.
This Shabbos, Yehuda approaches Yosef, with the faintest of hopes, in the bleakest of moments, to please for the life of Binyanim and Yaakov. He has no idea that the man before him was the brother he once sold into slavery, and his audacity to make such stand could well cost him his life. And yet he does it.
What prompted Yehuda to re-engage when everything seemed doomed to failure? The Kotzker explains: “ויגש אליו יהודה – Yehuda approached him”. The “him” in the pasuk was Yehuda himself. Yehuda, in that moment re-engaged with himself. In his moment of greatest desperation, Yehuda touched the eternity of being a Jew. In that moment he was no longer embroiled in a social-political feud, he was once again an Eved Hashem, a Yarei Shamayim, a child of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, doing the most Jewish thing in history: Standing up for his himself, for his brother, for his father, ensuring that not another Jew is lost.
For this Yehuda becomes the eternal leader of Klal Yisrael, the forbearer of David HaMelech.
Throughout our lives every Jew feels a little lost, a little far from home. We feel a piece of that distance, the yearning and longing to be with Hashem. We feel the confusion, the murkiness and the challenges of this world. In the deepest ways, we want to return, to be whole. But the distance as individuals and as a nation is overwhelmingly insurmountable. One lifetime is simply not long enough to fix ourselves and the the world along with us. The solution, of course, is to live forever. That way, our tiny, incremental steps, small as they may be, will eventually take us home. And if we cannot live forever personally, then we pledge our infinite, collective existence to the goal of getting just a little closer.
This is our Tefillah for our Little Yehuda. That Hashem should help him to embody the love for Torah, Tefillah and Klal Yisrael of his grandfather. That he should continue the work that was left for him to complete – to bring more of Hashem's light and love into this world, and that Aliza and I should merit to guide him on this path.
Hashem should help all of us, for all of our children in this great nation to take one more step on the road to eternity.