Vayigash: The Ritual that Defines a Jew
The primary ritual in Judaism is the brit milah, the circumcision that has been part of our culture since Abraham (Gen 17), with the brief exception of while we were wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus (for health reasons according to Bavli Yevamot 72a). It is the covenant between God and Abraham (and his descendants), and a promise from God that He will take care of us, give us the land of Israel, and always sustain us.
But it is much more than that, both historically and spiritually.
We see its importance in this week’s Torah reading and the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is a vizier in Egypt (to learn more about Joseph’s story, take some time and watch “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, which can be found on youtube), and there is a famine in that region of the world. His brothers come to Egypt to beg for food and do not recognize their brother, whom they have not seen for years and think dead. When Joseph establishes that they have become righteous men, he “makes himself known to his brothers” (Gen. 45:1), and they cry together over their reunion. But what did he do to demonstrate to the brothers that he really was the lost son of Jacob?
Many commentaries, including Midrash Rabba and Rashi teach that Joseph showed the brothers that he was circumcised and that this was how he made himself known. It was an undeniable proof that he was the great grandson of Abraham, and has been the sign of a male Jew continually for these thousands of years.
The importance of a brit cannot be overstated. We are taught that it is one of the four practices that were kept during the exile in Egypt that gave us the merit to be redeemed through the Exodus. It is the primary mark of a Jew throughout history.
The brit can be a difficult process for some families, and has created detrimental side effects throughout history. Since it was easy for the Nazis to spot a Jewish spy by simply lowering his pants, female spies were used during the Holocaust. Jewish males have been mocked as being deformed, and bad jokes about the topic have plagued us for centuries. The Christian scriptures are actually called “brit hadash” (new covenant) with their understanding that acceptance of Jesus supersedes the “old” covenant of circumcision. According to Josephus in The War of the Jews (1st century C.E.), the brit milah is also given as one of the reasons that the Maccabees revolted (resulting in the recent holiday of Hanukkah), as Antiochus had forbidden the ritual of brit milah in order to facilitate the assimilation of the Jews. So why should we still perform this ancient ritual in the 21st century?
There are many modern interpretations as to why we circumcise, the most common being for health reasons. But while that is a benefit (there have been countless studies over the years regarding the health benefits of circumcision), it is not the deeper purpose, and it’s worth spending a few moments on those deeper reasons.
The most primary reason is that God has told us to perform the ritual, and promised that as long as we do, we will survive and thrive. It is a covenant: an agreement between the two parties of the people of Israel and God. It is an eternal contract that guarantees our survival.
But it’s also a representation of the agreement between parent and child. There are many “anti-circumcision” fanatics in today’s world (ironically the vast majority of them are non-Jewish women). These fanatics, who call themselves “intactivists”, are continuously trying to make the brit milah illegal, and have repeatedly tried to create ballot propositions and/or laws forbidding this defining ritual of the Jewish people. There are even many secular Jews who feel that their newborn baby is perfect, so why should we do this rite?
The brit milah is representative of partnership: both the partnership between God and Jews, and the partnership between parents and children. When a baby is born, it truly is perfect (the secularists are accurate about that). But although our babies are “perfect”, we still give them boundaries, teach them ethics and behavior, and are partners with them in their growth. This is the duty and privilege of being a parent. The brit is a physical manifestation of our commitment to always be in partnership with our children in their spiritual development.
On a kabbalistic level, the brit, by removing the foreskin, is opening up the keter aspect of yesod: revealing the crown aspect of the energy center that deals with creativity and sexuality. The ritual of the physical circumcision along with the accompanying prayers opens our children’s creativity (and as they get older, their sexuality) to Divinity. It is a physical change that makes it easier for them throughout their entire lives to connect their creativity/sexuality to a spiritual experience. Rather than just desiring to fulfill instinctual animal lust, the brit milah will help them direct that passion towards spiritual connection: love as opposed to lust. (Again, we see the example of Joseph, who rejected the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife as opposed to embracing animal lust (Gen 39).
For all these reasons and more, the brit milah is so important: for God, ourselves, and our children. Contrary to the yelling of the intactivists, this ritual that includes both physical action and spiritual prayers is a primary foundation that leads to Jewish ethics, values, and ensures our very survival.
In these days of assimilation, it is more important than ever that we all participate in this ritual. Not just getting a circumcision done in the hospital, but actually performing the brit milah with a mohel and appropriate prayers. In a time when the secular world pressures us to let go our Judaism in favor of embracing secular values, we must always stay true to ourselves, our values, our practices, and our Judaism.
A brit is also a fabulous celebration of being Jewish, and we traditionally invite everyone to attend the ritual for our children. My friend and teacher Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz z”l used to teach that if he heard that there was a brit going on, he would always be there (even if he didn’t know the parents) to celebrate the perpetuation of Judaism from one generation to the next.
The brit allowed our ancestor Joseph to reconnect with his brothers. It is the one practice that has always protected and distinguished us. And it is the joyous communal event that brings us together as Jews in its observance.
May we all be blessed to participate in many Jewish rituals, especially the brit milah. In so doing, may we always be blessed to be active participatory Jews who are blessed with good health, sustenance, and joy.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
December 10, 2021
6th of Tevet, 5782