“And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” — VaYikrah 12:3
The Jew has a distinct role amongst the nations
The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that HASHEM separated the Jewish people from all the nations. We were given a distinct role in this world. Our lives and everything that we do must be different than any other people.
To remind us of this, HASHEM gave us a sign, a permanent reminder of our uniqueness – the mitzvah of milah. The change in our bodies shows that just as the body of the Jew is different than that of a gentile, so too is our soul.
By all rights, the Jewish baby boy should have been born already circumcised, as this would have more clearly shown that the Jew is unique amongst the peoples. However, there is a second lesson that HASHEM wanted to impart to us. Just like a person can take his body and permanently change it, so too, a person can change his very essence – his nishoma. Therefore, rather than creating the Jew circumcised at birth, HASHEM gave us this mitzvah to perform.
Question on the Sefer Ha’Chinuch
This explanation of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch is difficult to understand. Since HASHEM wanted us to know that we are a nation apart from any other nation, then surely as he said, the Jew should have been born circumcised. Wouldn’t that difference have been more clearly shown had the very genetic material of the Jewish person been different? The Chinese are clearly distinct from the Occidental. The skin colors of various peoples show them as distinct races. Had the Jew been born without a foreskin, the entire world would have known that this people is set apart. Throughout the millennium, every person would have clearly seen that the Jews are unique. From birth they were different, so their very essence is different. Yet that difference has now been lost. Any human can circumcise himself; in fact, many non-Jews do. Wouldn’t it have been a far more powerful lesson for us as a nation to know that we are different because we were born that way?
A leopard can’t change its spots
The answer to this question is based on one of the greatest shortcomings of man – self–limiting beliefs. Often, a person will find himself thinking, “I am what I am. This is my nature, and there is nothing that I can do about it. Granted, I may not be happy with the way that I act, granted I may wish that I were different, but what can I do? This is who I am.”
Such thoughts become self-fulfilling. If I sincerely believe I can’t change, then, in fact, I will not be able to. I won’t seek out the methods of change, I won’t find the necessary motivation, and the reality will be that I cannot change.
This single concept can be the most damaging idea that ever crosses a person’s mind.
We were created to change
The Gra writes, “If not for changing one’s character traits, what is the purpose of life?”
Change isn’t part of the Torah – it is the focal point of all of our avodas Hashem. The reason we were put on this planet is to grow. All of the mitzvahs focus on growth. But growth means taking who I am now and changing it, taking myself from where I am, and willfully, purposefully changing me. Whether it is in character traits, beliefs, trust, or honesty, whether it is in seeing HASHEM more clearly or in treating people with greater respect, every part of what the Torah demands of me is about change.
If a person were locked into the idea that he cannot change, then in fact he won’t be able to. To such a person, the Torah has no relevance.
The answer to the question on the Sefer Ha’Chinuch seems to be that this concept of man’s ability to change is so central to being Jewish that it warranted giving up another essential lesson. It is true that had Jews been born circumcised, it would have taught us that just as our body is different, so too is our soul. That concept would have aided us in recognizing our mission in Creation. However, the concept that “I can change the essence of who I am” is far more central to being a practicing Jew, and therefore, it came at the expense of the weakening the first lesson.
The purpose of life is to change
This idea has great relevance to everything that we do. We often find ourselves mired in thoughts that limit our ability to grow. “That’s just the way I am. What can I do? I didn’t choose to be born stubborn, hot-tempered, selfish, and arrogant. Ask my Creator why He made me this way.”
While it is true that each individual was created with a different nature and temperament, and it may well be that one person has a greater tendency towards anger, jealousy, or arrogance than another, the entire focus of our lives is supposed to be towards changing our natures. However, to do that, we must clearly see change as possible, as something within our capacity. For that reason, HASHEM gave us the mitzvah of milah so that we can have a permanent reminder of our ability to change.
For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #143-145 The Stages of Change
Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.