The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 27 October 2018 / 18 Heshvan 5779

Why Did Avraham Wait to Do Brit Mila?

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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In light of our Sages’ teaching that Avraham Avinu fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given at Mount Sinai, the question arises: Why did Avraham wait one-hundred years until G-d commanded him to perform the mitzvah of brit mila, circumcision, instead of just doing it on his own without waiting, like he indeed did with the rest of the commandments?

The question becomes even stronger when taking into consideration the spiritual negativity connected to having the foreskin, the orlah, attached to the body. Someone on Avraham’s exalted spiritual level was surely aware of the negative effects that keeping the orlah caused.

The most basic and obvious difference between brit mila and the rest of the commandments that Avraham fulfilled is that brit mila can be performed only once, while a mitzvah like Shabbat or tefillin can be performed many times. Accordingly, one could fulfill the other commandments on a voluntary level “today,” and then when commanded by G-d in the future he could perform the same actions as Divine commandments. However, this cannot be done with brit mila.

This answer is somewhat puzzling. Avraham did not serve G-d for a reward, but rather because it was the right thing to do. Why didn’t he just forgo the added reward of fulfilling a commandment and do brit mila immediately because it was the right thing to do? Moreover, doing so would have aided Avraham in his spiritual ascent, causing him to become even more pious and holy. So, the question still remains, why did Avraham wait so long to perform brit mila?

Though Avraham knew that the best thing for him to do was to circumcise himself, he also knew that if he would do it based on his own decision, his action would forever be limited to a human act, whereas by waiting for G-d to command him to circumcise himself, it would become a Divine act with unlimited power and potential. Thus, doing the very same act without a Divine command would cause the act to be one of far less impact and significance.

Simply put, human actions express the limited will of the person, while a mitzvah is an expression of Gd’s infinite will. It was not until the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai that the full power of a mitzvah was given to the Jewish People. This is why, despite the commandment of brit mila having its roots in the circumcision of Avraham, its full fulfillment is directly linked to its commandment in the Torah. Only by tapping into the infinite power of a mitzvah can we become partners with G-d in bringing ourselves to a desired state of perfection in this world.

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