God tells Avram to leave his land and home to go to a place that God would show him. God promises to bless Avram, and make him a great nation. So Avram takes his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the household from Haran and they travel south to Canaan, settling at Moreh, in Shechem. God appears to Avram there and promises the land to Avram’s descendants, and Avram builds an altar there. Then he moves on nearer to BeitEl and builds another altar and calls on the name of God before moving southwards. Because of famine Avram continues his journey south to Egypt, but he fears the Egyptians will kill him and take the beautiful Sarai so he asks her to say she is his sister, which will both protect his life and give him some power.
Sure enough the Egyptians see Sarai’s beauty and take her to the harem of the Pharaoh’s palace. Avram is rewarded with many animals and servants, but a plague afflicts the Pharaoh’s household and he understands that this is because Sarai is actually the wife of Avram. He rebukes Avram and returns Sarai, sending them away with all their possessions. So Avram, Sarai and Lot return to the altar near BeitEl, but the two men have so many sheep and cattle that the land cannot sustain them all and the shepherds are fighting. Avram suggests that he and Lot separate, and asks Lot to choose where he would go. Lot journeys eastward towards Sodom, and Avram stays in Canaan. Once more God promises Avram that all the land he can see will belong to him and to his descendants, and that he will have so many descendants they will be incalculable. Avram moves to Mamre in Hevron and builds an altar there.
There follows a narrative about the war between the four kings and the five kings after the Canaanite kings rebelled from offering tribute. The great battle takes place by the salt sea. The Canaanite kings were routed and their wealth was seized – including the wealth of Sodom, Lot and all his possessions. Avram hears and pursues the kidnappers of Lot, bringing back not only Lot but the rest of the people and possessions. Melchizedek, king of Salem who is a priest of God the most high, brings out bread and wine and blesses both Avram and God, offering Avram some of the returned booty. Avram refuses on the basis he does not want anyone to be able to claim that they enriched him.
Avram still has no descendants. He has a vision where God once more tells him he will have a great reward but he tells God this is pointless as he has no one to inherit from him except his steward. God says he will have a child to be his heir, and tells him to count the stars to see how numerous his descendants will be. God then tells him to bring three heifers, goats and rams, a dove and a pigeon, and to cut the animals in two placing each half against the other. Avram does so, beating off the birds of prey who come to feast. The sun sets and he falls into a deep magical sleep, hearing God telling him that his descendants will be slaves for 400 years in a foreign land, but God would bring about justice and they would go free as wealthy people. A smoking oven appears and a flaming torch passes between the pieces of animal, and God made a covenant with Avram to give his descendants the land from the Nile to the Euphrates.
Sarai takes it upon herself to provide the heir by offering her maid Hagar to Avram, and Hagar becomes pregnant. She taunts Sarai who responds harshly to her, causing her to run away. An angel tells her to return promising, that God will make her descendants too numerous to count through Ishmael her son.
God appears Avram and once more says there will be a covenant between them and Avram will have numerous descendants. God changes Avram’s name to Avraham, and demands that all males are to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant. God renames Sarai as Sarah, and says that her son will receive the everlasting covenant, though Ishmael will also be blessed with descendants. Abraham circumcises himself and every male in the household. He is 99 years old, Ishmael is 13.
This sidra contains a number of different covenants, but the covenant of circumcision is one which continues to resonate with us as a sine qua non of Jewish identity. “God further said to Abraham, As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Genesis 17:9-11
The Brit Milah is the first of the rites of passage, and it quite literally etches into the child the central values of Judaism, connecting him to the past and future of the Jewish people. In the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah) we find a story which makes this clear – it tells of a father of a baby who gives to the guests some good wine to drink in celebration, and says “Drink of this wine, and I trust in my God that I shall also be able to give you wine on the day may son marries”. The guests replied with a blessing that is also found in the ceremony – “Just as the child has entered the covenant, so may he also enter into Torah and into good deeds and be married under the chuppah”. With this blessing is the clear hope that the Brit is the beginning of a child entering the Jewish community, and the expectation that this will be a lifetime’s commitment. The brit does not make the child Jewish – that is acquired through birth to a Jewish mother – but it gives the child the mark of Judaism, and with it a Jewish identity.
Brit Milah may or may not have other reasons to support (or not) its usage – some talk of hygiene, of lower levels of cervical cancer in women whose partners are circumcised, of social or psychological reasons to do it-or not. But the reason why Jews have fulfilled the obligation of brit Milah down the generations – often at serious personal sacrifice or danger – is precisely because it is just that – an obligation, a mitzvah. It symbolises our willingness to be connected to God, it reminds us of the relationship begun between God and Abraham of which we are a part.
Circumcision is also seen as an act of completion or perfection. The ceremony is understood traditionally to be one of ‘finishing’ the creation of the child, so we participate with God in the act of Creation. It is also seen as a willingness to submit, to give up a part of the child for the sake of the whole. As Judah HaNasi (c200CE) wrote – “Great is circumcision, for despite all the commandments that Abraham our father carried out, he was called complete (shalem) only with his circumcision, as it is written (Gen 17) “Walk before Me and be perfect” .
Whatever one’s view about circumcision, it has become the sign not only of the biblical covenant, but of the male Jew. It has been said that it is not so much the mark of a Jewish man, as the mark of a man whose parents have chosen for him to be Jewish, who were prepared to undergo this ceremony in order to enter him into the Covenant. It is the mark of one generation upon the next, the physical expression of what we want for our child. There is much debate as to its meaning – and the changes in its meaning – over the years. Was it simply a transformation of a pagan fertility ritual, done not to a man at puberty or marriage in order to increase sexual potency but to a child at eight days in order to increase spiritual connection? Was it a fertility rite that extended through agricultural practise to human beings – a sacrifice of a small part for a greater good? Was it a divine requirement to cleanse the people, separating the idolatrous ancestors of Abraham from his monotheistic descendants? Or a blood rite parallel to the Temple sacrifice, that found echoes in Christianity and the crucifixion, returning to express salvation through self not another? It is all these and more, but when one considers the importance of the rite throughout Jewish history it is hard not to see it as a unifying symbol, the mitzvah which most Jews have practised and with which we pass on covenantal Judaism to this day.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild