The concept of covenant is a central theme of Judaism. Covenants typically have a sign, such as the rainbow signifying God’s promise not to flood the world. In Jewish men, the covenant is expressed through the practice of circumcision – בְּרִית – literally, “covenant.” A covenant is defined as a bilateral agreement of mutual commitment between two parties.
What is the agreement of the covenant?
When God engaged Avraham to enter the covenant, God mapped out a vision for humanity, blessing Avraham’s descendants with greatness, and the land of Israel. They just had to do one small thing:
וַיֵּרָא ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים – Hashem appeared to Avraham, and said to him; “I am The Omnipotent…. Walk before me, and be perfect ”. (17:1)
All the covenant requires of us is… to be perfect. It doesn’t take much trying before you quickly realize that perfection is impossible. How can God ask us to do the impossible?
The question betrays the kind of defeatist thinking we are prone to. Perfectionism can be paralyzing – if we can’t do it perfectly, then why try at all?
We need to learn that perfection is not the outcome but the process. The Beis Halevi teaches that when we do our best, we will find ourselves becoming more perfect – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.
Rabbi Akiva taught that in the same way we consider a loaf of bread an improvement from raw stalks of wheat, humans can and must improve the world around us.
The Gemara teaches that the name Hashem introduced Himself with, אֵל שַׁדַּי, expresses the concept that the Creator withdrew from creating so that life had space to be and grow – שאמר לעולמו די.
The Kedushas Levi notes that by necessity, God forms this space for us to have any input because our input is precisely what God desires from us.
The Malbim explains that our active participation is the essential theme of the covenant. Circumcision is not an extrinsic sign; it is the covenantal mark on our bodies, living expressions of the covenant itself.
The symbolism of modifying our bodies as soon as we are born is a powerful visual metaphor we carry with us, teaching us that we can our everyday lives can be elevated and refined to improve the world around us.
We can’t be perfect. But the perfect is the enemy of the good.