To be a Jew is to renew an ancient covenant, adding a link to the chain that bridges the ages.
For Jewish men, the covenant is expressed through the mitzvah of the circumcision, although the colloquial term בְּרִית literally translates as “covenant.”
What is the Jewish covenant?
When God engages Avraham to enter the covenant, God maps out a vision for humanity, blessing Avraham’s descendants with greatness, and the land of Israel. They just have to do one 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)
It doesn’t take long before one quickly realizes perfection is impossible.
But perfection is not in the ends but in the means. The Beis Halevi teaches that when we uphold the covenant to the best of our ability, we will find that we actually are perfect – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.
Rabbi Akiva taught that in the same way we consider a loaf of bread a refined 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 must form this space for us to have any input.
The Malbim explains that our active participation is the essential theme of the covenant, which is by definition a bilateral agreement. Covenants typically have a sign, such as the rainbow signifying God’s promise not to flood the world. Bris Milah is different, as the sign is not extrinsic – our bodies are live 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 is that we can utilize and enhance our gifts and blessings to improve our world.
While we can’t be perfect, we can still be perfectly wholesome.