Our Parashah finishes with one of the first commandments of the Torah: Brit Milah, the circumcision of our baby boys. As someone that will be a father to a boy at any moment, for the first time I see this Mitzvah with different eyes and worry about it in a practical way. Makes us wonder, why are we celebrating when we do this to our child?
In any case, according to Sefer Hachinuch this is a very particular Mitzvah: There are a lot of negative commandments, lo taase, that have as a punishment Karet, but there are only two positive ones, ase, that have this punishment: Brit Milah and the Sacrifice of Pesach. Why these two? Is there any relationship between them?
Before I want to explain a little more about the meaning of the punishment of Karet. The honest question is we don’t know, but it looks like it is considered some kind of spiritual punishment, a separation, a spiritual excommunication. There are some that claim that it means not being able to proceed to the Olam Haba, to the next World. There are some that say it’s spiritual death, our soul dying together with our body. On the other hand, there are others with more earthly opinions, like death in the hands of Heaven, a shorter life, to die without descendants or even just being expulsed from the community. What is sure is that the Sages understood it as the most severe punishment possible, only applied to the most important commandments in their eyes.
Now let’s go back to our questions. First, why negative commandments are more often punished with Karet than positive ones? In a relationship between people, like marriage for example, there are actions that can damage the relationship and others where the damage is so big that completely destroy such relationship. In both cases we speak about a negative action that we did. On the contrary, if we failed to do something good that could have improved our relationship there is potential for damage in that we failed to improve it, but probably it won’t be as devastating as a terrible action that we did.
It is the same with our relationship with G-d. Positive commandments are an opportunity to get closer to G-d and therefore failing to keep them it’s a missed opportunity, but we can hardly imagine a case that this missed opportunity will damage so much our relationship with G-d as to get to the level of Karet.
Then, why Brit Milah and the Pesach Sacrifice can cause this kind of damage? Let’s go back to marriage. When we get married we do it through a ritual that establishes a commitment between us that receive the name of marriage. Without the ritual we can be together, even to develop a nice relationship, but in the eyes of Judaism the couple is not married. In the same way, a person has to commit himself to G-d in order to enter into the special relationship that the People of Israel has with Him. Both Brit Milah and the Pesach Sacrifice are types of covenants with G-d where we commit to him.
Another thing shared by these two commandments is the relation with Elijah the Prophet. These are two opportunities that the tradition says that Elijah visits the People of Israel. A Midrash tells us that Elijah was frustrated and angry because of the sins of Israel and thought that there is no hope of them. G-d ordered then to Elijah to visit every Brit Milah to show him that doesn’t matter how much Israel distances themselves from the Torah, they still keep this covenant between them and their G-d. For the same reason he visits our Seder in Pesach, to see that we are still celebrating every year our birth as a people when we left Egypt and we were liberated by G-d. Coincidence or not, these two commandments are usually kept by most Jews, even very secular and non-observant ones.
We still have one question to answer. Why do we need two commandments for this objective of remembering our basic commitment with G-d? One is not enough?
A possible answer is that these commandments are two sides of this commitment. G-d ordered one man, Abraham, to perform this Mitzvah of Brit Milah as a symbol of the covenant between them. Therefore, Brit Milah symbolizes the personal commitment of each one of us with the covenant and to develop a proper relationship with G-d. The sacrifice of Pesach symbolizes our commitment with G-d as part of the People of Israel, as a group. We do the sacrifice and eat it as a group, as a family, with friends. Therefore we need both kinds of covenant, of commitment: between the individual and G-d and between the people and G-d.
This idea maybe will help us to understand one Law regarding the Pesach Sacrifice: the prohibition of a non-circumcised Jew to eat from it. It’s a strange case, because usually somebody that transgressed one commandment is not exempt from other commandments. For example, if I don’t keep Shabbat I am not exempt from keeping Kosher. In this case, looks like a person cannot commit really to G-d as part of the people if he haven’t committed first as an individual.
We learn something important from all this. Many people identify as Jews and as part of the People of Israel. They are committed to the State of Israel and are willing to dedicate time, efforts and some even their lives for the Jewish People. In their personal lives, however, there is a lot less commitment. There is a huge gap between their public actions and their personal lives. The way to bridge this gap is different for each person, but we should have this objective of strengthening our personal commitment as Jews in our home, in our privacy. Maybe through keeping the commandments, maybe through Torah study, maybe some other way. The main thing is to do something, an action, and remember that G-d wants to develop also a personal relationship with each one of us, not only as a community or as a People. Are we willing to answer Him?