Parashat Lech Lecha records the beginning of the Jewish people, for in it we meet Avram and his wife Sarai, later to become Abraham and Sarah.
For reasons we are never told, God chooses Avram and tells him, “Leave your home and your father’s house and go to the land I will show you, where I will make you a great nation and bless you.”
Then we read about several episodes that show what a truly complex character Avram is:
• Because of a famine, Avram and Sarai travel to Egypt, where Avram lies, saying that Sarai is his sister, so that she is taken into Pharoah’s harem;
• When they return to Canaan, Avram allows his nephew Lot to choose the best grazing land for his own herds;
• And when Lot is captured during the war of the kings, Avram assembles a militia and goes into battle to rescue Lot and the other captives.
• Later, Sarai gives her servant Hagar to Avram as a concubine, and Hagar becomes the mother of Avram’s son Ishmael.
Finally, at the end of the parasha, God establishes milah, circumcision, as the sign of His covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people. It’s not hard to imagine Abraham standing there saying to God, “You want me to what!?!” And God says, “And throughout the generations every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.”
Why eight? Why not seven? After all, seven is the number most often associated with the sacred:
• God created the world in seven days and made the seventh day, Shabbat, holy;
• The holidays of Pesach and Sukkot (in the Torah) last for seven days and we count seven weeks of seven days from Pesach to Shavuot;
• There are the seven wedding blessings and the seven days of celebration with the bride and groom; and
• Mourners sit shiva — seven days — following the death of a family member.
Since the Torah offers no explanation for milah on the eighth day, the Rabbis have offered many possibilities. However, I’d like to suggest that the reason God commanded that circumcision should be performed on the eighth day was to emphasize that it is not the seventh day.
God told Abraham that milah would be the sign of His covenant with the Jewish people. The word for covenant is brit (or bris) and “covenant” means “contract,” an agreement between two parties. Hence, the covenant symbolized by milah is not solely God’s doing — it requires our participation.
Midrash Tanhuma teaches: A Roman Caesar asked Rabbi Akiva, “If God desires milah, why isn’t the child born circumcised?” Rabbi Akiva answered, “Whatever was created in the first six days requires finishing — mustard needs sweetening, wheat needs grinding, and even man needs finishing.”
Brit milah is a constant reminder that God created the world unfinished and it is our role in the covenant to be God’s partners in completing creation.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.