The number eighth has been a recent theme in the Torah. Last week’s reading dealt with a unique moment in Jewish history that occurred on “the eighth day.” The classical Biblical commentaries (i.e. the Kli Yakar) explain the connotation of this title through the lens of the Torah’s numerical symbolism: a cycle of seven represents the perfection within the natural order and mundane world, while the number eight points to a higher level of holiness, a supernatural quality. There are many examples given to illustrate this idea.
One of these refers to the opening passage of this week’s parsha where we again encounter “the eighth day” in reference to a well known mitzvah: “And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” Indeed circumcision is one of the most widely performed commandments among the Jewish people. One question that comes to mind is why specifically the eighth day?
The Ohr Hachaim explains the benefit from multiple perspectives: From the parents’ perspective, they can celebrate in a better state of mind, once the mother has recovered. From the baby’s perspective, waiting longer ensures that the child will be stronger. From a deeper perspective, this “strength” is not only physical, but linked to the holiness of Shabbat: in order to ensure that even a baby born on the Shabbat day will experience one Shabbat night before his Brit, the Torah made it on the eighth day.
Others go a step further and note an inherent link with the number eight, which hints at a higher level of sanctity. But at first glance, the ceremony seems strange and offers no trace of any redeeming features. Moving beyond the dusty skepticism and fears this procedure may provoke, it is worth investigating from the Torah’s point of view, why this commandment is so significant. Here we will provide just one angle, a fresh perspective based on the mystical tradition.
An easy pathway to understanding the more profound accomplishment of this mitzvah is to examine the word itself- “Brit Mila.” A Brit is a covenant. (A circumcision is not the only “bris.” There are many “covenants” in the Torah.) Mila refers to the area of the foreskin. The phrase together is a paradox, a combination of two opposites:
The nature of a covenant is a bond that defies rational understanding and limitations. We can borrow elements from two analogies in human relationships. One idea of a “covenant” is like a pact between two friends wherein they declare, “regardless of any future change of heart or logical cause for separation, we will always remain loyal to each other, bound by a covenant.”
A similar concept is found in a parent/child relationship. Ask any loving parent- “why do you love your child?” The parent may think for a second, present all the accomplishments or noble character traits. But in the end, whatever answer given is not the real answer. Why? Because there is no tangible, limited, or logical answer! A parent loves a child, and vice versa, not because of any noticeable virtue but because instinctively they are bound, part of each other. Any specific appreciation is only an enhancement of this innate, already powerful bond.
Merging these two analogies, we can understand the implications of a “covenant” with G-d.. There is a way to relate to one’s Judaism through rational investigation, appreciation. Though more tangible, and certainly necessary, that bond is conditional. Then there is a tie to being Jewish which transcends rational understanding. Like an innate parent/child connection it cannot be defined, negotiated, or expressed in words. Like the affirmed pact between two friends, it will endure regardless of what may go wrong in the future.
So a covenant signifies the deepest connection- the highest spiritual elevation. In contrast, the word mila– the foreskin- refers to the coarsest, most insensitive area of the physical body. These two extremes, the highest of the high within the lowest of the low, comprise the word Bris Mila. And herein lays its accomplishment over all mitzvahs.
The mystical purpose of performing all mitzvahs is to unite the person with G-d. Yet this union is not visible. For example, giving charity refines a person’s character. But once the action is performed, there is no trace of that accomplishment in the body. A bris mila is different- the only time wherein a spiritual change leaves an enduring mark.
Normally, the deeper the bond in a relationship, the harder becomes is to express. Yet this most profound attachment to G-d and to Judaism, finding expression within the element of physical flesh- is an otherwise impossible link between two opposite extremes.
Thus, it is performed on “the eight day,” a number that hints at the supernatural. And as the child emerges into the world- this first commandment empowers him with the most foundational connection that will serve as a reminder and guide throughout his life.