A Jew’s Deepest Desire is to Fulfill His Creator’s Will
It is written, “And you, command the Children of Israel, and they shall take for you pure, pressed olive oil for illumination, to kindle the lamp continually” (Shemot 27:20).
“May our master teach us: When do we circumcise a child? Our Sages taught: A minor is circumcised on the eighth day. Why? Just as Isaac was circumcised [likewise we do the same]. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, ‘Behold, is there anything more beloved to a man than his own son? What does the father do? He takes his son and circumcises him!’ How can he do such a thing? Rabbi Nachman bar Shemuel said, ‘Only because it is the will of his Creator. The father performs the mitzvah with joy, even though he sees his beloved son’s blood being shed.’ Rabbi Chanina said, ‘Not only that! The father makes the day of circumcision a day of rejoicing, and he incurs great expense to pay for the celebration, although there is no commandment for him to do so’ ” (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 1).
This Midrash is very surprising. What connection is there between the mitzvah of circumcision (and how Jews perform it) and this week’s parsha? From this Midrash we see that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai focuses on something astounding, namely that by circumcising his son, a man harms what is most important to him. When the Midrash expresses its surprise at this and asks how it is possible, that a loving father can do such a thing to his son, Rav Nachman bar Shemuel responds: “Only because it is the will of his Creator.” What does he add by this response? It is obvious that he does so in order to fulfill Hashem’s mitzvot! How does this help us to understand something that is so surprising, namely the performance of the mitzvah of circumcision by a father who loves his son? Where does he obtain the incredible moral strength to cut the flesh of his beloved son?
To explain this, we must first examine the way in which the verse expresses itself: “And you, command…and they shall take for you.” What does “and they shall take for you” mean? It would have been better to say, “so that they take for you.”
The Sages have said, “And you, command – this is a form of encouragement, for now and all the generations” (Midrash Hagadol). The Baal HaTurim underlines that Israel is likewise commanded (“command the Children of Israel”) both in regards to the Menorah and the continual burnt-offering, for these two mitzvot must be performed each day, and they entail a financial loss. There is therefore a need for encouragement, which is why these mitzvot are given in the form of a command.
Hashem addressed Moshe and said to him, “And you, command the Children of Israel – although this mitzvah entails great difficulty, for it involves a financial loss, and a man loves his money more than his own body, nevertheless command the Children of Israel to carry it out, and encourage them.” Hashem told him, “they shall take for you – they will certainly heed your voice and bring what is necessary, despite the difficulty and financial loss involved. You will then realize the magnitude of their devotion to mitzvot, and you will be assured that they will bring it to you and obey your orders.” The Holy One, blessed be He, here revealed to Moshe the nature and character of the Children of Israel, who give when demands are made of them. In fact they obey, heed the word of Hashem, and turn neither to the right nor to the left from anything they are commanded to do.
This concept is confirmed by the Midrash: “And you, command – the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: ‘I am making you king. Just as the people of a king obey his orders, you too must give them orders, and they will fulfill them” (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 6). The Holy One, blessed be He, was thus telling Moshe that the Children of Israel would carry out his decrees, even though they entailed a financial loss.
We can now explain the connection between the mitzvah of circumcision and this week’s parsha. Intellectually, the mitzvah of circumcision is among the most difficult to carry out, for it means cutting off the flesh of a powerless baby that has just been born! Not only that, but it is the baby’s father, the one who produced him and loves him, who has received this command. Yet it is precisely this mitzvah that all Israel fulfills with joy and enthusiasm. No Jew thinks of avoiding it because he loves and has pity on his son. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai correctly highlighted the spiritual level of the Jewish people, who fulfill this difficult mitzvah with great devotion. Rav Nachman bar Shemuel revealed the source of this power, the strength to fulfill the mitzvah of circumcision, in one short phrase: “Only because it is the will of his Creator.” This is the characteristic of a Jew, one that gives him the strength to carry out the mitzvah of circumcision. The Jewish soul yearns to do the will of its Creator. Before all other feelings or emotions arise in the heart, there is a powerful desire that surpasses all else, the desire to do the will of Hashem. This is an inherent quality of every Jew, regardless of identity. It is through the power of this desire that a Jew completely devotes himself and gives his son to fulfill the will of Hashem. Rabbi Chanina strengthens this idea by saying, “Not only that! The father makes the day of circumcision a day of rejoicing, and he incurs great expense to pay for the celebration, although there is no commandment for him to do so.” He rejoices when his son is circumcised, and invariably he does it gladly (in his desire to obey Hashem), not because of a sense of obligation or out of fear. The proof is the joy that he experiences, which only arises when a person feels that he is in complete harmony with his deeds and is satisfied by his actions. When a person can fulfill his yearning and desire to do the will of Hashem, joy bursts forth and arises, and he spends money to make it a day of celebration.
Every Jew possesses this virtue, this yearning to bring satisfaction to the Holy One, blessed be He, and to fulfill His word with devotion. Yet sometimes, over the course of time, this virtue becomes covered with dust and sleeps due to the evil inclination and the desires of the world. We must therefore awaken and renew it, as the Rambam states: “He wants to be part of the Jewish people, and he wants to perform all the mitzvot and eschew all the transgressions; it is only his evil inclination that presses him” (Hilchot Gerushin 2:20).
This is what Hashem told Moshe in this week’s parsha: When you give them orders, you will immediately see that “they will take for you.” What is foremost among a Jew’s will and desire is to fulfill the mitzvot of the King – and with devotion, no less – even if it entails a financial loss. This offers a marvelous explanation for the mitzvah of circumcision.