Image: An infant, possibly Jesus? brought for circumcision. Photograph of a painting by Vincenzo Catena [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Parashat Eikev offers us a path to deeper understanding of brit milah [ritual circumcision] with its command, “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart and be no more stiff-necked.” (Deut. 10:16) What is the connection between circumcision and a stiff neck? Sukkah 52a offers a clue, saying:

R. Avira (or some say R. Joshua b. Levi) taught that… “Uncircumcised” is one of the names of the yetzer hara.”

Yetzer hara is usually translated “evil inclination” but I prefer “selfish inclination.” It is a necessary part of human nature, and we’re all born with it. It fuels our drive to survive as infants and toddlers: to wail when we are hungry or uncomfortable, to selfishly take whatever we need to survive. An infant doesn’t care that his nutrition may be coming at the detriment to his undernourished mother (hence the old saying, “every child costs a tooth”) – he simply sucks down the milk so that he can live. 

There is a story in the Talmud about the sages who decided they were going to extinguish the yetzer harah from their community:

They (The Ancient Sages) ordered a fast of three days and three nights, whereupon he (The Yetzer HaRa) was surrendered to them. He came forth from the Holy of Holies like a young fiery lion. He (one of the rabbis) said to them: Realize that if you kill him, the world goes down. They imprisoned him for three days, then looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it. Thereupon they said: What shall we do now? Shall we kill him? The world would then go down. Shall we beg for half-mercy? They do not grant ‘halves’ in heaven. They put out his eyes and let him go. – Yoma 69b

[They] “looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it.” – That is to say, without the selfish inclination, hens did not even ovulate – the world without the yetzer hara is sterile. The rabbis realized that we need the yetzer hara to survive.

The commandments of Torah are all aimed at subduing our individual and communal selfish inclinations. When we are selfish, or “stiff-necked,” we want our own way. We don’t want to think about the big picture or the greater good. We want to have food NOW, we want to have sex NOW, we want MORE. We don’t care what impact that has on others.

The mitzvot, commandments, are about limits: “You will bury the dead,” even though the dead cannot return the favor, cannot do anything for us. “You will love the stranger” even though strangers are scary and inconvenient, or easily plundered. “You will pursue justice” even though it might be more satisfying to pursue vengeance or profit. “You will eat only these foods” and “You will not commit incest” sets limits upon our most basic appetites. We may eat, but only certain foods. We may have sex, but only with the appropriate people.

Brit milah is a consecration of the male body to the covenant and to the behaviors associated with the covenant (mitzvot). The penis is the locus of male sexuality and a symbol of male power; removing the foreskin in the context of brit milah ritual is an expression of dedication to the behaviors associated with Torah. It is a pledge to control the human inclination to selfishness. However, that dedication should not end on the eighth day, nor be limited to males. Jews of all genders are commanded to live out the promise implied in brit milah, to control of our yetzer hara, our selfish inclination.

The Jewish reverence for the body underlines the seriousness of this act. We do not modify the body lightly or thoughtlessly. This outward sign of the covenant is not easy, but it is an expression by Jewish parents of seriousness about Jewish identity and Jewish behavior for themselves and their son, and yes, for the women in the family as well.

This d’var Torah appeared in a slightly different form in the Summer 2016 issue of the CCAR Newsletter.