This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha. It is the story about the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah. In the opening of the portion Abraham is called and commanded to venture forth to a new land, the land of Israel. In the conclusion of the portion the covenant is sealed with Abraham and Sarah. For Abraham the sign of the covenant is circumcision. According to the rabbis Sarah goes to the mikvah to seal the covenant. Both Abraham and Sarah take on new names as symbols of their new identities. In the interim our heroes struggle—unsuccessfully—to have a child together. Ishmael is however born to Abraham through Hagar. It is not until next week’s portion that Sarah gives birth to Isaac. The promise of that birth is issued this week.
“When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you…. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations…. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you…. As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her.’” (Genesis 17)
Abraham then circumcises himself (at 99 years old), his son Ishmael (at thirteen) and all the men in his household. Isaac is the first to be circumcised at the age of eight days. For men there are two signs of our Jewish identities. One is private and the other public. Although brit milah (a bris) is performed publicly the sign remains private. It is only between a man and God. It is interesting (although perhaps uncomfortable) to reflect on circumcision. Judaism insists that the sign of the covenant must be inscribed in the most private of areas. It is here that a Jewish man is reminded of his obligations to the Jewish people.
For women no physical sign, or reminder, is demanded. The rabbis suggest this is because men need far more reminders than women. (Sorry guys.) Women require few, if any, reminders. There is no physical sign of the covenant. Nowhere in the Jewish tradition is female circumcision even suggested.
For both men and women the outward sign of their Jewish commitments is their name. When the covenant is sealed, both Abraham and Sarah take on their new names. To each of their given names of Abram and Sarai the Hebrew letter hey is added. This letter symbolizes God’s name and is still used to abbreviate God’s name. Thus they take God into their names and into their identities.
Throughout the ages the private sign of the covenant was observed with steadfast commitment. Even in ages when circumcision was a distinguishing mark and could result in persecution, as during the Holocaust, Jews observed this ritual. It should be noted that when Jews lived under Greek rule some underwent a painful procedure to reverse the sign of circumcision. This enabled them to compete in sports. Of course this was because men competed naked and thus this private sign was then public. Yet, especially in modern times, the outward sign of the covenant, a Jewish name, is relegated only to synagogue life. In the public square we call each other by American names. Wherever we lived we soon adopted the names of the surrounding culture.
We are comfortable being Jews in private. Yet in public we too often hide our identities. It is not that I no longer wish to be called by my name, Steven. It is instead that I wish to be known by my acts of compassion. Let the world come to know that a descendant of Abraham and Sarah reaches out to the world around him because his Judaism demands this of him. Let us be known by our kindnesses. Let this be the name that others attach to our people. Then the vision of the Torah and the promise later given to Abraham will also be fulfilled: “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants…” (Genesis 22)