Hannah Hess was a Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program 2013
The Covenant of Circumcision: Heart and Flesh
Much like its neighboring parshiot, Eikev rebukes the Israelites and reminds them to remain true to the covenant of their forefathers. But amidst this repeating narrative of national scolding and molding lies a new and perplexing instruction pertaining to Arlat Lev, the foreskin of the heart. Moses declares, “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart, therefore, and be no more stiff-necked” (Deuteronomy, 10:16).
What is the nature of this procedure? Why should a generation, who has yet to officially join Abraham’s covenant through circumcision of the genitalia (carried out only later in Joshua, after crossing the Jordan River), be prompted to perform an abstract metaphorical circumcision?
To better understand this injunction we might re-examine the initial commandment of circumcision in the Torah, Arlat Bassar, circumcision of the flesh. This procedure is commonly known as Brit Milah. In Parshat Lech Lecha, God directs Abraham, “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and this shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (17:11).
The most obvious difference between this command and the one in Deuteronomy lies in the object of circumcision: bassar, flesh, the crux of our physical existence. In Genesis, bassar appears as the foundation for our relationship with others. Eve, the consummate partner, emerges from Adam’s flesh. She is “basar m’bsari” (2.23) Flesh unites and is thus a vehicle for joining with our fellow. In cutting the flesh, we cut what is common to all mankind. In the most public yet intimate of ways, we sanctify the temporal and demonstrate the covenant endures.
Then what might be the purpose of Arlat Lev? Returning to Genesis, we understand the heart to be the primary instrument in our relation to God and his law. At the time of the flood, God observes the “wickedness of man was great on earth. . . every imagination of his heart was only evil” (Genesis 6:5). It is the human heart which made the decision to stray. Our lev determines our behavior in relation to the will of the Divine and thus we are commanded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) It is logical then that we operate on the heart to improve our relationship with God. Ramban writes that removing Arlat Lev opens the heart’s will to the Truth and ends the stubborn and obstinate behavior persistent in the generation redeemed from Egypt. The incision to the heart is subtle yet keen, inviting critical human growth and self-reflection.
Yet the original question remains. Beautiful as it may be, Arlat Lev does not testify to the covenant. Why then is it introduced to the desert generation before they perform Arlat Bassar, the quintessential sign of covenant? If it is so fundamental, why not introduce it to the Abrahamic tradition much, much earlier?
The Kli Yakar’s commentary helps to answer these questions and bridge the chronological and conceptual gap between the two rites of circumcision. The Kli Yakar suggests that indeed, Arlat Lev was woven into the initial circumcision rite in Genesis. At the time of circumcision during the conclusion of Parshat LechLecha, Abraham had already given his heart to his Creator, having left his father’s house, changed his name and conducted the Brit Bein Habitarim (covenant of the pieces). For Father Abraham, removing Arlat Bassar is simply as an external sign of his having removed his internal Arlat Lev.
In contrast, Keli Yakar explains that Abraham’s descendants are tasked with a reverse order of Milah. They first will be stamped as public bearers of the covenantal mission and later will have opportunity to forge a heartfelt connection to God. For generations, the external Brit Milah will serve to catalyze internal growth. This is the path for Isaac and Jacob and this is the path for the generation redeemed from Egypt who receives circumcision of the flesh upon their liberation. However, their covenantal marks do little to mold righteous actions of the heart during their years in the desert. God becomes increasingly frustrated with the sins of the liberated generation and feels the need to raise a new generation from the desert sands.
The generation we meet in Eikev is a new generation. Their pattern of instruction differs from that of their fathers. Like Abraham, they are pioneers of a new stage in the journey of the Jewish people. Like Abraham, they have the opportunity to embrace the moral and ethical teachings of monotheism before accepting the official yoke of covenant. They must remove Arlat Lev before Arlat Bassar. This progression speaks to the import of their task. They are designated leaders. God thus sets before them an Abrahamic test to settle the land of Canaan and uphold the covenant in a new era of political sovereignty and nation-faith.