Note to Parents: Please read this before sharing it with your children, there might be some parts that are not for your children's ears. Use your discretion.
This week's parsha, Lech Lecha, tells us that Avraham had a bris (circumcision) when he was ninety nine years old. Why did he have his bris then? Because that is when Hashem commanded him to do it.
The question is asked: The Talmud tells us, that Avraham kept the whole Torah, even before it was given. If that is the case, why did he wait for Hashem to command him to do a bris? Why didn't he do it on his own, like he did all the other mitzvahs?
To understand this, we first have to understand the difference between the mitzvahs that our forefathers kept, before the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, and the mitzvahs we do now, after Hashem gave us the Torah.
The forefathers did the mitzvahs on their own volition, without Hashem commanding them. And while it is very commendable, it doesn't have the strength that comes with a direct commandment from Hashem. Hashem commanding us to do a mitzvah, not only tells us what Hashem wants us to do, but it also gives us the ability to effect, and infuse the physical object, time or place with which the mitzvah is being done, with G-dliness.
When our forefathers did a mitzvah, it wasn't able to affect the physical, even though they might have used physical objects in the performance of a mitzvah, after they completed the mitzvah, there was no change in the status of the object. The G-dliness didn't permeate the object, it just went back to its original unholy state.
For example, when Yaakov was working for Lavan, he was going to get paid in sheep. He made a deal with Lavan, that the sheep that would be born with certain markings, would be his payment. Yaakov then went and placed sticks with these markings, in the place where the sheep would mate. And because they would see the markings when they were mating, it would effect some of the lambs being born to have those markings.
(Note: This teaches us that our thoughts and what we see at the time of conception, surely has an affect on the child.)
The Zohar tells us, that Yaakov placing those sticks, affected the world, in the same way we do, when we put on Tefillin. However, after he was done, those sticks didn't retain the holiness of the mitzvah.
At the giving of the Torah, Hashem gave us the ability to infuse the physical with G-dliness and raise its status permanently. So in a way, our mitzvahs are more powerful than those of our forefathers.
On the other hand, the mitzvahs of our forefathers gives us the ability to do them to begin with. They are the ones who blazed the path that we tread on. As the saying goes, "The acts of our forefathers are a sign for their children." Meaning, that what they did is a sign for what we should do, and it also gives us the strength to do it, because they already did it, it is not a new path that we have to forge.
In order for them to blaze the path for us, there had to be at least one mitzvah that would be like our mitzvahs, that can infuse a physical object with G-dliness, and that it would remain that way even after the mitzvah is completed. And this one mitzvah, being the same as ours, is what connects their mitzvahs to ours. Even though their mitzvahs only affected the spiritual realms, they had one mitzvah that affected the physical, therefore, they could be the trail blazers, and give us the ability to infuse the physical through our mitzvahs.
We see the same idea with our prophets. Sometimes, when they received prophecy, Hashem would instruct them to do some physical action. Prophecy is a spiritual thing, why was it necessary to do a physical act? Because, since a prophecy is spiritual, it is possible that it would remain in the spiritual realms, and not be drawn down and affect the physical. By doing a physical act, the prophecy would be connected to the physical, and since it was already connected to the physical, it is certain that it will have its effect on the world.
The one mitzvah that our forefathers did, that infused the physical with G-dliness, was the mitzvah of bris. The mitzvah of bris does two things. It infuses a physical - perhaps the most physical part of the body - with holiness, and the holiness remains there forever. As it says, "And My bris (covenant) will be in your flesh, for an everlasting bris (covenant)." So this mitzvah is the one where you clearly see the essential idea of mitzvahs, to infuse the physical with G-dliness.
The mitzvah of bris has two parts to it. The first is a one time deal, the circumcision. The second part of it, is that he should be circumcised, and not uncircumcised.
That is why the Rambam rules, that if one undoes his circumcision, he goes into the category of "One who rejects the covenant of Avraham our father." Because the bris isn't a one time event, rather it has to stay with him forever. Therefore, if he undoes it, he is rejecting the covenant.
So we see two things. First, the mitzvah of bris is in the actual person. Unlike other mitzvahs, that while you may use a part of the body to do them, it is not physically changed by them, it just the facilitator of the mitzvah. On the other hand, the mitzvah of bris is in the body itself, and it changes it.
Second, it is not a one time event, rather it stays with the person his entire life as a continuous mitzvah.
How do we know that it is continuously a mitzvah? The Talmud tells us, that King David once entered the bath house, and getting ready, he was very bothered that he didn't have a mitzvah with him. However when he saw that he had a bris, he was comforted, because he realized that in fact, he had a mitzvah with him. He wouldn't have been comforted, if it wasn't a mitzvah anymore, so we have to conclude that he saw it as a mitzvah at that time.
Of course, every mitzvah that you do with a part of the body affects it even after the mitzvah is completed, however that is only a elevation in refinement and holiness, the actual mitzvah doesn't remain. With a bris, on the other hand, the actual mitzvah remains with him, even after the initial act is completed.
This will help us understand a difficulty Tosafos had on the Talmud, with the laws pertaining to a bris. The law is that a woman is not biblically obligated to have a bris done on her son (even though, it has been accepted by women, that if for some reason, no one else can arrange for a bris, they make sure it happens). The Talmud cites a verse to prove that it is in fact the law.
Tosafos asks: Why does the Talmud need to cite a verse to prove this point? There is a rule, that women are not obligated to do mitzvahs that are set to a specific time. For example, Tefillin and tzitzit, being that their obligation is that they be worn only during daytime hours, women are not obligated to keep them. The mitzvah of bris has to be done during the daytime, we are not permitted to have a bris at night. It would follow, that a woman wouldn't be obligated to have a bris done to her son. So why the need for a verse?
According to what was mentioned above, it will make sense. Being that there is an aspect of the mitzvah which is constant, that he should remain circumcised all his life and that he shouldn't be uncircumcised, one might think that a woman would be obligated. Therefore, the Talmud cites a verse to prove that, in fact, it is not the case.
These special attributes that are found in the mitzvah of bris, that it is a change in the actual person, and that it remains forever, existed before the Torah was given as well. This is the reason that when Avraham wanted his servant, Eliezer, to take an oath, he said to him, "place your hand beneath my thigh," because it was where the only physical object of a mitzvah existed.
And now we will understand why Avraham waited for Hashem to command him to do a bris, and why he didn't do it on his own, as he did all the rest of the mitzvahs. Because this is the one mitzvah that is similar to the mitzvahs given to us at the giving of the Torah, in that, they are able to permeate the physical with G-dliness. And in order to be able to affect the physical in that way, he needed Hashem's command, because it is only possible with Hashem's command.
This clearly demonstrates how powerful our mitzvahs are. We have the power to fill the physical world with G-dliness permanently. Hashem gave us this ability when He gave us the Torah, and our forefathers blazed this path for us. So do as many mitzvahs as you can, and do them in the nicest way possible. If you do, you will fill the world with G-dliness, and that will surely bring Moshiach closer. May he come soon.