Unlike other religions, Judaism is founded upon moments of direct Divine revelation. Despite the infinite and non-physical nature of G-d, He reveals himself and His word directly to His chosen nation. Of course, the climax of this experience was the mass revelation at Sinai- a singular historical event which no other religion lays claim to. This week’s parsha marks the first moment of individual revelation or revelation to one man. For two thousand years G-d had spoken to Man, taken oaths about Man, formed Covenants with Man, and visited Man through nocturnal encounters; however, Man hadn’t yet experienced direct encounter with G-d. Now that Avraham has undergone brit milah he is physically and spiritually equipped to encounter G-d, and so the history of Divine revelation is launched.
An event of this magnitude should be staged in a majestic or otherwise symbolic location. In fact, Avraham has already visited the great mountain which will one day house the Divine presence; by the end of this week’s parsha he will revisit that lofty peak for a second time. Certainly, that mountain of Moriah is uniquely suited to host the first Divine revelation. Yet this first rendezvous with G-d unfolds in the house of Mamre – Avraham’s local host. What a bizarre choice for this illustrious inauguration!
Our Chazal attribute this decision to advice which Mamre had previously offered Avraham. Mamre and his two brothers Aner and Eshkol are all referred to as ‘ba’alei brit’ of Avraham- the ‘partners’ of his Covenant. Elaborating upon this very strange attribution, the Midrash portrays Avraham consulting with these three brothers as he deliberates about his milah command. Two of these brothers- Aner and Eshkol- discouraged Avraham from accepting the milah offer while Mamre stood alone in supporting this option. As all three brothers were mutually consulted, they are jointly referred to as ‘affiliates’ of Avraham’s milah. As Mamre was the only brother to support this option, he hosts the very first Divine revelation in the history of mankind.
This is an extremely peculiar midrash: Why would Avraham consult with three non-Jewish acquaintances about a ritual as sacred as brit milah. What insights could be gleaned from people who weren’t commanded about milah. My Rebbe, Harav Yehuda Amital, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of the Gush yeshiva, explained that Avraham was worried that milah would compromise his international agenda. As the first discoverer of monotheism, Avraham was charged with preaching his revolutionary ideas to the entire human race. His name Avraham– the father of many nations – reflects a global agenda rather than a parochial mission. He was deeply concerned that branding himself so explicitly as a Jew would deter his universal agenda. How would non-Jews identify with the ideas of someone who appeared so physically different from them? In ancient society in particular, men spent significant time in bathhouses while minimally clothed. Avraham’s physically altered body would be conspicuous! Moreover, milah altered an extremely sensitive and private area, and this would inevitably attract attention. Branded as the ’other’, he could no longer influence broad public opinion. Avraham could not reconcile this offer of milah with his global agenda of influencing a wider audience.
Anxious about this concern, he surveyed his non-Jewish acquaintances about his apprehensions. He inquired how they would respond to him after he underwent such a radical change. As Avraham was worried about the response of non-Jews to his visible Jewishness, the only people he could consult with were his non-Jewish friends. He didn’t investigate the laws or value of milah, but rather the consequences of appearing different in the eyes of non-Jews. In fact, Eshkol, one of the dissuaders, opposed milah precisely because of this concern. He countered that this ritual would reconfigure Avraham as distinct, creating unbridgeable divisions between Avraham and others, and thwarting any ability to inspire the broader community.
Mamre ultimately supported the milah option, encouraging Avraham to display loyalty to a G-d who had repeatedly protected him. In theory, even if milah would compromise Avraham’s mission it should be embraced out of gratitude to G-d who had specifically commanded milah. Avraham heeds Mamre’s advice and soon discovers that this physical change didn’t shrink the sweep of his influence; if anything, it dramatically expanded it. As a different Midrash comments: before milah Avraham interacted with humans, whereas after his milah Avraham strolls with humans as well as with angels. In no way did milah disfigure him or estrange him to others. Inspiring others doesn’t demand becoming identical to them. It more often demands courageously representing ideals and values which aren’t currently popular, but which can enrich human experience.
Avraham’s initial conundrum and ultimate resolution provides an important lesson about Jewish identity. Many Jews- particularly those living outside of the Jewish homeland- remain uncomfortable displaying their Jewish identity. For some, this hesitance is a residue of earlier generations and more challenging settings in which Jews were deeply persecuted and identification as a Jew introduced severe danger. Unfortunately, the resurgence of global anti-Semitism has frightened many and, once again, sadly, Jews are fearful of expressing their Jewish identity in public.
However, beyond the concern of physical danger, many Jews remain uncomfortable displaying Jewish identity, due to their desire to serve as a light onto nations: “How can we affect the lives of others unless we conform to common patterns of dress and cultural expression? Wearing a kippah in public, or expressing Jewish religion in public settings would differentiate us and hamper our ability to inspire a broader community of people.” Over the past two centuries many who sought to reform Judaism and amplify its influence upon general society suppressed overt expression of Jewish identity. This is the classic error of Eshkol! We inspire specifically because we represent something ‘different’. Without being condescending or patronizing, we stand for G-d and a life shaped by adherence to His will. We do not seek to convert anyone to Judaism, but rather to inspire them to a lifestyle before G-d. If we efface our unique identity, we abandon our message. If we shed our unique cultural appearance, we deprive the world of what is most dearly needs: a unique people deeply associated with G-d illuminating a world of darkness, distance and disappointment.