Why did Avram seek advice before proceeding with milah-circumcision?
Why did some of his closest friends and disciples oppose his undergoing milah?
HaShem appeared to him [Avram] in the Plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the opening of the tent as the day[‘s heat] blazed.
— Bereishis 18:1
Why did HaShem appear to him in the Plains of Mamre? [He appeared there] as a reward Mamre for his offering Avram positive advice and encouragement concerning circumcision.
— Rashi ibid
… And He said to him [Avram] “I Am Keil Shakai. Walk yourself before Me and become perfect. And I will tender My covenant between me and you …
— Bereishis 17:1,2
This is My covenant between Me, and between you and your offspring that you must observe: you must circumcise every male. You shall excise the flesh of your foreskin and this will be the mark of the covenant between Me and you.
— Bereishis 17:10,11
The refugee came bringing intelligence to Avram the Hebrew who was living serenely in the Plains of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; they were the masters of Avram’s covenant.
— Bereishis 14:13
Why was Kiryas Arba-the Town of the Four; so called? Because of the four saintly people living there; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre and Avram
— Bereishis Rabbah 58:4
When the Holy Blessed One told Avram that he should circumcise himself, Avram sought the advice of his three beloved friends; Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. He first went to Aner and said “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Aner responded “He wants to make you a baal mum– someone defective/ an amputee?! The relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you in reprisal as you will not be able to flee.” He left him and then proceeded to Eshkol. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Eshkol responded “You’re old. If you circumcise yourself you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood. You won’t be able to endure it and you’ll die.” He left him and then proceeded to Mamre. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such. What is your advice?” Mamre responded “You ask me about this? Wasn’t it HaShem who saved you from the fiery furnace and wrought all the miracles for you? Wasn’t it HaShem who saved from the kings? If not for His Might and Power the kings would have slain you in battle. HaShem has saved all 248 of your limbs and organs [numerous times] and you’re asking my advice about the small appendage to a single organ? Do as He commands.
— Midrash Tanchuma Vayera 3
הקנאה, התאווה והכבוד – מוציאים את האדם מן העולם
Jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor eradicate a person from the world
— Pirkei Avos 4:28
The Izhbitzer School addresses various questions that arise from a superficial reading of the Tanchuma. How could Avram, greatest of the believers in HaShem, who had already withstood many Divine trials, grant Aner and Eshkol and Mamre “veto power” over a direct command from HaShem? Had all three advised against circumcision would he have actually complied with their advice instead of obeying HaShem? Why did Aner and Eshkol, described as “the masters of Avrams covenant” and as tzadikim-righteous ones; advise against circumcision? In Avrams previous and subsequent trials he did not seek anyone’s advice. Why did he seek advice regarding circumcision?
Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer, understands the dialogues between Avram and his consultants as not being a question of “yes or no?” but of “how”? What’s the best way to go about this? He wanted to decide whether to undergo circumcision inconspicuously or publicly.
The fact was that 20 generations had passed since Adam without anyone undergoing circumcision and that people have a strong predilection for resisting change and having a skeptical attitude towards innovation. Avram considered the possibility that publicizing this groundbreaking development in Man’s relationship with G-d would evoke enough opposition of others to try and prevent him from going through with it or, at minimum, mocking and scorning this bizarre operation, after all circumcision affects a most sensitive area. This societal ridicule and scorn would diminish the gravity and appeal of the Monotheism that Avram had devoted his life to teaching and preaching. Avram did not want HaShem to become cholilah-Heaven Forefend; a laughing-stock.
Additionally, Aner opposed publicizing the covenant of circumcision because of the personal danger it would expose Avram to. Opportunistic relatives of the 4 kings bent on vendetta killings would consider a circumcision-weakened Avram an easy target. Aner reasoned that one shouldn’t rely on miracles when natural means to avoid danger, in this case keeping the circumcisions secret, were available. While clear-headed and cautious, this advice did not appeal to Avram. HaShem had Chosen to Grant him victory over the kings in the most transparent, prominent and famous way. How then could fulfilling HaShem’s command publicly and openly lead to his downfall?
Eshkol thought that the threat of Avram dying as a result of post-operative complications was very real and that, perhaps, the trial of circumcision was a kind of auto-Akeidah; would Avram be willing to kill himself at G-d’s behest? But Eshkol fretted over the disastrous PR consequences of “passing” such a test. How many potential new monotheists would be discouraged and dissuaded? How many of Avrams proselytes would drop out of a religion demanding such supreme human self-sacrifice? How many people would condemn the G-d of Avram as a wrathful and capricious Deity? If the circumcision-related causes of Avrams death were to become widely known an epic chilul HaShem-desecration of G-d’s name; would result. On the other hand if the circumcision was a well-kept secret and, worst-case scenario, Avram did not survive it, the cause of death could reasonably be attributed to Avram’s “old-age” or any number of causes. Avram rejected this as well. He thought it inconceivable that HaShem would command him to do something that would result in his death.
Mamre’s recommendation and encouragement resonated with Avram for all the reasons that the suggestions of Aner and Eshkol did not. Avram followed the advice of his consultant Mamre and “B’etzem hayom hazeh-In the very core of that day; Avram and his son Yishmael were circumcised. All the men of the household both homeborn and bought for cash from a stranger were circumcised with him.” (Bereishis 17:26,27). Elsewhere Chazal have taught that the phrase “B’etzem hayom hazeh” connotes an in-your-face challenge to would-be opponents, scoffers, skeptics or those who would stop it outright. As if to say “I/We did it out in the open at high-noon … stop us if you can!”
As he often does, the Biskovitzer concludes with a take-away lesson that we can apply to contemporary Avodas HaShem. He maintains that each of us have an internal Aner, Eshkol, Mamre. When we exercise our free-will to do good and perform mitzvos there are still “voices” within us that will try dissuading us from performing HaShem’s Will in the best and most fulsome way, more often than not by voicing some iteration of the fear of ridicule and public misunderstanding.
The approach of Rav Tzadok-the Kohen of Lublin, takes to demystifying the Tanchuma requires some background divrei Torah:
There are three basic, deep-seated drives and yearnings of the human spirit/ psyche: The drive for pleasure and sensual gratification AKA taavah-lust; the drive for control and domination of others AKA kinah-jealousy; and the drive for transcendence and eternal perpetuity AKA kavod-the pursuit of honor. Honor and transcendence accrue to those who produce progeny. As the passuk (Mishlei 17:6) declares “Children’s children are the tiara of grandfathers.”
All of these drives can be sublimated and harnessed for Avodas HaShem and, in a broad sense; each of the Patriarchs embodies one of these drives that have been refined and distilled into an essence of kedushah-sanctity; and Avodas HaShem. Avram, the pillar of chessed-lovingkindness; is the spiritual “hedonist” who seeks the ineffable pleasure of uniting with his Creator. Yitzchok, the pillar of gevurah-might and self-control; is the holy warrior who fights, controls and dominates his internal foe; the inclination to evil. Yaakov, the pillar of emmes-truth; is the father of twelve tribes and morphs into Yisrael. His progeny, who bear his name, are an eternal Nation that transcends time and space for truth is, by definition, eternal and transcendent. That which expires and fades away cannot be true. As the passuk teaches “The lip of truth shall be instituted forever” (Ibid12:19). That said, while each of the Patriarchs may have “specialized” in a particular drive every one of them was motivated by, and refined elements of, all three of these primal drives.
The drives toward pleasure and sensual gratification and for control and domination can metastasize into the pure evils of murder and fornication. In contradistinction, every yearning for transcendence and eternal perpetuity, i.e. honor, is essentially good and holy, it can never devolve into something truly evil. At worst this drive can be less than perfectly lishmah– for the sake of Heaven. It can sometimes be underpinned by ulterior motives settling for ersatz honor that may outlast the split second but that is not truly eternal. This helps explain why, in the development of kedushas Klal Yisrael-the holiness of the Nation of Israel; Avram and Yitzchok sired sons who were incarnations of the evils of kinah — culminating in murder (Esav) and taavah — leading to fornication (Yishmael), while all of Yaakov/ Yisrael’s sons were good and holy.
The mystery of HaShem’s covenant of circumcision is veiled in the passuk of “Walk yourself before Me and become perfect.” For we know that this alleged “perfection” was achieved through self-mutilation. The pre-circumcision Avram was imperfect although his entire physical plant was unblemished and intact. The letter hei was added to his name post-circumcision to express his new control of the five limbs/ organs that were beyond his control pre-circumcision (see Bereishis17:1 Rashi v’heyei.) The covenant of circumcision, accomplished through excision of the foreskin, is an act of addition by subtraction, of perfection through deficit and maiming.
By loving and attaching themselves to Avram, by becoming the masters of his covenant, the three Emorites; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre were drawn to Avodas HaShem and the sublimation of the three primal drives. Aner was drawn to sublimating kinah, Eshkol to refining taavah and Mamre to purifying kavod. Nevertheless in waging these cosmic, spiritual battles they were never more than the knight/warrior-Avram’s squires and weapons bearers (cp. Rashi Bereishis 14:24).
The Lubliner Kohen explains the Tanchuma in light of Aner, Eshkol and Mamres specialties in terms of the three primal drives. Perhaps subconsciously, the advice that they offer Avram gives voice to their own core motivations and drives. The kinah and taavah sensibilities, especially if not fully refined, can never grasp the mystery of milah-circumcision. For the desire for control and domination would never countenance even a temporary loss or deficiency. The kinah drive works under the adage of “dominate or be dominated” and lives in mortal terror of every loss, deficiency or temporary setback. And so Aner tells Avram “the relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you.” If you do not keep yourself whole and healthy, if you do not press every advantage to dominate and subjugate, then you will be the one who becomes dominated and subjugated.
The drive for sensual gratification is fundamentally narcissistic and selfish. The hedonist is a collector and a hoarder and is especially fond of those collectibles that complete, aggrandize and fulfill the self. The notion of giving rather than taking, of relinquishing rather than retaining is utterly foreign to the taavah drive. And so when asked for his thoughts on milah Eshkol cries “you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood.” Any loss is an anathema to the one driven by taavah how much more so when the loss of a body part or the bodily fluid containing the very life-force of the hedonist?
It is only Mamre, informed by kavod — the drive for transcendence; who possesses the sensibility that a temporal loss can result in an eternal gain, that nothing can become perfect unless and until it’s incomplete. On the contrary, being defeated and dominated, unfulfilled and incomplete, are the keys to eternity and deathlessness because, ultimately, the other two drives seek that which cannot endure. Many of the greatest Emperors, who subjugated millions, saw their empires crumble in their lifetimes. All of them died knowing that their dominion would pass to others. Many of the greatest hedonists aged or were impoverished to a point where they could no longer indulge their lusts. All of them died and lost the sensual coil that they spent a short, blink-of-the-eye lifetime gratifying. Only honor is transcendent. And so Mamre, whose defining middah was kavod, advised Avram to pursue the temporary loss of milah that would lead to the promise of offspring, the vehicle for deathlessness and undying glory.