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There are certain platitudes that you can’t escape as time goes by. One of them is that you can’t stop growing. “You snooze, you lose.” Whether spiritually, emotionally or intellectually, you have to maintain progress. That’s a theme that emerges from this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha. This is the portion in which Abraham performs mila, or circumcision on himself. It sounds like a simple physical action. But, it’s really much more than that – the number of times that the Torah mentions mila and the subtlely different language that it uses each time tells us that much more is going on here…

The Mishna (Nedarim 31B) says, “Circumcision is important, since of all the commandments that Abraham fulfilled, he wasn’t considered complete until he circumcised himself, as it says, ‘Walk before Me and be tamimҔ (Gen. 17:1- the Torah narrative then continues by issuing the command to be circumcised).

The Gemora elaborates, “Rebi taught, circumcision is important, since nobody was as involved in the commandments as Abraham, and yet he was called perfect only after his circumcision, as it says, “Walk before Me and be tamimŔ

Although it may appear that the two statements say the same thing, this is not the case. The Mishna describes Abraham after the mila as “complete,” while the Gemorra describes him as “perfect.” Both are translations of the same Hebrew word (tamim), but the Mishna interprets it one way while the Gemorra interprets it in a different way.

Perhaps the two interpretations have to do with the two results of circumcision. The foreskin represents a sort of barrier, a physical obstacle that prevents the Jew from making spiritual progress. Its removal has two effects, one negative and the other positive. First, it removes the obstacle, and second, it allows the person to grow, spiritually. That might account for the respective expressions of the Mishna and the Gemorra. The Mishna speaks negatively about the foreskin, describing one who vows not to derive any benefit from an idol worshipper who is uncirmcumcized, and concluding with a statement of R’ Elazar ben Azariah, “the foreskin is loathsomeŔ So, it would seem that the Mishna places emphasis on the first result of circumcision – the removal of the foreskin, which is like a blemish.

The Gemora on the other hand describes the positive effects of circumcision – it frees the Jew to grow spiritually - and therefore the language of the Gemora specifies that circumcision leads not only to completion (as if previously something were missing), but to ‘perfection.’
However, this explanation fails to explain other subtle differences in the language. The Mishna says “After all the commandments that Abraham fulfilled, he wasn’t considered completeŔ implying that not only circumcision but also the other commandments led to his completion. But, the Gemora says, “nobody was as involved in the commandments as Abraham, and yet he was called perfect only on account of his circumcision,” which implies that it was only the mila that led to perfection, regardless of the other mitzvoth.

So, we must search for another possible explanation. As happens frequently, another explanation arises from the way the word tamim is used in other contexts. It may be used in two ways; either to negate of any kind of lacking or blemish, or to indicate a higher level of completion, in which not only is nothing lacking anything, but there is actually a higher level of integration present. We see this, by way of example, by korbanot (sacrifices). A sacrifice is called tam when it is lacking any blemish that makes it unfit to offer. But, tam also indicates high quality, as the Rambam writes in the beginning of Hilchot Isurei Mizbeach explains, “it is a positive commandment for all the sacrifices to be tamim and choiceŔ We see it as well in the yearly cycle in time. A normal year contains twelve months, and a year in which the months Heshvan and Kislev have thirty days is called shalem (complete). However, a leap year, in which there is a full extra month, is called tamim. Thus, there are two levels to tamim; one that implies only that nothing is lacking, and the other implying a greater level of completion, in which not only is nothing lacking, but something greater than the sum of the parts is present.

Consequently, we might interpret the Mishna and the Gemora on the basis of these two meanings of the word tam. The Mishna uses the first interpretation of tam – not lacking anything. It tells us that upon circumcising himself, Abraham was no longer lacking. And that’s why it says that Abraham fulfilled all the commandments, but it was the circumcision that led to completion – “he wasn’t called tam (complete) until he circumcised himself.” It wasn’t the circumcision alone that led completion, but once he was circumcised, he was complete. The Gemora, on the other hand was interested in tam in the sense of something additional, something choice and superior. So, the language indicates that it was the mila alone that brought Abraham to this condition. Nobody was as involved in all the commandments as was Abraham, and yet “he was only called tam on account of the mila.” It was precisely mila, and not the other mitzvoth (even though he was very involved in them) that led to temimut, to his new level of perfection.

However, there is a third definition of temimut in the Talmud; “Those who make themselves tamim, G-d is tamim with themŔ (Nedarim 32A). That is, one must “make himself tam” and progress in temimut, rather than remain on one level. Here, the meaning of tam is not only to be complete and/or perfect (as in the first two definitions), but to work on oneself in order to progress in temimut. It is not enough to achieve completion and perfection on a one-time basis, but one must continually work on achieving new levels of completion and perfection. The way to do this is by accepting whatever takes place as the will of G-d, without raising questions. This is similar to the command in parshat Shoftim (Deut. 18:13), “Be tamim with the Lord your G-d” – go with Him in temimut and wait for Him, don’t look into the future and don’t ask questions, but accept whatever comes your way with temimut” (Rashi). Since this definition of tamim is brought in the same Gemora that discusses Abraham’s circumcision, we understand that it applies to him, just as the first two definitions did. Therefore, there is likely to be a causal relationship as well, in which the mitzvah brought out this level in Abraham, inducing him to “walk” and progress in temimut.

By way of introduction, all three definitions of tamim applied to all three of the forefathers. However, each of them “specialized” in one of the three forms of temimut. Each forefather was complete (tamim) in fulfilling the will of G-d, with an emphasis on one of the three ways described above.

Abraham was the son of idol worshippers. He used his own intellectual acumen and sense of independence to take himself out of this morass. He was surrounded by people who accepted and worshipped idols, but by asking questions and analyzing his environment, Abraham concluded that there is one G-d and only to Him is it appropriate to worship. So, he fulfilled the word of G-d as one who has overcome a lacking. His initial experiences in life were not holy, but he acted as one who was tamim in throwing off a flawed past and accepting the will of G-d. Thus, he was tam in the sense of “complete” (not lacking anything).

Isaac was born in a holy environment and raised as one who knows that there is only one G-d. He is described by the Torah as an “olah temima,” a perfect offering, who never left the land of Israel. He spent all of his time in Torah study and prayer. Thus, Isaac corresponded to the second definition of tamim – one who is “perfect,” in possession of an added measure of wholeness and integration.

And finally, Jacob is described by the Torah as an ish tam (a perfect human, who doesn’t ask questions). Although the events of his life brought him to many different places, under radically different circumstances, he always maintained his lifestyle and avodat HaShem. He never wavered nor doubted his task in life, which was to fulfill Torah and mitzvoth. Whether in the house of his father-in-law, Lavan, one of the greatest con artists of all time, or among the immoral inhabitants of Shechem, or in Egypt, Yakov not only maintained his fulfillment of mitzvoth, but increased and deepened his connection with G-d. He exceeded the avoda of his father Isaac, who served G-d under one protected set of circumstances (in the land of Israel). He worked on himself to maintain his avoda wherever he went, and in this respect he corresponded to the third definition of tam – one who works upon himself to accept the will of G-d under all circumstances, without asking questions.

We could delve even deeper in our explanation of what it means to be tam. When tam means “complete” (lacking nothing) or “perfect” (possessing an added measure of positive qualities), our definition relates to the details. For example, when referring to a sacrifice, then tam either means that it is complete in all of its details (unblemished), or that its details lend it “perfection” (meaning that it has a quality that transcends its details). In both cases, the definition relates back to the details. The same is true of the year in the cycle of time. If it is tamim in the sense of “complete,” it simply means that it lacks no details – all twelve months are present. If it is tamim in the sense of “perfect,” then it possesses even more details, since the months of Heshvan and Kislev are full.

Inside the person, the same applies. One person is more complete than another because he has rid himself of faults and blemishes more than someone else. Or, he may be tamim, in the sense of perfect because he has no longer needs to work on his faults, but instead focuses upon how to be a better person and constantly improve in avodat HaShem. In either case, his situation relates to the details that make up his personality. But, there is a third level of tamim that transcends details, and that is the level of kaballat ohl malchut shamayim – accepting the yoke of G-d. In this case, tamim means that regardless of details, we unflinchingly accept what He wants from us. We don’t ask questions, we don’t look into the details, we just do it. It is not the details of one’s personality, nor any extra qualities that the person possesses – it is his simple desire to do what G-d wants that motivates him. And for that reason, his avoda is direct and unchanging at all times.

Regarding mila, the three definitions express themselves in three different elements of the mitzvah. First of all, the circumcision frees the person from certain aspects of the yetzer harah – the evil inclination – making the person “complete.” Second, the mila helps him to improve upon and embellish his connection with G-d in all sorts of positive ways, leading to “perfection.” Both of these elements are associated with “parts and components” of the person; namely, his intellect and feeling. However, the third element of circumcision is the deed itself – act of taking a knife and cutting away the foreskin. Obviously, this was not something that Abraham wanted or chose to do of his own volition. The act required the ability to put aside his own desires and simply do what G-d told him. Since it is not based upon intellect or feeling, it transcends the “parts” of the person and goes to his very essence. The circumcision produced in Abraham the third definition of tamim mentioned above – kabalat ohl malchut shamayim - the ability to connect to G-d by doing what He wants under all circumstances, without questions. Thus, the third effect of the mila was to completely nullify Abraham to the Creator and to His will., and that is the highest expression of temimut – the ability to walk in His ways without flinching and without asking questions.

We tend to think that the greatest achievement of the human being is in the realm of intellect and the effect that it has upon the rest of the world. However, the truth is that it is usually the person who puts himself to work and doesn’t waver in his path of avodat HaShem who achieves the most. When enough of us do that, it’s sure to bring the final redemption.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 30, pp. 44-52 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem