Parshat Vayera

Torah Reading for Week of November 9-November 15, 2008

“The Circumcision of the Heart”

By Rabbi Mordecai Finley, PhD, Ohr Ha-Torah Congregation
AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

The portion for Shabbat November 14-15 is “Vayera”. Vayera means “He appeared”, referring to G-d’s appearing to Abraham, described in the opening verses of our Torah portion. The word “vayera” is from the Hebrew word root “ra’ah” which means “to see”. G-d “was seen” by Abraham.

Commentatators ask: “why now?” Of all the times that G-d spoke to Abraham, why would the Torah pause and emphasize that now G-d can be seen by Abraham?

The mystically inclined commentators go back to the preceding verses for the answer. In the preceding verses, Genesis 17:23-27, we find Abraham circumcising himself and all the males in his household. While the meaning, motivation and purpose of circumcision of the flesh is a fascinating topic, the mystics understand circumcision of the flesh as a symbol of circumcision of the heart. According to the teachings that address the inner life, G-d became manifest to Abraham because Abraham had engaged in the circumcision of the heart, symbolized by the circumcision of the flesh.

What is this “circumcision of the heart”? We find this phrase or similar ones in several places in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 10:16, we are taught: “You shall circumcise the foreskins of your heart”. In Jeremiah 4:4, we find: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart”.

The foreskin, “orlah” in Hebrew, spiritually speaking, refers to the occlusion of soul, an obstruction that prevents the light from the divine from shining through. The “heart” in biblical Hebrew is not the seat of moral intuition. In biblical Hebrew, “lev” “heart” refers to the ego mind, the seat of the passions; a part of the self that can lead us away from truth.

The divine light shines in through conscience, but the ego mind can keep out that light and insist on being morally confused. That light shines into our rational faculty, where we can know clearly what is happening in the world and in our lives, but the ego mind can choose to stay biased, and instead we think with our feelings. A light can illuminate our own personal struggles and journeys, but with the ego mind we choose to block that light and never admit the truth about ourselves.

The circumcision of the heart can refer to the moment when we take away the obstructions of the heart, and the light of truth and knowledge is allowed to shine into our conscious lives from the realm of the soul.

G-d was made manifest to Abraham because he, according to the mystical tradition, circumcised his heart. We inherit a tradition of this “circumcising our hearts to the Lord” – removing the impediments that allow the divine to shine in our lives.

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