February 14, 2023

Nedarim 31

The Mishna (Nedarim 3:11) in today’s daf (Nedarim 31b) contains a statement that calls for further explanation. Specifically, we are informed that אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ לֹא נִקְרָא שָׁלֵם עַד שֶׁמָּל – ‘Avraham our forefather was not referred to as being complete until he was circumcised’, as we learn from Bereishit 17:1 where God commands Avraham הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים – ‘walk before Me and be Tamim’.
Significantly, this word Tamim is often translated as ‘wholesome’ or ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’. However, in addition to these meanings, our Rabbis understood the word ‘Tam’ or ‘Tamim’ as a codeword for being circumcised (מהול), and this is why they derive from this verse that Avraham was not referred to as being complete until he was circumcised.
Interestingly, as Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain explains (in his Shem Mishmuel commentary to Parshat Vayera), we have a tradition that Adam, Shet and Noach were all born naturally circumcised (or what we refer to as being נולד מהול), and it is noteworthy that this is derived with respect to Noach from the fact that the word ‘Tamim’ is also used about him (see Bereishit 6:9). With this in mind, Rabbi Bornsztain seeks to explain why these figures were born circumcised whereas Avraham was not and, instead, he was commanded by God to circumcise himself.
He suggests that because each of these figures were spoken to by God yet each transgressed in one way or another and thereby distanced themselves from God, Avraham had to perform a deed onto himself in order to restore (לתקן) God’s faith in humanity – as if to convey that we, as human beings, understand that while God has gifted us the potential to do good, goodness ultimately comes from our effort and endeavour to improve ourselves and the world around us.
This is a beautiful explanation. However, the problem with this theory is that our Sages tell us that numerous later biblical figures were also born circumcised. Specifically, we are told that Yaakov (about whom the word ‘Tam’ is used), Yosef, Moshe and Iyov were all נולד מהול, with other sources also suggesting that so were Bilam, Shmuel, David, Yirmiyahu and Zerubavel. So the question is how do we reconcile these traditions with the insight of the Shem Mishmuel?
I would like to suggest that it was precisely because of the efforts of Avraham, and his ability to achieve a spiritual rectification (תיקון) of this world, which led to his grandson Yaakov and great-grandson Yosef being born מהול as if to symbolize the restoration of the world to a state where God’s presence was known to the world.
However, though for reasons different to that of Adam and Noach etc., this state then ebbed away until the birth of Moshe who performed deeds to rebalance the spiritual state in this world. From then on, the cycle continued where different biblical figures spiritually rebalanced or had the potential to spiritually rebalance the world, but either due to their own transgressions or those around them this then led to a distancing of the world from God. And at some point, as this cycle continued, it seems that God decided that no one would be born מהול, and that there was no point trying to expect humanity to restore the world to what was. Instead, our task is to improve the world into what it could be.
The word ‘Shalem’ – used in our Mishna – is often translated as ‘whole’ or ‘complete’. Yet the fact that it is used with reference to someone who was called upon to perform a deed in order to achieve the title ‘Tamim’, and the fact that at some point God decided that no one would be born מהול, teaches us that Shleimut is not a state we are given but a state that we must create; it is not who we are born as but what we do in our life, that helps us achieve shleimut.
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