To turn a nation, linked largely by common lineage and descent, into a people with distinctive mores and a defined way of life, the Israelites must share not merely a set of ancestors but also a people-making history. Specifically, they must be collectively transformed by a special set of shared political and cultural experiences. They must first experience enslavement and loss of all worldly power. They must then be emancipated and liberated against all odds, yet in a manner that obliges the slaves to declare their willingness to be freed. And their former masters – the world’s greatest civilization – must be brought to bear witness to the superiority of the God of Israel and the insufficiency of relying solely on human wisdom and power.
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.663
The last chapter of Genesis begins with the burial of Jacob at Machpelah and ends with the mummification of Joseph in Egypt. The contrast between burial and embalming/mummification reveals a crucial difference between Israel and Egypt: the difference between the acceptance and the denial or defiance of death. Embalming the body is an attempt at human control after death. The putative beneficiary of the treatment is the deceased: embalming resists time and change, prevents decay, beautifies the body, and prepares for reanimation and continued life – not to say immortality. Burial accepts that we are “dust to dust.” It manifests a different attitude toward the body and its fragile beauty, toward time and finitude and memory, and toward the source of life and the (im)possibility of apotheosis. Burial, the Israelite way, lies between the extremes of revering the body and worshipping the dead, on the one hand, and condemning the body and ignoring the mortal remains, on the other. The way of Israel is the way of memory, keeping alive not the bodies of the dead but their ever-living legacy in relation to the ever-living God, who in the beginning created heaven and earth and made man alone in His own image, and who later summoned Father Abraham and his descendants to “walk before me and be wholehearted.”
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.658
Earlier we learned that the Egyptians abominate eating with the Hebrews (43:32), perhaps because they eat lamb. And much later, Moses will refuse Pharaoh’s permission to “sacrifice to your God in the land,” because “we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians [most likely, sheep] to the Lord our God; lo, if we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us?” (Exodus 8:21-22). The Egyptians abominate what the Hebrews eat, how they gain their livelihood from animals, and what they choose to sacrifice to their God. From extrabiblical sources, we learn that the Egyptians are well known for their worship of certain animals. Accordingly, they may regard the Israelite assumption of human superiority over the animal world as an abomination, a deep violation of Egyptian belief in the unity (or at least the interchangeability) of man, nature, and the divine. The Egyptians, on this interpretation, abominate those who make too much of the difference of man.
Abominable or loathsome are those sexual practices said to be characteristic of the land of Egypt behind and the land of Canaan before: incest (Leviticus 18:6-18), male homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), and bestiality (Leviticus 18:23). Abominable too are child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31 and 18:9-10) and, most especially, idolatry (Deuteronomy 7:25-26), as well as the related practices of divination, soothsaying, augury, and sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). In short, abominable in Israel are those activities that deny or efface the fundamental distinctions of creation: child sacrifice, which make a child into an animal; bestiality, which makes an animal into a human being; homosexual sodomy, which makes a man into a woman; and idolatry, which makes an animal or a man or some other creature or object into a god. For the Israelite way, with its view that man – and man alone – carries the divine image, failure to see the superiority of man vis-à-vis the animals is necessarily connected with failure properly to apprehend that which is truly divine. Setting itself in direct opposition to Egyptian (and Canaanite) ways, Israel eventually will separate itself by loathing the chaos-inducing denial of the importance of separation itself.
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.625
[The Children of Israel are] defined in part by remembrance of things past and in part by anticipation of things to come. They remember especially God’s promise to and covenant with Abraham. They anticipate especially the fulfillment of God’s promise and the obligation to perpetuate the memory of the covenant into future generations. Speaking more generally, we may say that the Children of Israel, by looking forward to perpetuate the merit and ways of the ancestors, choose to live with full awareness of time and with full acceptance of change and unavoidable decay. The children of the new way are enjoined to embrace the temporality of human existence because their attachment to the timelessness of God and the permanence of His promised care, which He works out in human affairs in the course of human time.
Not so in Egypt… Egypt, at least in its public and official teachings, is the place that seeks to abolish change and to make time stand still. To be sure, Egyptians have accurate measures of time and a precise calendar, but they use them to manage or to stay ahead of natural change – in the first instance, to predict and manage the flooding of the Nile. What the Egyptians seek is changelessness, agelessness, permanent presence, or eternal return and renewal. Whether one looks to the hieroglyph in which the mobile world is represented is static ideograms; or to the worship of the eternally circling but never-changing heavenly bodies or of the cyclically rising and ebbing river, with is life-giving overflows; or to the practices of denying aging through bodily adornment and defying death through mummification and preparation for reincarnation – everywhere one looks, one sees in Egypt the rejection of change and the denial of death. Ancient Egypt is poles apart from Ancient Israel.
Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom p.556
Male circumcision was, of course, a custom already widely practiced in the ancient world. In pagan societies, circumcision, performed at the time of puberty, was part of a male rite of passage (it may also have served symbolically as an act of human sacrifice to the gods). A mark on his maleness, circumcision was a sign not only of the youth’s new sexual potency but also of his initiation into the male role and male society (putting an end to his primary attachment to his mother and the household, to the society of women and children). But in the new way of ancient Israel, the special obligation of the covenant gives the practice of circumcision a new and nearly opposite meaning. An initiation rite of passage of young males into adult masculinity is transformed into a paternal duty regarding the male newborn. Israel’s covenant with God begins by transforming the meaning of male sexuality and of manliness altogether.
Covenantal circumcision emphasizes and sanctifies man’s natural generative power, even as it also restricts and transcends it. To be performed on children only eight days old, it celebrates not sexual potency but procreation and (especially) perpetuation. Though it is the child who bears the mark, the obligation falls rather on the parents; it is a perfect symbol of the relation between the generations, for the deeds of parents are always inscribed, often heritably, into the lives of their children.
The obligation of circumcision calls father to the paternal task. Performed soon after birth, it circumcises their pride in siring male heirs, reminding them that children are a gift for which they are not themselves creatively responsible. More important, they are called from the start to assume the obligation of transmission. They are summoned to ratify the meaning of their own circumcision (and, therewith, of the community’s view of manhood), each new father vindicating the promise made by his own father to keep him within the covenant. They are compelled to remember, now when it counts, that they belong to a long line of descent, beginning with Abraham, who was called and who sought to walk before God and to be wholehearted, they are reminded that bearing the child is the easy part, that rearing him well is the real vocation. They are summoned to continue the chain by rearing their children looking up to the sacred and the divine, by initiating them into God’s chosen ways. They are required to give their children a spiritual rebirth, right from the start, in memory of God’s covenant and His special charge to Abraham and his seed. They must symbolically demonstrate their dedication of their present deeds to their future hopes and of their future hopes to the Eternal. And made mindful that the deeds of the father are always visited upon their sons, they are made aware of the consequences for their children – now and hereafter – of their failure to hearken the call: “And the uncircumcised male… that soul shall be cut off from his people: he hath broken My covenant” (17:14). With circumcision, the child and all his potential future generations are symbolically offered to the way of God.
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.313
Shem had managed to see – however dimly – in the authoritative relation of father and son an image of the relation of God and man, and therewith a pathway to the holy. In the experience of awe and reverence before paternal authority is the germ of awe and reverence for the divine. As the stance of Ham points downward to Canaanite paganism and depravity, so the stance of Shem points upward to the sacred and the holy.
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.214
The community of the committed became, ipso facto, a community of friends – not of neighbors or acquaintances. Friendship – not as a social surface-relation but as an existential in-depth-relation between two individuals – is realizable only within the framework of the covenantal community, where in-depth personalities relate themselves to each other ontologically and total commitment to God and fellow man is the order of the day. In the majestic community, in which surface personalities meet and commitment never exceeds the bounds of the utilitarian, we may find collegiality, neighborliness, civility, or courtesy – but not friendship, which is the exclusive experience awarded by God to covenantal man, who is thus redeemed from his agonizing solitude.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – The Lonely Man of Faith p.66