Nedarim 32

Perfectly imperfect.

One of the most universally observed commandments in Jewish tradition is the mitzvah of circumcision. In the mishnah at the bottom of yesterday’s daf, sage after sage waxes poetic about why circumcision is so great. 

On today’s daf, the Gemara continues this discussion by sharing a number of stories about Abraham, considered the first Jew and the first to observe the covenant of circumcision, or brit milah

It is taught: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: Great is circumcision, for there is no one who was engaged in mitzvot like Abraham our Patriarch, and he was called perfect (tamim) only due to circumcision, as it is stated: “Walk before Me and you should be perfect” (Genesis 17:1), and it is written: “And I will make My covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:2). 

In this teaching, the nature of circumcision is something of a paradox. The removal of the foreskin renders a person perfect, the Hebrew word tamim being variously translated as perfect, complete, whole or upright. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi points out that Abraham was not called tamim until he fulfilled the commandment of circumcision. 

Did Abraham sense that something was incomplete prior to his circumcision? Maybe so:

Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Abraham our Patriarch: “Walk before Me and you should be perfect” (Genesis 17:1), trembling seized him, and he said: Perhaps there is something disgraceful about me. When God said to him: “And I will make My covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:2), his mind was set at ease.

Here, Abraham is credited as sensing something amiss, worrying that he might have sinned and was therefore unworthy of a covenant with God. Once God explained that what he lacked was the covenant of circumcision, Abraham’s worry ceased. 

Having corrected that issue, a further point is brought on the matter of perfection. 

Rabbi Hoshaya said: Anyone who acts perfectly, time will stand for him (i.e. he will be successful), as it is stated: “Walk before Me and you should be perfect” (Genesis 17:1), and it is written: “And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4).

It’s only after Abraham is given the commandment to render himself perfect through the act of circumcision that God deems him fit to be the progenitor of nations, the promise that God makes next. But as we all know, no one is truly perfect, Abraham included, as this final passage relates:

Rabbi Abbahu said that Rabbi Elazar said: For what reason was Abraham our Patriarch punished and his children enslaved to Egypt for 210 years? Because he made a draft of Torah scholars, as it is stated: “He led forth his trained men, born in his house” (Genesis 14:14).

Why, if Abraham was so perfect, were his descendants ultimately enslaved in Egypt? Returning as ever to one of the central themes of the Talmud, the sages suggest that when it came time for Abraham to raise an army to fight against the neighboring kingdoms, he drafted young men from his own community and paid them to fight. And what was so wrong about that? The Talmud has an answer: Those young men would have otherwise been studying Torah. 

What are we to learn from these seemingly disparate stories? It seems to me that the rabbis are grappling to understand both Abraham the individual and Abraham the patriarch whose relationship with God initiates the Jewish people’s eternal covenant with the Divine. While the first step (for male Jews, at least) is to become whole through circumcision, that’s just the beginning. What comes next are the choices which can either deepen or erode one’s relationship with God. 

To the rabbis, Torah is central to that relationship. Keeping others from Torah study (anachronistic as this notion might seem in Abraham’s time, long before the Torah was actually given) appeals to the rabbis as a reason why such a seemingly perfect person might, in fact, be punished for making imperfect decisions. 

Read all of Nedarim 32 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 26th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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