Friday, June 20, 2008


Parashas Shelach

Shelach lecha anashim veyasuru es eretz k’naan asher ani nosen l’vnei yisrael, ish echad, ish echad l’mateh avosav tishlachu, kol nasi bahem … send out men for yourself and they will explore the land of k’naan that I am giving to the children of Israel, one man for each tribe, each of them a person of high rank (Bamidbar 13:1)

The tragedy of the spies is well known; their malicious report resulted in an entire generation being denied entry into the Land of Israel. Many of the commentaries go to great length in examining the precise sin for which the spies were guilty. The Torah only tells us that they were motzi dibas ha-aretz – they spoke badly about the land. The Torah does not specify what that evil speech embodied. Some suggest that they were guilty of exaggeration; they described the country as eretz ochelet yoshveha – a nation that devours its residents. Others maintain that they needlessly frightened the people – telling them that the inhabitants of the land are anshei midos – people of giant proportions.

Both of these approaches seem to be somewhat deficient and it would be hard to categorize either description of the land as being malicious lashon hara, for their report was essentially true. The land did devour its inhabitants. The seven nations dwelling there were being uprooted by the Jews who were to replace them as masters of this land. Why? Because their decadence made them unworthy of inhabiting the land. Hashem had destroyed Sodom and Amorah for having lived liscentiously in the platrin shel melech – the palace of the king – and the Emorites and their fellow tribes had continued this kind of immoral behavior and were also being punished with banishment.

Moreover, it was true that the land was inhabited by anshei midos. The spies did not lie when they reported seeing the giants of Chevron. When they returned to the encampment, they brought with them a cluster of grapes so large that it took two people to carry it – another sign of the grotesque proportions that were common in the land.

The punishment also seems to be somewhat out of character. The spies, in convincing the people that it would be dangerous to try and capture the land, were guilty of leading an insurrection against G-d. Hashem had promised that the nation would go up to the land and they claimed that it would be impossible, efes ki az ha’am – the nation [dwelling there] is too strong and cunning! The ten spies are struck down for their blasphemy. They are devoured by a Divine plague, but not because they challenged G-d’s ability or His intention to keep His promise? Vayamusu ha-anashim motzei dibas ha-aretz ra’ah b’magefah … and the men who had given an evil report about the land died in a plague (ibid. :37) – the plague was a result of their having spoken lashon hara about the land. Not the sin of convincing the nation to deny its manifest destiny, nor the sin of fomenting a revolution against G-d.

And the people, who are guilty of joining with the spies and demanding to go back to Egypt and free themselves of their Divine mission accepted at Sinai, how are they punished? A plague, a fire from Heaven? No! They die a natural death over the next forty years and are not permitted to enter the land. True it is a punishment – tantamount to forbidding a child who has misbehaved from participating in some event. It appears to be no more than a slap on the wrist for a people who declared that they had no desire to go up to the land.

Perhaps we might offer another suggestion. The message of the spies report was not that it was beyond God’s ability to conquer the mighty nations of Canaan. They were the leaders of the generation, do you really think that they denied that God could do it if He so willed? Remember, we are dealing here with the dor de’ah – the generation that had witnessed the revelation at Sinai. But they also knew that the Divine will was inextricably linked to the spiritual level of the people which was anything but attractive at this juncture.

The spies honestly believed that the people were not on a level that would bring the requisite Divine intervention. They needed to go back to Egypt, to begin the entire Exodus process again, for they were still influenced by their years of slavery and had not yet become truly free of Egypt. And what was wrong with the spies’ analysis? They underestimated the ability of the Land of Israel to change the nature of the people. They did not realize what an effect entering the land would have, how it could transform a group of chronic complainers into a nation untied in seeking kirvat Elokim. Woe to the leaders who underestimate the ability of their people.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Parashas Beha’aloscha

Vayehi ha’am k’misonenim, ra b’aznei Hashem ... v’ha’asafsuf asher b’kirbo hisavu ta’avah ... vayomru mi ya’achilenu basar ... v’ata nafshenu yevaisha ein kol bilti el haman einenu ... And the people complained which was evil in the ears of Hashem ... and the rabble that was in their midst had a great desire and they said, who will feed us meat ... for now our bodies are dried up, there is nothing to look forward to but manna (Bamidbar 11:1-6)

The Torah does not specify what the complaint was of those who it categorizes as being k’misonenim, unlike the asafsuf - rabble - mentioned in pasuk 6, who complained that their diet in the desert was boring and consisted only of manna. There is a disagreement among the Sages as to who these people were; one school maintains that they were the erev rav, the stragglers who joined bnei yisrael at the time of the Exodus. The other school maintains that they were ketzinim - officers or people of noble birth. In either case, the simple peshat would seem to indicate that they did no more than raise a general complaint but found nothing specifically wrong. Nevertheless, they are severely punished by a Divine flame that burns them to death. Why is their punishment so severe and why are their complaints categorized as being ra b’aznei Hashem - evil in the ear of G-d? Is the sin of the asafsuf who denigrated the miracle of the manna not far more serious? Yet, these ingrates have their desires fulfilled - or in reality, overfilled - while those who simply kvetched in general are burned to death!

Moshe’s reaction to the complaints about the lack of meat also seems to be out of proportion. When he returned from Sinai and found the nation dancing around the golden calf, he was angry. However, he did not try to abdicate from his role as leader of the people, asking G-d how he could be expected to satisfy the needs of the people. On the contrary, he demonstrated his leadership by eradicating those guilty of sin while at the same time pleading with G-d not to destroy the nation as a whole. But in the case of the asafsuf, on the other hand, we find no defense pleas or remonstrations that Hashem not strike down the nation. On the contrary, Moshe himself complains to G-d, asking why he has been given this unmanageable task of leadership.

It would seem that the sin of the misonenim is similar to the sin of the golden calf and is therefore considered - unlike other sins - to be evil in G-d’s ear and especially grievous. Man’s transgressions are most often driven by an inability to conquer a desire. They do not necessarily connote a rebellion against G-d, but a weakness that man cannot overcome. As serious as such sin might be, it is something that can be fixed and therefore does not necessarily raise G-d’s ire.

But then there are sins that are a result of man’s complacency and his desire to live life without G-d. He lacks nothing, has no desires but nevertheless complains. In truth, he understands that G-d has provided for his needs and that is what he resents most, for he realizes that he is now obligated. He kvetches because he is uncomfortable with his dependency, wishing as it were that G-d would simply leave him alone. This is the worst kind of rebellion against G-d - not because of the complaining, but because man seeks to separate himself from the Divine.

Note that the pasuk uses an expression that we rarely find. The kvetching of the misonenim is described as ra b’aznei Hashem - G-d's ears - rather than the familiar einei Hashem - G-d’s eyes. The difference between the eyes and the ears is that the former interprets what actually exists - you cannot see something that is invisible. Thus, when dealing with the tangible world, the Torah refers to einei Hashem as, for example, when describing the Divine providence present in Eretz Yisrael. However, aznei Hashem refers to what can be heard or learned from what has been said. The people thought that they were complaining, but G-d heard much more. He understood that their kvetching was an insidious form of rebellion.

Moshe, on the other hand, had a human perspective and did not hear that which was between the lines of the complaining people. On the contrary, in his opinion, those who desired meat and were nostalgic about how good it was back in Egypt, were almost beyond the pale and he did not know how he could possibly relate to them. Thus, he complained to Hashem, speculating how he could be expected to cope with a group of people who had absolutely no appreciation for the miracles that G-d had done for them.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Parashas Naso

Ish o ishah ki yafli l’ndor neder nazir ... if a man or woman shall take upon themselves a vow of nezirus (Bamidbar 6:2)

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments that the parashah of the nazir is juxtaposed to the parashah of sotah - the woman suspected of adultery - to teach us that one who sees a sotah in her state of disgrace [i.e., after she drinks the waters which prove her guilt] should swear off wine [i.e., accept the vow of nezirus], for it is wine that brought her to commit adultery.

The comment is somewhat difficult to understand, for the status of the nazir is enigmatic to say the least. On the one hand he [or she] is referred to as a kadosh - a holy or sanctified person - by virtue of his having undertaken a vow of isolation from the community. He is not to shave to demonstrate that he has no regard for social conventions. He is forbidden to come into contact with tumah to show that he is seeking a more spiritual kind of existence and desires kirvas Elokim - closeness to G-d - which is unattainable when one deals with ritual impurity [tumah]. He foreswears the fruit of the vine, for wine can be a substitute for spirituality [see commentary of Netziv to Shir ha-Shirim].

On the other hand, the nazir, at the end of his period of nezirus, must bring a korban chatos - a sin offering - for the Torah is critical of his having given up on society and on the pleasures that G-d has granted man in this world. Celibacy and living like a monk are not Jewish values, for G-d has commanded us to elevate the material into the spiritual. We recite a berachah before eating to show that we recognize that everything has G-dliness in it. We recite asher yatzar when we relieve ourselves to indicate that even the most mundane acts can have spiritual meaning.

My rebbi once explained that one can be both a kadosh - a holy person - and a choteh - a sinner - at the same time. The nazir, he explained, recognizes his weakness. He knows that unlike others, he does not have the fortitude or strength to resist sin. He therefore separates himself, sacrificing some of the good that G-d intended him. True this is a sin, but it comes from an honest, albeit mistaken personal assessment and is therefore atoneable. Every person can avoid sin, no matter how weak he thinks he is. Note that the nazir brings a chatos - a sacrifice that is offered for sins committed b’shogeg - inadvertently. Had accepting nezirus been a true sin, there would be no atonement, for sins committed b’meizid - with full intent - have no korban.

The Midrash comments that one who sees the sotah in her state of disgrace should foreswear wine. Note that the Midrash refers to her state of disgrace. If anything, the miraculous process of the sotah should be a source of strengthening a person. We have a situation where a man suspects his wife of adultery but has no means of proving whether or not she is guilty. The trust between them is tenuous at best and he therefore brings her to the kohen who is the only person who can determine the truth. Based on the results of her drinking the potion that the kohen provides, we will find out what really happened. If she is innocent then she will be blessed with children. But if she is guilty, her body will explode and all will know of her infidelity.

People are standing by, waiting to see what will transpire. The entire ceremony is degrading, especially if she is innocent of the charge. This is the point of sotah b’kilkulah - the sotah at her time of disgrace; not later when her stomach and loins have collapsed, but now when she stands before the kohen. Only she knows whether or not she has committed adultery. She can stop the entire process simply by admitting the truth. She will not have to drink the potion, she will not be subject to the death penalty because there are no witnesses. Her husband will divorce her, but she will remain alive.

But she says nothing, somehow believing that nothing will happen to her. One bystander, more sensitive than most, is cognizant of his own weakness. He understands how hard it is not to sin, he knows how weak he is. The others present see only the miracle. He sees how sin - or even the suspicion of sin - degrades man and he therefore decides that he can only save himself by accepting nezirus. Wine can bring man close to G-d by releasing the inhibitions that often prevent him from expressing his spirituality. But that same wine can also serve as a cover for the truth and it takes a kadosh - a person who is inherently holy - to realize what it does to him.

Friday, May 30, 2008


Parashas Bamidbar

V’halevi’im yachanu saviv l’mishkan ha’eidus ... and the Levi’im shall encamp around the tabernacle of testimony (Bamidbar 1:53)
Vayedaber Hasaehm el Moshe v’Aharon leimor. Ish al diglo, b’osos l’beis avosam, yachanu b’nei Yisrael mineged, saviv l’ohel moed yachanu ... and Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying. Every person under his flag, with signs according to their paternal households, the children of Israel shall encamp, around the the tent of meeting they shall encamp (ibid. 2:1-2)

Rav Hirsch points out that this seemingly simple set of commands contains a number of elements that deserve consideration. The first command, the instructions to the tribe of Levi to separate themselves from the rest of the nation and encamp around the tabernacle, was given to Moshe alone [see 1:48] whereas the parallel command to the rest of the nation to encamp on all sides of the mishkan was delivered to Moshe and Aharon [see 2:1]. Additionally, the command to the tribe of Levi instructing them to make their encampment as a buffer between the people and the holy area refers to the place as mishkan ha-eidus - the tabernacle of testimony. The command to bnei Yisrael, on the other hand, instructing them to place their tents around this area so as to serve as a front line of defense, refers to the place as ohel moed - the tent of meeting. Obviously, there must be significance in a] adding Aharon and b] using different terms to refer to the same place.

Rav Hirsch explains that the Torah differentiates between instructions that were given as a means of creating the fabric of Jewish life and those laws that were more philosophical in nature and therefore required more instruction. The separation of the tribe of Levi from the rest of the nation was evidenced in two ways. They enjoyed an elevated status [they were supported by ma’aser and in the case of the kohen section of the tribe were subject to additional laws pertaining to their requirement to be kodesh - e.g., tumah and the specific laws as to who they were permitted to marry] and they were not to be part of the encampment of the other tribes. This type of command is given to Moshe alone, for it is given to create a fact of Jewish life and does not need to be explained. The division of the tribes into separate camps, however, and the decision as to the makeup of these four camps, entailed further instruction and elucidation. Surely the tribes would ask why they were paired with each other and there would always be contention. Moreover, the very division of the people into separate camps would seem to be questionable. At Har Sinai the people had encamped as one nation - k’ish echad im lev echad - like a single person with a single heart. And now they were being divided into separate encampments based on tribal and familial divisions, hardly a recipe for the creation of a united nation. This change required the assistance of Aharon, who together with Moshe could instruct the people as to the importance of separate but equal encampments.

This might explain the change from mishkan ha-edus used in regard to the levi’im and ohel moed when speaking to bnei Yisrael. The Tabernacle served a dual role - it was both the unifying factor for the people, the common denominator that united them as a people, as well as the repository of the luchos which testified to the unique role of am Yisrael among the nations as recipient of the Torah. As long as the entire nation encamped around the Tabernacle, they demonstrated that despite individual differences, they viewed themselves as a people with a shared destiny. In this regard it was the ohel moed - the tent of meeting - for it was there that the different factions met to be instructed in the law that bound them all. As pertains to the levi’im, however, it was mishkan ha-edut - the place of restricted access - for it was here that the document - the luchos - that set am Yisrael apart from the other nations was stored. Access to the repository of am Yisrael’s contract of separation was severely restricted [see 1:53] and was guarded by the levi’im - the tribe that had been separated from the others.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetski, zt”l, adds an interesting observation in this connection. Why, he asks, was the division of am Yisrael into separate encampments delayed until after the revelation at Sinai. If the optimal way of life for the nation is division into separate units so as to preserve the unique characteristics and traits of the individual rather than establishing a single nation, should this not have taken place before Sinai? Haven’t we been taught that am Yisrael is meant to be a confederation of individual tribes, each making their separate contribution to the nation, while at the same time maintaining their unique character traits [see Yaakov’s berachos at the end of Bereishis].

Rav Yaakov answers that the preservation of the individuality of am Yisrael is only possible if they share an eternal mission. Once they are united in a common cause, they can go about accomplishing their manifest destiny in the manner that suits them best. They can add their own nuances and flavorings once the commonality of purpose - the fulfillment of Torah and mitzvos - is agreed upon by all, at the same time and with the same level of acceptance.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Parashat Bechukosai

Im bechukosai tailaichu v’es mitzvosai tishmeru v’asisem osam ... If you will walk in my strictures and observe my mitzvos and perform them (Vayikra 26:3)

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, remarks that the phrase im bechukosai tailaichu teaches us that one must be an amal baTorah - literally, work in Torah, but more understandable as constant Torah study (see Ohr ha-Chaim). Sifsei Chachamim explains that the verb tailaichu - to walk - is not what one might have expected the Torah to use in this context. Usually, when we find a dictate to follow mitzvos, the expression used is tishmeru - observe - or ta’asu - fulfill - and indeed, these verbs are both used in the pasuk’s second phrase. Tailaichu, on the other hand, implies an obligation to making the chukim man’s weltaunschaung; i.e., the path of life that identifies his persona. Since the chukim are strictures of which we have no explanation and no understanding, they can only become the lifestyle of man if he constantly studies them. Man’s nature is to question and to try to find meaning in everything that he does; hence, cursory observance of the chukim will never make them the definitive expression of the way that he lives. It is only through constant “toil in Torah” - true amailus - that this can occur.

There is perhaps nothing more difficult to explain to students than the concept of ameilus baTorah. In all honesty, are there not many of us who are bored and distracted when we try to learn? Try as a rebbi might to make his shiurim relevant and contemporary, he is still faced with an uphill battle and often loses. How often is he confronted by sleepy faces and yawns and frustrated by his inability to penetrate the fog that descends when he begins to teach? I used to tell my students that if they had any entreprenurial sense, they would tape my classes and sell them to insomniacs!

Talmidim can well understand the concept of Torah study as being important historically. We would not have continued to exist as a nation without the battei midrash and yeshivot that served as klal Yisrael’s link to Hashem in the aftermath of the churban. However, it is extraordinarily difficult to help them translate that understanding - and the sincere desire to fulfill their obligations - into concrete methods that will bring them success. I well remember sitting in the beit midrash yawning and the mashgiach coming over to me and asking “what’s wrong?" I told him that I had no cheishek to learn, whereupon he responded, “so learn without cheishek!”

At the time I was annoyed by what I considered a flippant and uncaring response. It took me quite awhile to understand what he was trying to teach me. No fighter enjoys the grueling training that he undergoes to prepare for a fight. However, he knows that he must continue running and jumping rope even when his legs ache and he is fighting for breath. He sacrifices the present for the promise of the future and the more he trains, the more he realizes that he must continue. Everyday is a new challenge to do more than he did previously. Every weight that he lifts goads him on to add another disc to the barbell. He sweats and wheezes because he knows there is no other way.

It is the chukim specifically that create a Torah lifestyle, for their fulfillment demonstrates our loyalty to G-d; loyalty that is not a result of our understanding or logic but, rather, based on our willingness to subjugate ourselves to G-d and His strictures. That willingness only comes through ameilus baTorah, constant study and toil in Torah even when one has no cheishek. They are our personal training program and come to describe who we really are.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Parashas Emor

Kedoshim yihyu lai’elokaihem ... and they shall be consecrated to their G-d (Vayikra 21:6)

Ramban notes that the obligation of the kohanim referred to here parallels the requirement that was delineated in the first pesukim of parashas Kedoshim which was incumbent on the entire nation. Just as there the admonition was to separate from that which would otherwise be permitted, so too here the kohen is required to accept another level of separations; e.g., he is required to refrain from coming into contact with the dead and to accept another layer of forbidden marital relationships above that required of all other Jews.

Ramban’s comments are somewhat difficult to understand, for in the case of the kohanim, the steps or actions necessary to reach kedushah are mandatory, whereas in his opinion (see parashas Kedoshim), the parallel level of kedushah that the Torah suggests that every Jew aspire to are made up of voluntary actions; i.e., perishus - separating oneself by choice from that which would otherwise be permitted.

Moreover, the Torah clearly specifies - as Ramban notes - the steps necessary for a kohen to achieve kedushah. He must not defile himself by coming into contact with a corpse other than specified close relatives (21:1), he may not shave his entire head or cut himself as a sign of mourning (:5), and he may not marry a zonah, chalalah or a divorced women (:7). The kohen gadol, by virtue of his elevated status, is also forbidden to allow his hair to grow or to rent his clothing as a sign of mourning (:10), come into contact with any corpse (:11), or marry a widow (:14). If we take the kedushah of am yisrael to be parallel to that of the kohanim, albeit on a lower level, should one not expect that the laws delineated after the Torah’s mention of kedushah of am yisrael would call for a level of separation. For example, would it not be logical to place the laws of kashrus, or the laws of not following in the practices of the nations (18:3) in juxtaposition to the requirement to be kadosh, since these are the type of separations that might parallel the separations of the kohen and make us distinct?

Furthermore, as we have already noted in our comments to parashas Kedoshim, many of the mitzvos delineated there are unrelated to rituals. The portion immediately adjacent to the admonition of being kadosh teaches the laws of tzedakah (19:9-10), thievery, denial and lying (:11), swearing falsely (:12), not paying an employee on time (:13), misleading people (:14) as well as many other interpersonal mitzvos. In what manner are these mitzvos connected to achieving a level of kedushah?

I would like to suggest that there are two levels of kedushah referred to in these parshiyos - one individual and one communal. Parashas Kedoshim deals with the latter, and as such the mitzvos taught there reflect a standard wherein all of the community accepts a level of behavior that reflects a commitment to the public welfare at the expense of furthering individual agendas. For example, the laws of leaving the portions for the poor, teach man that tzedakah is not an act of voluntary sympathy, but rather an obligation. I must pay my employee on time because I have to understand that when a person is dependent upon me, I have obligations to them. The mitzvos in Kedoshim are chosen to create an attitude where the individual understands his obligation to the klal and makes his choices in life accordingly.

It is only when that mind frame is created that one can go on to the next level of kedushah, creating special laws for individuals. The extra level of sanctity demanded of the kohen is only possible once the klal as a whole has inculcated the concepts of community responsibility that the Torah teaches in Kedoshim. Man cannot hope to achieve the level of sanctity demanded of a kohen if he is deficient in his relationships with other men. Thus, man can only be sanctified by the avoidance of tumah, if he has first accepted the avoidance of lashon hara (:16) and of standing by watching his neighbor suffer (ibid.). The kohen who has not yet accepted the responsibility of admonishing his fellow Jew so as to help him avoid further sin (:17) can not successfully offer karbanos as a means of bringing that man atonement.

A note to us as educators: then Torah first speaks of the kedushah of the community and only then goes on to the kedushah of the individual. Perhaps we would do well in emulating this order when setting priorities in our schools and invest a little bit more in teaching those mitzvos which may be bein adam lechaveiro but bring us to kedushas haklal.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Parashas Tazria

Uvayom ha-Shemini yimol b’sar orlaso ... on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised (Shemos 12:3). The Talmud [Shabbos 132a] derives from the seemingly redundant use of the word day [the verse could have said simply on the eighth] that the mitzvah of circumcision overrides the prohibition of inflicting a wound on Shabbos.

The Talmud elsewhere declares that a mumar l’chalel Shabbos - one who willfully desecrates the Shabbos - is considered to be a mumar l’kol ha-Torah kulo - one who would willfully desecrate the entire Torah. Observance of Shabbos has always been the standard against which a Jew was judged regarding his conformity to halachic requirements. The stringencies regarding Shabbos observance are well known; the Talmud only permits violating Shabbos law for a person suffering from a life-threatening illness or situation [pikuach nefesh] because it logically concludes that it is preferable to allow him [the person threatened] to desecrate one Shabbos so that he might fulfill many Shabbosos. Whereas the general leniency that prevails in a pikuach nefesh situation is based on a derivation from a pasuk [vechai bahem v’lo sheyamus bahem - he shall live by them (mitzvos) and not perish because of them] - the Talmud did not seem to find this to be sufficient cause to put aside the laws of Shabbos. Thus, it is somewhat difficult to understand why the mitzvah of milah - overrides Shabbos. Why not postpone circumcision until Sunday when the eighth day falls on Shabbos?

We might be tempted to suggest that the importance of milah is the fact that it is this act that most clearly identifies a person as being part of the Jewish nation. Indeed, circumcision is one of only two mitzvos aseh - positive mitzvos - punishable by kares! We find that an orel - a non-circumcised Jew - is not permitted to partake of the korban Pesach - the sacrifice most clearly connected to Jewish peoplehood. We might suggest that just as the Talmud rules that a non-Jew is subject to capital punishment for observing Shabbos, so too the orel must be circumcised - even on Shabbos - so as not to be culpable of non-sanctioned Shabbos observance.

In truth, however, this is not really a valid solution to our question, for the halachah teaches that if there is a medical reason [e.g., jaundice] to refrain from circumcising on the eighth day, milah does not override Shabbos. For example, if the eighth day fell on a Friday and medical considerations precluded circumcising the child on that day, we would wait until Sunday to perform the ceremony since milah she’lo bizmano eino docheh Shabbos - milah performed not at the specified time does not override Shabbos. Similarly, if there is a question as to whether the baby was born on Friday or Shabbos [e.g., if the birth took place bein hashmashos - between sunset and the beginning of night - on Friday], the circumcision would be delayed until Sunday. It could not be done on Friday, for it is possible that the baby is only seven days old. It cannot be performed on Shabbos, because if we consider the baby to have been born on Friday, he is nine days old on Shabbos and milah performed not at the specified time does not override Shabbos.

Both Shabbos and milah are referred to as os - a sign - signifying the special relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. We also find that tefillin are referred to as an os. Interestingly, the os of tefillin does not override Shabbos, i.e., we do not lay tefillin on Shabbos since we already have an os [of Shabbos]. Why not say the same thing as regards milah; i.e., since Shabbos is already an os there is no reason why the os of circumcision should override it.

I would like to suggest that the os of milah is composed of two distinct components. On the one hand, milah represents a physical sign that we make in our bodies to demonstrate that we consider ourselves to be part of the covenant of Avraham, with all of the attendant restrictions and benefits. That part of the os of milah would not override Shabbos, just as the os of tefillin is set aside for Shabbos. Our observance of Shabbos itself is the ultimate evidence of our acceptance of our unique relationship with G-d and, indeed, a non-Jew who observes Shabbos is liable to the death penalty because he is assuming a covenantal relationship that does not exist.

At the same time, milah has a second os component. The Talmud [Shabbos 135a] explains that milah is done on the eighth day as an indication of the woman’s returning to a state of ritual purity after childbirth. The Torah rules that when a woman gives birth to a boy, she is tamei for seven days and milah is done on the eighth. But if a woman gave birth through Caesarian section, the child’s milah would not be performed on Shabbos, since she never became tamei. Similarly, if the milah is done after the eighth, it does not override Shabbos, since it does come to demonstrate her release from her state of ritual impurity.

While the os of Shabbos observance is greater than the os of tefillin or of the act of circumcision and is therefore not discarded, the separate os of milah that comes to signify the ascension from tumah to taharah does not find expression in Shabbos and it is for this reason that only milah on the eighth day, when we actually celebrate the mother’s ascension, overrides Shabbos.