Throughout the years that Israel wandered in the wilderness, the Israelites did not circumcise their sons. Immediately upon the Children of Israel’s entry into Eretz Yisrael, God commanded Yehoshua to circumcise the sons.
“בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֗יא אָמַ֤ר יְקֹוָק֙ אֶל־יְהוֹשֻׁ֔עַ עֲשֵׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ חַֽרְב֣וֹת צֻרִ֑ים וְשׁ֛וּב מֹ֥ל אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שֵׁנִֽית”
At that time the Lord said to Yehoshua, “Make flint knives and again circumcise the Israelite men the second time.”
And Yehoshua carried out the command:
“וְאֶת־בְּנֵיהֶם֙ הֵקִ֣ים תַּחְתָּ֔ם אֹתָ֖ם מָ֣ל יְהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ כִּי־עֲרֵלִ֣ים הָי֔וּ כִּ֛י לֹא־מָ֥לוּ אוֹתָ֖ם בַּדָּֽרֶךְ”
Yehoshua raised up their sons in their place; it was these he circumcised. They were still uncircumcised, since they had not been circumcised along the way.
[ibid. posuk 7]
Based upon Chazals’ (our Sages’) comment, Rashi explains the reason the Israelites did not circumcise their sons “along the way” to the Promised Land was the fact that during the years of wandering in the desert the northerly wind, which facilitates recovery from circumcision, did not blow, hence there was an element of danger in performing circumcision.
Following the mass circumcision, God appeared to Yehoshua again, saying to him:
“וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקֹוָק֙ אֶל־יְהוֹשֻׁ֔עַ הַיּ֗וֹם גַּלּ֛וֹתִי אֶת־חֶרְפַּ֥ת מִצְרַ֖יִם מֵעֲלֵיכֶ֑ם”
“This day I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from you.”
[ibid. posuk 9]
Immediately thereafter, the Israelites offered the Paschal sacrifice at Gilgal on the fourteenth of Nissan. On the sixteenth of Nissan the Israelites stopped eating manna, which they had eaten during their forty years in the wilderness, and ate the produce of the Land after bringing the Omer offering.
Yehoshua stood at Jericho and saw a man with his sword drawn. Yehoshua asked the man if he had come to help Israel or its adversaries, to which the “man” replied that he is “the captain of the host of the Lord” and has come to assist in the conquest of Jericho, and he instructed Yehoshua to remove his shoe since he stood in a holy place.
Since the command to circumcise obviously applies only to those who were uncircumcised, why did God say to Yehoshua “Again circumcise the Israelite men the second time?”
Why specifically were the mitzvot of circumcision and Pesaḥ the first mitzvot to be performed by Israel after entering the Land?
Rashi provides two answers to the first question we raised – what is the meaning of “the second time?”
First, this was the second time in forty years that the Israelites circumcised their sons, the previous time being the night before the exodus from Egypt.
Second, Chazal (Our Sages) say “The second time” refers to p’riah (peeling off the epithelium to uncover the glans, following the removal of the foreskin), which had not been given to Abraham our father.”
Understanding Rashi’s First Explanation
According to Rashi’s first explanation, there is a direct connection between the circumcision of the Israelites prior to leaving Egypt and the circumcision upon entering the Land. What is the connection?
In Parashat Bo [Shemot (Exodus) 12:3ff.] we read God’s command to the Israelites to take a lamb for the Paschal offering and keep it for four days until the time they were to sacrifice it, the day before the exodus. Rashi comments, quoting Chazal:
“.. ומפני מה הקדים לקיחתו לשחיטתו ארבעה ימים מה שלא צוה כן בפסח דורות?
היה ר’ מתיא בן חרש אומר הרי הוא אומר (יחזקאל טז ח) ‘ואעבור עליך ואראך והנה עתך עת דודים’, הגיעה שבועה שנשבעתי לאברהם שאגאל את בניו ולא היו בידם מצות להתעסק בהם כדי שיגאלו, שנאמר (שם ז) ‘ואת ערום ועריה’, ונתן להם שתי מצות דם פסח ודם מילה, שמלו באותו הלילה, שנאמר (שם ו) ‘מתבוססת בדמיך’, בשני דמים, ואומר (זכרי’ ט יא) ‘גם את בדם בריתך שלחתי אסיריך מבור אין מים בו’, ולפי שהיו שטופים בעבודה זרה אמר להם (פסוק כא) ‘משכו וקחו לכם’, משכו ידיכם מעבודה זרה וקחו לכם צאן של מצוה:”
Why was (the lamb) to be taken four days before its slaughter, which is not required for the Paschal lambs of subsequent generations? Rabbi Matya ben Ḥarash used to say: God said “And I passed over you and saw you, and behold your time was the time of love.” [Ezekiel 16:8] “The time for fulfillment of My oath to Abraham to redeem his children has arrived, but the Israelites had no mitzvot in their hands with which to occupy themselves in order that they be redeemed”, as it says “But you were naked and bare.” [ibid. v.9] So he gave them two mitzvot, the blood of the Paschal lamb and the blood of circumcision, and they circumcised themselves that night, as the verse says “downtrodden in your blood (the Hebrew is plural),” [v.6] with two types of blood. As well, He said “As for you, because of the blood of your covenant, I will release your prisoners from the waterless cistern.” [Zachariah 9:11] Since the Israelites were steeped in idolatry, He said to them “Withdraw and take for yourselves – withdraw from idolatry and take sheep for the mitzva.”
[Rashi, Shemot 12:6]
Why were these two mitzvot chosen as the ones which provided Israel with the merit to be redeemed? We may ask further, since the Forefathers had been promised by God that their descendants will be redeemed from their subjugation, why was it necessary for the Israelites to perform mitzvot in order to merit redemption?
The answer is that in order to actually receive that which was promised the forefathers, it is necessary for the Children of Israel to act in a manner which connects them to the deeds of the forefathers. Thus, for the Children of Israel to be able to realize God’s promise to Avraham, it was necessary for them to perform deeds similar to those he had done, such as circumcision and self-sacrifice (lambs were an Egyptian divinity and taking a lamb as the Paschal offering in Egypt involved a real danger, and therefore it demonstrated self-sacrifice).
As well, in entering Eretz Yisrael, the Children of Israel’s circumcision and offering the Paschal lamb demonstrated that they acted in the same manner as the Forefathers and were therefore worthy of the fulfillment of the Divine promise to the fathers of inheriting the Land.
When Avraham was given the command to circumcise himself, God said to him:
“וְאֶתְּנָה בְרִיתִי בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ וְאַרְבֶּה אוֹתְךָ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד.. וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֵת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ אֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים… זֹאת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּ בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ הִמּוֹל לָכֶם כָּל זָכָר”
And I will place My covenant between Me and between you, and I will multiply you very greatly… And I will give you and your offspring after you the Land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God… This is My covenant, which you are to keep, between Me and you and your offspring after you: Every one of your males must be circumcised.
[Bereishit (Genesis) 17:2,8,10]
Rashi comments: “ואתנה בריתי – ברית של אהבה וברית הארץ להורישה לך על ידי מצוה זו” (“I will place My covenant” – “a covenant of love and a covenant of the Land, that it will be inherited by virtue of this mitzva”).
In addition to performing the mitzva of circumcision, the Israelites prepared the Paschal sacrifice, which symbolizes acceptance of the Holy One, blessed be He, as God.
Thus, by virtue of performing these two mitzvot, the Children of Israel were worthy of receiving Eretz Yisrael, God’s Land.
It is now clear why, in his words to Yehoshua, God said the circumcision of the Israelites is “the second time.” This circumcision had the same effect of connecting to the Divine promise to the Forefathers as did the circumcision prior to the exodus.
Understanding Rashi’s Second Explanation
Based upon Rashi’s second explanation, there was, indeed, a novel aspect of the mass circumcision at Gilgal. The circumcision in Egypt did not require p’riah, while at Gilgal Yehoshua was instructed to include it as part of the circumcision. Thus, “the second time” teaches that those who were circumcised in Egypt must now complete their circumcision with p’riah.
Zohar [Parashat vaEra 22a] states that since the Children of Israel fulfill the mitzva of circumcision in the complete way, that is, with p’riah, their merit is greater than those who have been circumcised without p’riah.
In light of this, we can explain that since Avraham was told that inheriting the Land is dependent on circumcision, “If they fulfill the mitzva of mila, they will enter the Land, if not, they will not enter the Land,” [Midrash Breishit Rabba 46:9] we might assume that any nation whose males are circumcised has a claim to the Land; however, since their circumcision lacks p’riah, it is incomplete, and they are not worthy of receiving the Land. Therefore, upon entering the Land, the Children of Israel were commanded to complete the act of circumcision and perform p’riah, in order to merit not only inheriting the Land, but being able to build her up, to be established and to flourish within her.
Similarly, through fulfilling the mitzva of the Paschal offering, the Children of Israel highlighted their unique connection to God and were thereby worthy of inheriting the Land.
Connection to the Deeds of the Fathers in Our Times
As the generation of the exodus was required to perform mila and to offer the Paschal lamb as a reminder of the deeds of the Forefathers and to arouse and to connect to their merit in order to be worthy of redemption from Egypt, so the generation which entered the Land was required to do mila and offer the Paschal lamb to arouse and to connect to the merit of the Forefathers in order to inherit and settle the Land. We, as well, must act in the manner of the fathers to merit greater Divine assistance in our return to and rebuilding of the Land; acts such as aliya, despite the difficulties of leaving one’s home and family, connect to and arouse the merit of Avraham, who withstood the test of leaving his home and his family to come to Eretz Yisrael. As well, acts of self-sacrifice in building up the Land and settling her arouse the merit of the fathers and will facilitate our hold on Eretz Yisrael, despite the difficulties.