Rabbi Israel expounds upon this idea, explaining that this symbolizes the Jewish conception of God in the world in contrast to other cultures. In his words:
Hellenistic society did not approve of bodily mutilation. At the Olympics, it celebrated the beauty of nature exhibiting the naked body and its athletic abilities. Similarly, the Hellenists believed in fate, in the role of social class that God had assigned humans. This is the mindset of Turnus Rufus.
Rabbi Akiva responds: Wheat or bread? Flax or linen? In other words, the human role is not to accept fate and celebrate nature, but rather to transform and refine nature. The example of the umbilical cord takes this further: If anything, altering creation does not violate the laws of nature, but is in fact a basic obligation of existence, a critical element, perhaps, of nature itself.
Dr. Ido Hevroni comments on this Midrash:
“The … severance of the foreskin, the most impulsive organ of the human body, makes a clear statement: Man shares with God the ability to stand outside of and apart from nature. Man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. Man wants to change… the world.” (Circumcision as Rebellion. Azure 28)
The legacy of Abraham is to refine that which nature gives us.
Abraham and Sarah start their journey childless. Theirs is a journey of transformation: their names are changed, and their bodies are transformed - Abraham is circumcised and Sarah becomes fertile. Life is not about acceptance of fate, but rather transforming and refining the natural reality. Only once they internalize this idea are they blessed with a child.Upon reading this, I was put in mind of a quote from Ezekiel 16:6 which we say when we read the Passover Haggadah:
|ו וָאֶעֱבֹר עָלַיִךְ וָאֶרְאֵךְ, מִתְבּוֹסֶסֶת בְּדָמָיִךְ; וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי, וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי.||6 And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live;|
There are several different interpretations of this verse- some talk about the blood of circumcision and others of childbirth.
What I realized when reading Rabbi Alex Israel's approach is that very important parity is taking place in this scene.
Abraham and all his men must circumcise themselves, causing themselves harm and allowing blood of pain to flow from their reproductive organs...
and meanwhile, Sarah's womb will be healed and blood of creation will flow from her reproductive organs.
(In case you are wondering how I know that Sarah's menses had stopped, it's stated explicitly in Genesis 18:11-
|יא וְאַבְרָהָם וְשָׂרָה זְקֵנִים, בָּאִים בַּיָּמִים; חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה, אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים.||11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.--)|
I want to suggest that on some level (and this is not peshat), Abraham must circumcise himself (one type of bleeding) IN ORDER for Sarah's menses to resume (a different type of bleeding). There is some kind of spiritual causation or manifestation here, a kind of transference or balancing act. To some degree, it is the personal sacrifice of the male and his willingness to undergo pain that allows for the fertility of the female he cares for to come into effect. (To be clear, I am not suggesting that Abraham knew this would be the outcome of his choosing to observe the commandment- only that this is something we as the reader observe.)
(Assuming there is truth to what I am saying, it may explain why it is precisely circumcision that is used by Simeon and Levi against Shechem and his family. Shechem and his people circumcise themselves, arguably to become like the Hebrews and to be able to intermarry with them. But they will never truly be able to be like the Hebrews. Circumcision, seen in the light I have just explained it, is a way of the male saying that he is willing to cause pain to himself and allow his life blood to spill in order to allow his partner to experience the gift of creation and create life. In contrast, for Shechem, who violates and rapes Dina, to perform circumcision is a complete perversion of the act. He is not capable of doing something so selfless for his female partner- he has demonstrated that by abducting and raping her! Thus, it is fitting that the very act of circumcision causes his downfall...)
This type of balancing act- where there is a price to be paid, harm for the sake of healing, or pain for the sake of creation- is seen in other places throughout Tanakh. For example, at Mei Marah, Moses is instructed to throw a bitter branch into non-potable waters in order to turn them sweet. The prophet Elisha also performs a miracle like this- he puts salt into non-potable waters in order to turn them sweet (II Kings 2:19-22).
This idea feels unfinished to me, and if anyone has thoughts on how to expand it/ what meaning there might be in it, I welcome them...