And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac at the age of eight days, as G-d had commanded him.
Two ladies walk toward each other. How do you know which is superior to the other? When one steps aside for the other, you know that the one for whom the other has stepped aside is of a higher standing… Similarly, Shabbat is equivalent to all the mitzvot of the Torah put together. Yet the mitzvah of circumcision supersedes it.
Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 3:9
We live in a binary world: a world in which every object has a positive and a negative pole, a world in which every force has an active and latent mode, a world whose defining logic is built on two fundamental possibilities—“yes” and “no.”
The mitzvot (divine commandments) of the Torah are also cast in this dual mold. The mitzvot fall under two general categories: the positive commandments (mitzvot assei), which spell out the activities that G-d desires that we do (giving charity, putting on tefillin, etc.); and the prohibitions (mitzvot lo ta’aseh), which spell out the activities that G-d desires that we not do (theft, mixing meat with milk, etc.).
The Torah is not merely adapting itself to the nature of the lives it instructs. Indeed, since Torah is “G-d’s blueprint for creation,” the very opposite is true: because the divine will includes both positive and negative elements, the universe that came into being to implement this will is also polarized by the positive and negative, by the active and passive.
Why a World?
G-d’s purpose in creation, say our sages, is that “He desired to have a dwelling place in the lowly realms.” Before G-d’s creation of reality, there was obviously nothing to hinder or obscure His exclusive being. There were no “lowly realms”–no realities distant from Him–as, indeed, there were no lofty realms-no creations aware of and subservient to Him. G-d desired to create a world, a reality distinct from His (at least in its own perception), that would rise above its own self-definition to a recognition of and receptiveness to His truth.
The lowest tier of this reality is the physical world, the most immanent, self-absorbed, and spiritually obtuse of them all. It is the material world, then, that is the focus of G-d’s creation, the arena in which His desire for a “dwelling place in the lowly realms” may be realized.
We make the world a “home” for G-d through our observance of the mitzvot. Whenever we enlist a physical resource or force to do a mitzvah (a piece of animal hide made into tefillin, flour and water baked as matzah for Passover, the human mind engaged in the study of Torah) we divest it of its corporeality and spiritual opaqueness and transform it into an instrument of divine will. Before the mitzvah, the physical object proclaimed, “I exist”; now it proclaims, “I exist to serve G-d.” Before the mitzvah, the physical object manifested the “lowliness” of the material; now it houses the divine, exhibiting a receptiveness and subservience to its Creator.
In the words of the Zohar, the 248 positive commandments of the Torah are the “organs of G-d.” In the human being, an organ is an instrument of the soul, a vehicle for the physical realization of its metaphysical properties. The soul might possess the potential for sight, but only via the eye can it physically see; it is the eye in which the soul’s faculty of sight resides and which facilitates its interaction with physical objects. The same is true of the ear, mouth, brain, heart, etc.—each organ and limb of the human body manifests another faculty or expression of the human soul. Hence the Zohar’s metaphoric description of the mitzvot as “organs” of G-d: it is via the mitzvot that the various expressions of the divine reality are manifested on the physical earth.
Obviously, there is more to the soul than what is manifested by its various organs, singly or collectively. The miracle of life is that flesh can serve as a conduit of spirit; still, there is a limit to how much of the spiritual self flesh can actualize. Physical life expresses but an iceberg tip of the depth and scope of the human soul. The same applies to the divine prototype after which man is modeled: while G-d decreed that something of His essence be present in every act of conformity with His will, there is more to the divine reality than what is embodied by the physical objects and actions of the mitzvot.
This is why, in addition to granting us the positive commandments, G-d also commanded us the prohibitions. Any human deed, no matter how noble or transcendent, is finite and equivocal; no act of man can capture the absoluteness, transcendence and infinity that is the hallmark of the Divine. The prohibition, however, implements the divine will not by doing, but by not doing, and as such, is not compromised by the deficiencies of the mortal deed. A non-act is absolute and unequivocal—there is no limit to the extent to which a person has not done something. By decreeing that a host of non-actions should constitute the fulfillment of His will, G-d has accorded us the ability to relate to His truth unencumbered by the limitations of human endeavor.
What then, one might ask, is the need for the positive commandments? If the purest, most perfect fulfillment of the divine will is the non-act of the mitzvat lo ta’aseh, why didn’t G-d make life a wholly passive affair—an exercise in abstinence?
The answer is as obvious as the question. A life devoted to the passive fulfillment of the divine will might well be free of the shortcomings of human endeavor, but it would also be devoid of its creativity and passion. G-d desired more than flawlessness from His creatures—indeed, the most flawless reality was the non-reality that preceded creation! So it was not perfection that G-d sought in creating a world, but the dynamic quest for perfection embarked on by a world populated by imperfect beings. It was not a spiritual world that G-d set out to create–no world could be more ethereal than the pre-creation nullity–but a corporeal, “lowly realm,” that would recreate itself as a dwelling for Him.
At the same time, He wished to provide this world with the potential for unadulterated contact with Him—a link to His quintessential truth that transcends the limitations of mortal activity. So in addition to the imperative to do, develop, transform and create, He also instructed us to desist, to abnegate desire and self in fulfillment of His will.
Hence the mitzvot assei and the mitzvot lo ta’aseh—a bi-columned Torah consisting of do’s and don’ts, a mandate for both active and passive relationship with G-d. Hence a world bisected by affirmative and negative, being and naught, dynamism and placidity.
The complementing functions of the mitzvat assei and the mitzvat lo ta’aseh are reflected in the paradox of their relative status in Torah law. On the one hand, the penalties prescribed by the Torah for the violation of prohibitions are far more severe than the punishment for neglecting the fulfillment of a positive commandment, reflecting the loftier nature of the lo ta’aseh. On the other hand, the law states that, as a rule, “a positive commandment takes precedence over a prohibition.” (For example, in certain circumstances, the observance of the mitzvah of tying tzitzit on a four-cornered garment requires the use of both wool and linen threads; the law is that the positive commandment of tzitzit takes precedence over the prohibition of shaatnez, which forbids the wearing of a garment made of wool and linen.) This reflects the fact that, as explained above, the world was not created for the purpose of man avoiding transgressions, but that he engage in the active endeavor of developing the world into a divine abode.
There is, however, a mitzvah that is endowed with both distinctions, possessing the loftiness of the lo ta’aseh as well as the assertiveness of the mitzvat assei: the mitzvah of circumcision. On the one hand, the failure to circumcise carries the penalty of karet, placing this mitzvah in the same category as the most severe prohibitions (e.g., eating or working on Yom Kippur). On the other hand, it is an active mitzvah, endowed with the positivity and potency of a mitzvat assei. In the mitzvah of circumcision, G-d, who transcends both the “yes” and the “no” of His creation, has combined the transcendence of the passive non-deed with the constructiveness of the active mitzvah.
The uniqueness of the mitzvah of circumcision is evidenced by the fact that it takes precedence over the mitzvah of Shabbat: if the eighth day of a child’s life falls on Shabbat, the circumcision is held on the holy day, despite the fact that the procedure constitutes a melachah (“work,” or constructive act), which would otherwise constitute a violation of Shabbat (see the talmudic passage quoted at the beginning of this essay). This goes beyond the rule that “a positive commandment takes precedence over a prohibition,” since to perform a circumcision on Shabbat we set aside both a negative and a positive commandment. The Torah commands the Jew, “Do not do any work” on Shabbat, making this an explicit prohibition, but it also commands, “On the seventh day you shall rest,” making the observance of Shabbat a positive deed, as well. So the rule that a prohibition is set aside in order to fulfill a positive commandment does not apply to Shabbat, since doing work on Shabbat not only violates a prohibition but also runs contrary to the active endeavor to rest.
Circumcision, however, is even more potent a mitzvah than Shabbat. By observing Shabbat we observe both a mitzvat assei and a mitzvat lo ta’aseh, but these are two separate mitzvot, each with its own distinct qualities. By resting on Shabbat, we achieve the constructive effect of a positive commandment, but this mitzvah also has the limitations of every mitzvat assei. By refraining from work on Shabbat, we observe the prohibition, “do not do any work,” accessing a dimension of union with G-d that is beyond the reach of the active mitzvah, but as a passive act, it is outside the realm of constructive achievement that defines the purpose of creation. Shabbat is special in that it includes both the assei and lo ta’aseh elements of the divine will, but it still falls short of actually capturing the loftiness of the lo ta’aseh with an active deed.
Therein lies the uniqueness of the mitzvah of circumcision, one of only two positive mitzvot (the other is the mitzvah of Korban Pesach) rated by the Torah on a par with the severest (and thus loftiest) of prohibitions. Here man has been empowered to do, and at the same time transcend, the limitations of human deed.
Based on a talk delivered by the Rebbe at a circumcision, II Adar 7, 5711 (March 15, 1951)
 Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 1:2
 Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 30.
 Talmud, Shabbat 132b, et al.
 The “cutting off” of a soul from her people—see Genesis 17:14.
 To “rest” is not merely to desist from work, but an active endeavor as well—see The Freedom to Passover, WIR vol. VI, no. 33.
 Hitvaaduyot, vol. II, pp. 279-280.