In the beginning of Parashat Tazria, amidst its discussion of the laws relevant to a woman after childbirth, the Torah (12:3) briefly reiterates the command of berit mila – circumcising a boy on his eighth day of life. The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (132b) infers from this verse that circumcision must be performed even if a tzara’at infection is present on the foreskin. Normally, it is forbidden to surgically remove a piece of skin with a tzara’at infection instead of following the procedures which the Torah outlines later in Parashat Tazria regarding tzara’at. However, an exception is made if such an infection appears on the foreskin, in which case the foreskin is removed in fulfillment of the mitzva of berit mila.
Rav Eliezer Horowitz of Tarnogrod, in his Noam Megadim, suggests that this halakha symbolically conveys a meaningful lesson about people and their ability to change. The Torah on a number of occasions metaphorically depicts repentance and positive change as the “circumcision” of the heart. For example, Moshe admonishes in Sefer Devarim (10:16), “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and no longer stiffen your neck.” Similar to the image of a “stiff neck” – which refers to the refusal to “bend,” to change one’s habits or attitudes – the image of the “foreskin of the heart” describes the stubborn refusal to be impacted. When a person is impervious to change, it is as though a thick, protective layer covers his heart, shielding it from influence – much like the foreskin concealing the male organ. And thus the process of opening one’s mind to embrace new ideas or behaviors is allegorized as the “circumcision of the heart,” the removal of the “foreskin” which had previously protected the heart from being molded in any way. Likewise, later in Sefer Devarim (30:6), Moshe foresees the time in the future when “the Lord your God shall circumcise your heart and the heart of your children to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul…” – opening our hearts to be receptive to guidance, instruction and inspiration.
Tzara’at infections are commonly viewed as a punishment that would befall a person for the sin of lashon ha-ra – of speaking about people with arrogant disdain. The Noam Megadim sees tzara’at as a manifestation of hubris, of a feeling of superiority stemming from overconfidence. And on this basis, the Noam Megadim proposed a symbolic explanation of the halakha requiring circumcision even if the foreskin is afflicted by tzara’at. This halakha teaches that we are capable of “circumcising the heart” of even those stricken with “tzara’at” – with snobbery and arrogance. We might assume that when the “foreskin” covering a person’s heart is afflicted with “tzara’at” – hubris and conceit, no change can be effected. If somebody feels certain that he knows better than everyone else, that his ideas and lifestyle are correct and above scrutiny, it might appear that his heart can never be “circumcised.” In truth, however, even such an individual is capable of change. The possibility still exists of removing the cover off the person’s heart. We are to acknowledge and believe in the human capacity to change even when such change seems impossible, because even the thickest “foreskin” over a person’s heart is capable of being removed to allow the heart to be inspired and the person to grow.