by Rabbi Dovid Green
In this week's parsha we find the commandment to perform Bris Milah, or
circumcision on the eigth day of a baby boy's life. Those familiar with the
practice know that it is done with great fanfare, with everyone wishing the
parents mazal tov and blessings for the child's future. Participants join in
a festive meal. It is thought of as the time when the Jewish child is making
his first step toward joining the ranks of his brethren. However, for the
baby it is obviously much less pleasant physically than it is for all of the
other participants. As a matter of fact, in today's world, it's common to
hear criticism of the practice as if it is a cruel, barbaric thing to do to
an unsuspecting, vulnerable infant.
There is a midrash which relates an exchange between a Roman the midrash
calls Turnusrufus the Evil, and Rabbi Akiva. Turnusrufus asked Rabbi Akiva
whose deeds are greater, those of G-d, or those of people. Rabbi Akiva
answered those of people are greater. After some give and take, Turnusrufus
got to the point. "Why do you circumcize yourselves?" Rabbi Akiva brought
Turnusrufus stalks of grain and beautiful cakes to prove to him that the
deeds of mankind are greater. Turnusrufus then asked Rabbi Akiva "if G-d
wants you to be circumcized, why aren't you naturally born that way?" Rabbi
Akiva responded "then why must an infant's umbilical cord be cut after
birth? Rather, the reason why people are not born circumcized is because the
commandments were give to refine mankind."
The Maharal of Prague explains this midrash in the following way.
Turnusrufus thought that the deeds of mankind are inferior to those of
nature being that nature is the work of G-d. That is why he said that
circumcision is inferior to leaving the foreskin intact, being that the
foreskin is the work of the Creator. Rabbi Akiva responded that the deeds of
mankind are greater being that they are the finishing touch brought about
through intellect. The proof to that is the difference between a stalk of
wheat and a cake. The wheat is lacking until it is refined and the work is
completed through the means of the intellect. Turnusrufus further asked why
a child is not born circumcized if G-d doesn't want him to have a foreskin.
This question is based on the objection that nature is lacking. Mankinds
actions do add to G-d's creation, but G-d's deeds are certainly not
inferior. Consequently, if G-d wanted people to be circumcized, they could
have been circumcized naturally, being that nature is no worse than the
intelligently directed actions of mankind. At this point the proof from the
cakes would not suffice, because even though the cakes are special, the
wheat is no less unique. To this question Rabbi Akiva responds with the
proof from a child's umbilical cord needing to be cut, that indeed the work
of nature is inferior, and in need of improvement by mankind; nature is not
in itself a finished product. As a result it is not a question why a child
is born uncircumcized. Nature is not complete without the input of mankind.
Rabbi Akiva points out that the commandments were given to refine mankind.
Refining means to raise it up from its natural state. By performing Bris
Milah, circumcision, we transcend nature, to a higher plane. As long as we
don't perform circumcision, we are similar to the animal kingdom. However,
by giving us the commandment, G-d gave us the opportunity to attain a
higher, more refined level of existence.
In conclusion, the commandments are given to us with the intention that
through them we can achieve our purpose, and bring nature as well to its
culmination. May we have the merit to do so.
Text Copyright © 1997 Rabbi Dovid Green and
Project Genesis, Inc.