Nature and Brit Mila
"And God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the children of Israel saying, if a woman conceives and bears a male child she shall be impure for seven days; as in the days of her menstrual impurity shall she be impure. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And for thirty-three days she shall continue in the blood of her purifying; she shall touch no holy thing nor shall she come into the Temple until the days of her purifying are completed." [Vayikra 12:1-4]
The mention of the mitzva of brit mila (circumcision) here, sandwiched in between the laws pertaining to the purity of a woman who has given birth, is surprising and seems out of place.
Of course, we may explain that the Torah is simply presenting a chronological description of events - the seven days of impurity immediately after the birth, followed on the eighth day by the brit mila, and then the days of purifying.
It is also possible that the mitzva is mentioned here because of its importance. After all, this was the first mitzva which God explicitly commanded Avraham Avinu, and it is in fact the first mitzva given to the Jewish People as a whole.
But there is yet a deeper significance to this mitzva. Midrash Tanchuma (Tazria, 5) recounts:
"Once the evil [Roman governor] Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, 'Whose deeds are greater - God's or man's?' He replied, 'Man's deeds are greater.' Turnus Rufus asked him, 'Is man then capable of creating heaven and earth, or anything like them?' Rabbi Akiva replied, 'I was not referring to the sphere beyond man's ability, over which he has no control. I refer to those creations of which man is capable.' He then asked, 'Why do you circumcise yourselves?' Rabbi Akiva replied, 'I knew that that was the point of your question, and therefore I answered in the first place that man's deeds are greater than God's.' Rabbi Akiva brought him grains of wheat and some bread, and said: 'These grains of wheat are God's handiwork, and the bread is the handiwork of man. Is the latter not greater than the former?' Turnus Rufus answered him, 'If God wanted you to perform circumcision, why did He not create the child already circumcised while still in the womb?' Rabbi Akiva answered, 'Why do you not ask the same question concerning the umbilical cord, which remains attached to him and which his mother must cut? In response to your question - the reason why he does not emerge already circumcised is because God gave Israel the commandments in order that they would be purified by performing them. Therefore David wrote, 'Every word of God is pure (or, purified).'"
The debate recorded here is a serious and fundamental one that exists between Israel and the nations. The nations of the world see nature as being worthy of admiration. Nature, according to their perception, is the most perfect creation, and man is incapable of attaining anything greater. Their philosophy - to which many still adhere today - holds that man should grow and develop naturally, should be part of nature, should eat only natural foods, and that his 'naturalness' should know no bounds, because everything natural is automatically beautiful and good.
The Torah has a different approach. As Rabbi Akiva taught, nature is not perfect. It contains poisonous substances and includes dangerous beasts. The beauty and perfection of nature are limited, and man must recognize its limitations within the sphere of his natural behavior.
Hence man's obligation to elevate and perfect nature - for example by means of the mitzva of mila - inculcates in his heart the idea that he is a partner of God in creating the world and bringing it to its ultimate perfection, and serves as our response to the nations of the world.
(Originally delivered on Leil Shabbat Parashat Tazria 5753.
Translated by Kaeren Fish.)