Tazria-Metzora: Repairing the world

When brit mila was forbidden by various enemies of the nation, Jews risked their lives to perform it.

April 16, 2015 20:06
4 minute read.
har nof

har nof ceremony 7 days after terror attack. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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This week, we read two Torah portions – Tazria and Metzora, which deal primarily with the purification process for people who become impure in various ways. The most discussed impurity is that of the metzora, usually translated as leper. But the parsha begins with a single verse that deals with a completely different topic, that of the brit mila, circumcision.

“And on the eighth day [of the infant], the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:3) The commandment to perform a brit has been devoutly kept by the Jewish nation for thousands of years – since Avraham Avinu circumcised himself and his son Isaac, all through periods of light and darkness that the Jewish nation experienced in its land and in exile. Even under the most difficult of conditions, when brit mila was forbidden by various enemies of the nation, Jews risked their lives to perform it. There are many Jews who perform this mitzva on their sons but wonder about the meaning behind this commandment that can be interpreted as a ceremony which is ancient and meaningless to the modern man.

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We learn the meaning behind the brit mila in a dialogue quoted in the midrash. Talking were two people who were very different from one another and who appear here and in other places in our sages’ writings as profound philosophers. The person asking the question is Turnus Rufus – the Roman commissioner of Judea in the second century who built the idolatrous city of Aelia Capitolina over the ruins of Jerusalem and who was responsible for the killings of thousands of Jews in the Land of Israel. The person responding to him is none other than the greatest of Jewish sages, Rabbi Akiva, who the Talmud stated could have replaced Moshe Rabbeinu.

And the midrash tells us as follows: The wicked Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: Whose deeds are better – G-d’s or human beings’? Rabbi Akiva replied: Human beings! Turnus Rufus asked him: Why are you circumcised? Rabbi Akiva replied: I knew you were going to ask me that, therefore I preempted you and said that humans’ deeds are more pleasing than G-d’s.

Rabbi Akiva brought him sheaves of wheat and freshbaked rolls, and said: These are G-d’s works and these are humans’ – are not these better than the sheaves? Turnus Rufus replied to him: If G-d desires circumcision, why doesn’t the baby leave the womb already circumcised? Rabbi Akiva answered: Because G-d gave Israel the Torah in order to shape them through fulfillment of the mitzvot. (Midrash Tanchuma on Parshat Tazria) Rabbi Akiva compared the circumcision of a newly born baby to the baking of bread from wheat that is not suitable for eating. Meaning, his claim is that just as man takes the sheaves and fixes them so that they are suitable for eating, thus the brit mila makes the baby a person who is repaired and whole. The question asked by Turnus Rufus echoes until today: Could it be that man’s actions are better than those of G-d? Or put differently: Why doesn’t G-d create reality complete rather than leaving so much work for man? The fundamental assumption of the Roman asking the question is deterministic. He believes that creation as it is, is perfect, and man cannot involve himself in his own fate or that of his environment. Brit mila, circumcision, is seen by him as desecrating the holy; harming the most perfect of creation – man.

Rabbi Akiva, representing Judaism’s position in this debate, proves to him initially that the fact that it is man who turns the wheat sheaves into bread is contrary to his outlook. Using this example, Rabbi Akiva turns the Roman’s claim into one that does not stand the test of reality. The fact is that man gets involved with the reality around him and turns sheaves into rolls. Even the Roman does not reap sheaves for breakfast...

But Rabbi Akiva’s response is deeper. In his words he presents a position opposite that of his Roman interlocutor.

Reality, history, man’s fate and that of the nation – all these are in man’s hands and man has the obligation to repair, improve, maintain the world and advance it. Brit mila, according to Rabbi Akiva’s answer, is a symbolic act that brings man into the cycle of responsibility, gives him the role of being the responsible, moral one who works toward tikkun olam, repairing the world.

The author of Sefer Hachinuch, who lived in Spain in the 13th century, put it this way: “And [G-d] wanted completion to be done by man, and so He did not create him complete from birth, to hint to him that when he completes the shape of his body by his own hand, so by his own hand he can complete the shape of his soul through his actions.”

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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