Parshas Tazri'a-MetzoraWhose Deeds Are Preferable?
(Based on the Medrash)
Rabeinu Bachye, citing a Medrash, cites a dialogue between the Roman General Turnusrufus and R. Akiva. When the former asked the latter whose deeds are 'nicer', those of G-d or those of man, he replied without hesitation that man's deeds are 'nicer' than those of G-d.
'But surely', Turnusrufus persisted, 'G-d created the Heaven and the earth? Are you trying to tell me that man can do better?'
'Don't mix in what concerns areas to which man has no access', retorted R. Akiva! 'Let's' stick to those things that lie within his capability'.
'Tell me then', the Roman finally came to the point, 'Why do you perform B'ris Milah? (i.e. if G-d created man uncircumcised, why do you circumcise him?)'
'I knew exactly that that is what you were driving at,' R. Akiva replied, 'and that is what I had in mind when I answered that the deeds of man are 'nicer', R. Akiva replied! And he promptly brought him stalks of wheat and loaves of bread.
'Here', he said, pointing first to the one, then to the other; 'These are made by G-d, and these, by man. Which do you think are 'nicer'!
Ignoring the implication, Turnusrufus came out with what was disturbing him - 'If G-d wants you to be circumcised, then why doesn't He create you already circumcised?'
'First tell me', R. Akiva countered, 'why a baby is born with its umbilical cord still attached to its mother's stomach, necessitating the mother to cut it?' And as for your question as to why man is not born circumcised, the answer is that G-d gave us the Mitzvos, to enable us to perfect ourselves, as the Pasuk writes in Mishlei (30:5) "All the Words (i.e. commands) of G-d purify!"*
It is fair to assume that Turnusrufus himself did not believe in any of the thirteen principles of the Rambam - not in the concept of prophecy and not in Torah min ha'Shamayim; not in the oneness of G-d, and probably not even in the fact that He even exists. Consequently, his question was meant to challenge R. Akiva according to the latter's beliefs, but not according to his own. He was challenging R. Akiva to explain why, if there really was a G-d and that He created man uncircumcised, what right did he and his coreligionists have to initiate changes to G-d's creations.
It is not at first clear what Turnusrufus made of R. Akiva's counter-proofs from wheat and loaves of bread, and from the umbilical cord of a baby. The Or ha'Chayim suggests that he might have countered the former, by pointing out that G-d created wheat kernels, to give man a variety of food from which to choose from, seeing as from wheat kernels one can prepare bread, cake and an endless number of wheat dishes.
Be that as it may, R. Akiva's final answer must surely have been an eye-opener to him, if that is, he was able to grasp the meaning of his words at all. He could probably have related to the concept of a living G-d and the Rambam's first basic principles of faith (the existence of G-d, prophesy [communication] and Torah, even if he did not subscribe to them (as we explained earlier). Perhaps he could even have come to terms with the idea of reward and punishment - regarding someone who steals, rapes or murders (something which human logic dictates one ought not to do). But that man should have been created deliberately imperfect and then strive towards perfecting himself? That was surely beyond the scope of his comprehension. That would have meant giving credence, not only to the concept of spirituality per se (with which says the Or ha'Chayim, he presumably did not agree), but of actually turning it into the purpose of man's creation, something that he would never have envisaged.
No wonder then that R. Akiva's answer had not entered his mind, when he posed the question!
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The Or HaChayim
In one of his explanations, the Or ha'Chayim, who also cites the above Medrash, but who omits R. Akiva's proof from the baby's birth, connects the Mashal of the grains of wheat with the Mitzvah of Milah in the following way. He defines the orlah as the epitome of evil (indeed, the Pasuk in Devarim [10:16] speaks about cutting away 'orlas levavchem' the Orlah [the bad part] of your hearts).
He describes how the body is like the sheath that contains the soul, and that the Orlah is therefore symbolical of the evil (the Yeitzer-ha'Ra) that dwells inherently within man. G-d therefore ordered K'lal Yisrael to remove the Orlah, removing the physical evil, that will enable him to grapple with the Yeitzer-ha'Ra and remove the internal evil from within himself. He did not command the gentiles to do so, he explains, because their souls are based on the aspect of evil, whose physical counterpart is the Orlah.* * * * *
Adam ha'Rishon, the Or ha'Chayim points out, who was created perfect, was created circumcised. And it was only after he had sinned (inculcating the Yeitzer ha'Ra into his system) that he covered his Milah with the Orlah.
Likewise, Chazal inform us, loaves of bread initially grew on trees in Gan Eden, and it was only after Adam sinned that wheat had to be transformed into bread by means of ten preparatory acts (as described in Shabbos 73b), corresponding to the ten curses that G-d issued to Adam on account of the sin.
In this way, R. Akiva's parable of the grains of wheat was remarkably apt and to the point - even though we can be quite certain that Turnusrufus did not understand it.