Brit Milah, What’s it all About? And How Rabbi Akiva’s Vision for the Future Motivated Him to Grow
From HaGaon Rav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a, The Head of Halacha Yomit translated by Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK.
The Torah states, “On the eighth day, [the child’s] foreskin shall be circumcised” (Vayikra 12:3). The Midrash Tanchuma relates : Turnus Rufus the Evil (90-131, he was a senator and provincial governor and he ruled in Eretz Yisrael under the Roman Empire following the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash) asked Rabbi Akiva, “Whose work is more beautiful? The work of Hashem or the work of man?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “The work of man is more beautiful!” Turnus Rufus asked him, “But heaven and earth are beautiful, and a person cannot create heaven and earth!” Rabbi Akiva responded, “Don’t argue with me about things that people are unable to create. I responded regarding things that a person can do. These things are more beautiful when a person does them!”
Turnus Rufus asked him, “Why do you circumcise your sons? Rabbi Akiva replied to him, “I knew that this was your focus when you first asked me and therefore, I prefaced my words that a person’s work is more beautiful than that of Hashem! For example, there are crops and there are cakes, cakes are more beautiful than crops. The crops are the work of Hashem, whilst the cakes are the work of man!”
Turnus Rufus continued to ask Rabbi Akiva, “If your G-d wants you to fulfil the mitzvah of brit milah, why isn’t the baby born circumcised?”
Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Why is the umbilical cord left after birth until it is cut? And that which you asked why isn’t he born circumcised, this is because Hashem only gave the mitzvot for Am Yisrael to be forged and purified through them. As the passuk states, ‘Every word of Hashem is refined’ (Mishlei 30:5). It is up to the person to perfect himself, to perfect and forge the creation.
Therefore we circumcise our sons!”
In the Talmud (Makkot 24b) they said, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were all travelling and ascending towards Yerushalayim. When they reached Mt. Scopus they tore their clothes. When they reached the Temple Mt. they saw a fox exiting from the area of the Holy of Holies. They began to cry, whilst Rabbi Akiva laughed. They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He replied to them, “Why do you cry?” They said to him, “A place about which it is written, ‘Any unauthorised person who participates shall die’ (Bamidbar 18:7), and now foxes are in it, shouldn’t we cry?!” He said to them, “This is why I am laughing, as it states, ‘I appointed trustworthy witnesses for myself: Uriyah the Cohen and Zechariyah ben Yeverechyahu’ (Yeshayah 8:2). Why is Uriyah mentioned regarding Zechariyah? (Uriyah and Zechariyah lived at different times. Uriyah during the first Bet HaMikdash and Zechariyah in the second Bet HaMikdash). The passuk links Zechariyah’s prophecy with Uiryah’s prophecy. With Uriyah it is written, ‘Therefore, because of you, Tzion will be ploughed over like a field’ (Michah 3:12), with Zechariyah it is written, ‘Old men and women will once again sit in the streets of Yerushalayim’ (Zechariyah 8:4). Before Uriyah’s prophecy was fulfilled, I was afraid that Zechariyah’s prophecy might not be fulfilled. But now that Uriyah’s prophecy is fulfilled, for certain Zechariyah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.” In the following words they said to him, Akiva, you have consoled us, Akiva, you have consoled us.”
The Gaon Rav Yaakov Galinsky z”l (Vehigadta) explained as follows. What is the difference between Rabbi Akiva’s perspective and that of his friends who were with him? Rabbi Akiva lived in the future! Not only that he knew the prophecies that were destined to materialise, but already now, when the situation was difficult, he lived the future and he literally felt what will eventually transpire.
This is the theme with Rabbi Akiva. Until forty years old he hadn’t studied Torah and so he went to study the letters aleph bet with his son! Afterwards, he studied Torah in dire poverty! From where did he draw the strength? He lived in the future! He saw in the present a tangible reality of what will yet transpire, and intelligently rejoiced and cheered himself up already now, with the help of this approach!
When he looked at his wife during his poverty, that one day, he will make her a “golden tiara of Yerushalayim”, he experienced it now and rejoiced and made her happy too with something that at this moment in time was impossible! [See Nedarim 50a and Shabbat 59a-b.]
Turnus Rufus the Evil, only lived in the present! He thought to himself that a person is born uncircumcised, of uncircumcised heart and uncircumcised flesh, and so it is fitting for man! It is good that he should remain so his whole life! Why endure the pain of circumcision? Why endure the worry of mitzvot? The best way is to live as he wishes, to go with the flow of the present and not to
trouble himself with thinking about the future! This is the fundamental difference between our outlook and those who pursue decadence and the vanities of this world, a passing world!