If a woman has conceived and born a male child, she shall be unclean seven days, as in the days of a menstruant shall she be unclean. And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (Vayikra 12:2-3)
At first glance, it seems that the mitzva of mila, circumcision, does not fit in with this parasha about tum'at yoledet, the impurity of a woman who has given birth. Furthermore, what is the nature of the tum'at yoledet? Tum'a is, generally speaking, related to death (with the exception of the eight crawling creatures mentioned in last week's parasha, 11:29-30). But the scenario of the yoledet is the opposite of death, for the tum'a results from the fact that she has given birth! The verse compares this tum'a to the tum'a of a nidda (menstruant). But the impurity of the nidda is related to potential life that was not actualized, and the emission of blood that could have sustained a new life. A woman giving birth has just actualized that potential; why does she have the same tum'a?
The Torah is coming to teach us that every natural process has some negative aspects, and those negative aspects cannot be ignored. Some people think that whatever is natural is good. The Torah goes out of its way, in a context where all is seemingly good, to emphasize this negative aspect.
This is the reason that mila is mentioned in this context. The Midrash Tanchuma (Tazria 5) cites a famous dispute between Rabbi Akiva and the wicked Roman procurator, Turnus Rufus. Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, "Whose acts are greater, man's or God's?" R. Akiva answered him that man's acts are greater. Turnus Rufus responded that the heavens and the earth are divine creations which man cannot equal. Rabbi Akiva disqualified this proof as out of man's realm, and thereby unfair to compare. Turnus Rufus then asked why Jews are circumcised. Rabbi Akiva responded that he knew that this question was coming, and that was why he answered the way he answered. But to prove the point itself, Rabbi Akiva brought sheaves of wheat and cakes, and said to Turnus Rufus: These sheaves were made by God, while these cakes were produced by man! Turnus Rufus insisted that the cakes are no greater than the sheaves. He then reformulated his previous point: If God wants children to be circumcised, why does the child not leave the womb circumcised? Rabbi Akiva responded: And why does his umbilical cord come out with him, with the child hanging by his stomach until the mother cuts it? Rabbi Akiva concluded: Regarding your question as to why the child is not born circumcised, this is because God gave the mitzvot to the Jewish people in order to refine them, an idea expressed by David in the verse, "God's word is refined" (according to his understanding of Tehillim 18:31).
What is Rabbi Akiva saying here? Rabbi Akiva is trying to communicate to Turnus Rufus that natural, God-created states are not necessarily good. Judaism does not believe in taking the natural world as it is; we are meant to take the materials God gave us and develop them, as Rabbi Akiva exemplifies in the analogy to cake and wheat. Man is not meant to eat wheat as it grows from the ground, but rather to process and develop it into a complete product.
The Torah juxtaposes tum'at yoledet to the mitzva of mila to emphasize this idea: there are imperfections in the world as it comes to us, and we need to perfect them. The "imperfection" of the birth process yields tum'a, and the foreskin with which men are created needs to be excised. Realizing this God-given purpose, building on what we have been given, fulfills this role in accordance with the Torah's command.
[Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, parashat Tazria-Metzora, 5762 (2002).]