Whose creations are more pleasing, man’s or God’s?
Rabbi Akiva was asked a question 2,000 years ago that we may likely answer incorrectly.
אֵיזוֹ מַעֲשִׂים נָאִים, שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אוֹ שֶׁל בָּשָׂר וָדָם..
“Whose works are more beautiful, those of God or those of mankind” (Midrash Tanchuma Tazria, 5:1)? Most of us would say, God’s. After all, the world is full of beautiful flowers, exotic marine life, and breathtaking natural wonders. Not to mention the wonders of creation that can be appreciated through the study of science. However when the Roman general, Turnus Rufus, asked this question, the great Rabbi Akiva, said that Mankind’s creations are more beautiful.
According to Midrash Tanchuma, Rabbi Akiva knew that when Turnus Rufus asked this question it was a veiled attack on circumcision. This critical Jewish practice was derided by the Greek and Roman empires who venerated the human body. They saw circumcision as a mutilation of something that was perfect. They maintained that if circumcision was the preferred state, we should have been born that way.
The answer is a sheaf of wheat
Rabbi Akiva proved the superiority of man’s works with a simple yet concrete example: God’s handiwork are sheaves of wheat. In its natural state it’s quite useless. Compare that to Man’s handiwork – a loaf of bread. Mankind was able to take something that God created and enable it to reach perfection.
Our ability to perfect ourselves.
Circumcision reflects a critical idea in creation – the fact that God wants mankind to perfect itself. This, of course, ties back to the theme of Parshat Tazria. An outbreak of Tzoraat (commonly mistranslated as leprosy)* on the body was an opportunity to better oneself and stop engaging in the terrible practice of (Lashon Hara) slander and malicious speech.
Tzoraat was a spiritual affliction that had publicly embarrassing consequences. Once confirmed by the Cohen, the person with Tzoraat had to temporarily live outside of the camp.
However, it can also be seen as an enviable early warning system that you needed a spiritual course correction. Imagine if we knew instantly whenever we committed a transgression so we can change our ways? Although we don’t have Tzoraat anymore, it teaches us a critical lesson that we, as human beings, can constantly transform ourselves into something better.
*Although the biblical affliction of Tzoraat had similar physical characteristics as leprosy, it was not a medical disease for which you seek medical attention, rather a spiritual disease for which you approach the priest for spiritual healing.