It happened that the wicked Turnus Rufus (a Roman general) asked Rabbi Akiva, “Whose deeds are more beautiful, Hashem’s or man’s?” He answered, “The deeds of man ... ”
Turnus Rufus said to him, “Why do you perform circumcision?” Rabbi Akiva answered, “I knew that this is what you meant, which is why I responded that the deeds of man are more beautiful than those of G-d.”
Rabbi Akiva then brought him stalks of wheat and loaves of bread, and said, “These (the stalks) are the work of G-d, and these (the baked bread) are the work of people. “Isn’t the bread nicer than the stalks?”
Turnus Rufus said to him, “If He desires circumcision, why doesn’t the infant emerge from his mother’s womb already circumcised?”
Rabbi Akiva told him, “Hashem gave the commandments to Israel for the sole purpose of purifying them.”
In his answer, Rabbi Akiva illustrates how man’s deeds can be greater than G-d’s, since there are parts of creation that Hashem left to man to complete in order to allow him to share a part in attaining his own completion (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashas Tazria, 8).
In reading this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we encounter a seemingly overwhelming amount of laws (53 to be exact) of many do’s and don’ts that one can easily find stifling and oppressive, laws that tell us how to treat others, how to live our life and how we are to conduct ourselves. One can easily ask why does a loving G-d have to give us so many laws that can seem so restrictive and limiting; it would be better for human beings to live their best life according to their understanding.
In fact, in today’s society, we place a premium on individual rights. How can a Torah of G-d come and tell me that I may or may not do a certain thing?
The same question can be asked by any child: Why are my loving parents creating so many rules? Bedtime, curfew, screen time, table manners, etc.? Why can’t they allow me to live my life? Any parent understands that the rules are not to inhibit the growth of the child but to enable them to grow and reach their maximum potential.
The Torah is telling us that G-d places a premium on the human being. G-d understands us better than anyone and in order for us to grow and reach our greatest potential there are things that we must do that, as Rabbi Akiva said, are greater than the workings of G-d.
When we see ourselves not as individuals who can do as we please because we feel a certain way, but we see ourselves as contributing members of society; when we understand that we live a purpose driven life, a mission-oriented life and a self-driven life; when each moment of our day is involved in making our world a better place, not necessarily the way we understand is a better world but the way G-d has instructed us to make the world a better place, then we will certainly reach our innermost potential in creating a peaceful society and understanding environment and a caring world. We will accomplish creating a place where G-d is comfortable to dwell in a place of ultimate peace with the coming of Moshiach. JN
Rabbi Mendy Deitsch is the director of Chabad of the East Valley.