Q. Why couldn’t God have created males already circumcised?
A. The Midrash Tanchuma (Tazria 5) reports that the Roman, Turnus Rufus, once asked Rabbi Akiva this very question. “If your God desires circumcision,” said the Roman, “why does a child not leave its mother’s womb already circumcised?”
Rabbi Akiva was not without an answer. He went back to the story of Genesis, in which the sixth and seventh days (Gen. 1:26-2:3) record the creation of man in the Divine image and the establishment of Shabbat as the day of rest. Both events, the climax of the work of creation, are called b’rit olam – “an everlasting covenant” (regarding Shabbat, Exodus 31:16; regarding circumcision, Genesis 17:7). Rabbi Akiva told Turnus Rufus, “The reason why men are not born already circumcised is that the Almighty desired the individual co-operation of every Jew in the perfection of His creation by performing the mitzvah of b’rit milah.”
Similarly, when God says, “The Children of Israel shall keep Shabbat, to observe (literally, ‘to make’) Shabbat throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant”, He means us to make a personal effort to fulfil His purposes by turning Saturday into Shabbat. Our effort completes God’s creation of the seventh day and indeed of the week itself.
Through the two mitzvot of circumcision and Shabbat, we affirm our belief in God, recognise our human role in the world, and assume our full dignity as “partners with God in the work of creation”.