ויקח אברם את שרי אשתו ואת לוט בן אחיו ואת כל רכושם אשר רכשו ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן ויצאו ללכת ארצה כנען ויבאו ארצה כנען.
Avram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all their property, and the souls they acquired in Charan, and they traveled toward the Land of Canaan, until they finally arrived in the Land of Canaan.
The history of the world is divided into three epochs: two thousand years of confusion, two thousand years of Torah, and two thousand years of the era of Moshiach. The two thousand years of Torah began not with Kabbalas HaTorah at Har Sinai, but with “the souls Avraham acquired in Charan,” a reference to the converts he drew beneath the wings of the Shechinah.
Avraham was credited with being the first to spread G‑dly wisdom in the world, thereby drawing the epoch of confusion to an end. However, he was not the first to study or teach Torah. Noach also studied Torah. (Otherwise, he could not have distinguished between the pure and impure animals, to know how many of each to allow into his ark.) Shem and Eiver also studied Torah, and even established Torah academies where Avraham himself studied. Accordingly, Avraham seems no more than a link in the chain of Torah study that stretches all the way back to Adam HaRishon. Why is he credited with inaugurating a new era of Torah?
Rav Yosef Karo explains in his Kesef Mishna commentary on the Rambam: “Shem and Eiver revealed to their students the ways of Hashem, but they were never inspired to call out to the world as did Avraham. Therefore, his merit was greater than theirs.”
The spiritual leaders who preceded Avraham did no more than allow any who were so interested to come and learn from them, to drink from the proverbial waters of Torah. However, the wellsprings of Torah never spread outside of the Beis Midrash. No one ever took the Torah and carried it out into the streets and marketplaces to disseminate its wisdom, until Avraham arose and proclaimed, “There is a Master of the Palace,” and gathered throngs of followers to his banner.
The Rambam writes:
והתחיל לעמוד ולקרוא בקול גדול לכל העולם ולהודיעם שיש שם אלוה אחד לכל העולם ולו ראוי לעבוד, והיה מהלך וקורא ומקבץ העם מעיר לעיר ומממלכה לממלכה עד שהגיע לארץ כנען והוא קורא שנאמר ויקרא שם בשם ה' אל עולם, וכיון שהיו העם מתקבצין אליו ושואלין לו על דבריו היה מודיע לכל אחד ואחד כפי דעתו עד שיחזירהו לדרך האמת עד שנתקבצו אליו אלפים ורבבות והם אנשי בית אברהם ושתל בלבם העיקר הגדול הזה וחבר בו ספרים והודיעו ליצחק בנו.
Avraham arose and began to call out to the world in a great voice, proclaiming the existence of a single G‑d of the entire world, Whom alone it is fitting to service. He would travel from city to city, from country to country, gathering crowds as he went, until he reached the Land of Canaan, as it is written, “There he called in the Name of Hashem, G‑d of the world.” When people would approach to ask about his message, he would explain to each according to his wisdom, guiding him back to the path of truth. Eventually, he gathered a following that numbered tens of thousands. These were the members of the Avraham’s household. He planted the roots of faith in their hearts, authored books, and passed the tradition down through his son, Yitzchak.
By spreading Hashem’s wisdom beyond the walls of the Beis Midrash, Avraham began a new era of Torah, which shined like the dawn, breaking the darkness and confusion of the night that preceded it. In this merit, Avraham earned the title of “Hashem’s beloved.” He sealed a covenant with Hashem that would last throughout the generations.
Another insight into Avraham’s revolutionary message can be found in Targum Unkelos’s interpretation of “the souls they acquired”: וית נפשתא דשעבידו לאורייתא “the souls they subjugated to the Torah.” For the Torah to revolutionize a person’s very being, allowing him to ascend to the greatest heights, it is insufficient for him just to study or even teach Torah. He must subjugate himself to the Torah, dedicating his body its laws, and his mind to its wisdom, until it transforms him into a new being. This was the message of Torah that Avraham taught, when he “acquired the souls” of his followers in Charan.
The Eternal Covenant
When Avraham performed the Bris Milah, he forged a covenant with Hashem that would last until the end of time. The commentaries offer several insights as to how and why this important mitzva is the basis of our eternal covenant with Hashem.
In his Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam explains that the Bris Milah curtails the overwhelming desire for physical pleasure, allowing us to focus our minds on the pursuit of the spiritual. He adds a further explanation, that just as soldiers wear a uniform to show their common purpose, it is only fitting that the legions of Hashem, Bnei Yisrael, show their united allegiance to Hashem with a badge of honor carved into their very flesh.
Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that Shabbos, tefillin, and Bris Milah are all signs of the covenant between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael, as it is written:
ביני ובין בני ישראל אות הוא לעלם כי ששת ימים עשה ה' את השמים ואת הארץ וביום השביעי שבת וינפש.
Between Myself and Bnei Yisrael, it is an eternal sign, that in six days Hashem made Heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested.
והיה לך לאות על ידך ולזכרון בין עיניך למען תהיה תורת ה' בפיך כי ביד חזקה הוצאך ה' ממצרים.
It shall be for you a sign on your arm, and a remembrance between your eyes, in order that Hashem’s Torah may be in your mouth, since with a strong hand, Hashem liberated you from Egypt.
ונמלתם את בשר ערלתכם והיה לאות ברית ביני וביניכם.
You shall circumcise the orlah of your flesh, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
Just as two witnesses are sufficient to prove a point of law, any two of these three mitzvos are sufficient tesimony to our covenant with Hashem. On Shabbos, we need not wear tefillin, since the mitzva of Shabbos takes its place. Bris Milah is the only witness that testifies to our covenant throughout the week, and throughout the cycle of time.
The Chasam Sofer writes that the orlah is the remnant of the leather garment, with which Hashem clothed Adam after his fall. Since this garment was a result of Adam’s sin, the orlah serves as a lasting memorial to his disgrace. By removing it, we purge ourselves from the memory and residual influence of Adam’s sin.
With this we can better understand the following Midrash:
מעשה ששאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר' עקיבא איזו מעשים נאים של הקב"ה או של בשר ודם, אמר לו של בשר ודם נאים. אמר לו טורנוסרופוס הרי השמים והארץ יכול אדם לעשות כיוצא בהם, אמר לו ר' עקיבא לא תאמר לי בדבר שהוא למעלה מן הבריות שאין שולטין עליו אלא אמור דברים שהם מצויין בבני אדם. אמר לו למה אתם מולין, אמר לו אני הייתי יודע שעל דבר זה אתה שואלני ולכך הקדמתי ואמרתי לך שמעשה בני אדם נאים משל הקב"ה. הביא לו ר' עקיבא שבלים וגלוסקאות אמר לו אלו מעשה הקב"ה ואלו מעשה ידי אדם אמר לו אין אלו נאים יותר מן השבלים.
The wicked Turnosrufos once asked R’ Akiva, “Whose works are more beautiful: those of G‑d, or those of mortal man?”
“The works of man are more beautiful,” R’ Akiva answered.
“Can man make anything as beautiful as the Heavens and the earth?” asked Turnosrufos.
“Do not compare our achievements with that which is above the realm of man. Compare our works with those of Hashem that are within our realm,” said R’ Akiva.
“Why do you practice circumcision?” asked Turnosrufos.
“I realized your intention, therefore I preceded your challenge by saying that the works of man are more beautiful.” R’ Akiva then produced a bundle of wheat and a loaf of bread, and said, “These are the works of Hashem, and these are the works of man. Are the works of man not greater?”
R’ Akiva’s argument seems puzzling. Is bread truly greater than stalks of wheat? If not for Adam’s curse, “By the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread,” we would have been happy to have been able to eat wheat as it grows, without having to toil through ten stages of production until it is made into bread. This seems scarce proof for R’ Akiva’s claim, that the works of man are greater than those of Hashem. Turnosrufos’s complaint still hovers before us. What is lacking in man’s natural form, as G‑d made it, that it must be so severely altered by the Bris Milah?
According to what we have explained above, this is well understood. Before Adam’s fall, trees grew loaves of bread, ready to be eaten without any further preparation. Angels roasted meat and chilled wine for his enjoyment. Creation offered him its bounty, fully prepared, and within his easy reach. Only after his sin was the world corrupted to the extent that he needed to prepare his food by the sweat of his brow. It then became his responsibility to rectify the spiritual flaws in creation through his Torah and mitzvos, and its physical flaws through his hard work.
By comparing wheat to bread, R’ Akiva displayed the harm that was wrought in creation, as a result of Adam’s sin. His food would no longer grow perfectly prepared for his enjoyment. He would need to labor by the sweat of his brow, to process wheat into bread. His very body was damaged in the same way, requiring us to perfect it by removing the orlah, just as we must perfect wheat by making it into bread.
Another insight into the significance of the Bris Milah is offered by the Zohar, which states that when a father presents his son to be circumcised, he offers him as a korban to Hashem. The lap of the sandek, on which the Bris Milah is performed, is compared to the Golden Mizbei’ach, where the ketores (incense offering) was burned. Accordingly, officiating as a sandek at a Bris Milah is a segulah for livelihood, as was the ketores offering in the Beis HaMikdash. The comparison between Bris Milah and ketores can be understood in light of the following Midrash:
אמר ר' אייבו בשעה שמל אברהם אותן ילידי ביתו העמידן גבעה ערלות וזרחה עליהם חמה והתליעו ועלה ריחן לפני הקב"ה כקטורת סמים וכעולה שהיא כליל לאישים אמר הקב"ה בשעה שיהיו בניו של זה באים לידי עבירות ולידי מעשים רעים אני נזכר להם הריח הזה ומתמלא עליהם רחמים ומרחם עליהם.
R’ Aibo taught: When Avraham circumcised the members of his household, he piled the severed orlas into a mound. When the heat of the sun shone upon them, they began to decay, and the stench of the rotting flesh ascended before Hashem like the fragrant smoke of incense, and like the meat of the korban olah consumed by the fire of the Mizbei’ach.
Hashem then said, “When his descendants sin, I shall remember this smell and show them mercy for its sake.”
Elsewhere in the Midrash, we find a debate. According to R’ Levi, after Hashem commanded Avraham concerning the Bris Milah, Avraham realized that he had already been born circumcised. R’ Abba bar Kahana vehemently argued against this opinion, calling R’ Levi a “liar and deceiver” for claiming so. Rather, Avraham circumcised himself with all the pain involved, such that his reward was increased manifold.
R’ Abba bar Kahana held R’ Levi in the highest esteem. Elsewhere, we learn that R’ Abba was once so impressed by R’ Levi’s teachings, that he kissed him on his head. Nevertheless, he was moved to use such harsh words, since he realized that the merit of Avraham’s Bris Milah would stand for his descendants for generations to come, giving them the fortitude to circumcise their own children, thereby offering them as sacrifices to Hashem. Therefore, R’ Abba found it crucial to establish as a point of undebated fact, that Avraham cut his own flesh to seal an eternal covenant with Hashem.
 Bereishis 12:5
 Avodah Zarah 9
 Eiruvin 18
 Kesef Mishna, Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 1:3
 Rambam, Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 1
 See Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva 10:2
 Moreh Nevuchim III, chapter 49
 Shemos 31:17
 Shemos 13:9
 Bereishis 17:11
 Chasam Sofer on the Torah, citing Maaseh Hashem
 Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria 5
 Shabbos 30b. See Teshuvos Avnei Nezer 168 (111):4
 Sanhedrin 59b
 Ohr HaChaim, Vayikra 12:3
 Zohar, Bereishis 91a
 Rema, Y.D. 265:11
 Bereishis Rabbah 47:7
 Bereishis Rabbah 47:9
 Talmud Yerushalmi: Horiyos 3a; Koheles Rabbah chapter 6