In this Sidra, we read of G‑d’s appearance to Abraham after his circumcision. But why was his circumcision so great an act as to merit such a reward? This is the question that the Rebbe answers, and explains in depth the special relationship between the Jew and G‑d which is reached by the performance of the commandment.

1. The Story of the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, told a story1 about something that had happened to his father, Rabbi Shalom DovBer,2 when he was a child of four or five. The Shabbat on which the Sidra Vayera was read was the Shabbat closest to Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s birthday;3 and to mark the occasion he was taken by his mother to see his grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Lubavitcher Rebbe), to receive a birthday blessing. But as soon as he entered the room, the little boy burst into tears. His grandfather asked why he was crying. He replied that he had learned in Cheder (class) that G‑d had revealed Himself to Abraham, and he was crying because G‑d does not also reveal Himself to him.

His grandfather explained: When a Jew who is ninety-nine years old decides that he must circumcise himself, then he is worthy that G‑d should reveal Himself to him.

There is, however, another version of this story (Rabbi Shalom DovBer, being a little boy at the time, did not remember the incident, and knew the story—in two versions—only from Chassidim who had been present), according to which his grandfather’s reply was: When a righteous Jew who is ninety-nine years old decides that he must circumcise himself, then he is worthy that G‑d should reveal Himself to him.

2. The Meaning of Circumcision

What was the significance of this act of Abraham? Even when a Jew is ninety-nine, and not merely in calendrical years, but in uninterrupted years of service (for when the Torah describes Abraham as “advanced in days,” the Zohar4 comments that this means that each day was complete in its service), he is still bound to circumcise himself, meaning, spiritually, to remove the “foreskin” of the world, that surface of selfish pleasures which conceals its true nature as the Divine creation. For it is written in Pirkei Avot,5 “When a man is one hundred, it is as if he were already dead and passed away and removed from the world.” In other words, at such a point, in age or in spirit, when the world no longer masks the Divine, a man has achieved the inner meaning of circumcision. But before this, even by one year or one degree of holiness, the task remains unfulfilled.

3. Circumcision and Abraham’s Perfection

There is a special connection between Abraham and circumcision. For it is said6 that six commandments were given to Adam; a seventh was given to Noah… and in addition to these a new commandment was given to Abraham—that of circumcision. Since the command was first given to Abraham, it must have had a particular relevance to him; from which it follows that his circumcision did not just add something to ninety-nine years of complete service, but that until then his life was lacking its central component. This is reinforced by the fact that, in reference to the command of circumcision, G‑d says to Abraham, “Be thou perfect,” implying that hitherto Abraham had been marred, his service incomplete.7

4. The Works of the Fathers

The circumcision of Abraham has an even deeper significance. On the one hand, it is known that the commandments which we (subsequent to the Giving of the Torah) fulfill are far higher than those which the Fathers fulfilled before the Torah was given, so much so that the Midrash8 can say: All the commandments which the Fathers kept before You are like the aroma (of fine oil), whereas ours are like “oil poured forth.” What the Fathers did was, compared to our own acts, like an aroma compared to its source, like an emanation compared to its essence.

This is because what the Fathers fulfilled, they did from their own strength and inclination (as when Abraham initiated the morning prayer, and Isaac the tithe), rather than in response to the Divine command. For when, after the Giving of the Torah, we keep one of the commandments, we are thereby related to He who commanded. And this is the essence of G‑d, for He gave the Torah with the opening words “I (in My essence) am the L-rd your G‑d.” This relation permanently changes the world, investing it with a timeless holiness. But the spontaneous righteousness of the Fathers was not a response to a command. It did not relate them to the essence of G‑d. And therefore the holiness of their acts was only temporary in its effect on the world.

Nonetheless, we have the maxim, “The works of the Fathers are a sign for the children,” meaning that the spiritual resources that we have in being able to keep the commandments are an inheritance from the virtue of the Fathers before the Torah was given. How was this transmitted if, as it seems, there is no connection between the commands before and after Sinai? However, one command bears this connection, and this was circumcision; because it alone was commanded by G‑d to Abraham (albeit not prefaced by the disclosure of His essence, “I am the L-rd your G‑d”); and therefore its effect on this world persisted through time. This is the connecting link between all the acts of the Fathers and the later capacity of the Children of Israel to do G‑d’s will: Abraham’s circumcision endured in its merit.

5. Making Good the Past

Now we can understand that Abraham’s decision to circumcise himself after ninety-nine years of service was not simply to add something which would make all his subsequent life complete, but rather retroactively to remedy his previous defect.

This applies to all who have yet to reach the stage of “one hundred years”: Not merely to add to their service but to bring their previous deficiencies to perfection.

6. The Two Versions of the Story

Now we can understand the meaning of both versions of the Tzemach Tzedek’s reply to Rabbi Shalom DovBer.

The second version teaches us that it is binding even on the righteous man to undergo (the spiritual analogue of) circumcision; how much more so is it binding on the ordinary Jew.

But how can the first version stand? Is it not included a fortiori in the second? Also—Abraham was a righteous Jew even before his circumcision (he merely lacked the predicate of perfection). How then could he be called an “ordinary Jew”?

The answer is: Abraham’s act of circumcision was a response to the Divine command and related to the deepest aspects of G‑dliness. So that this summoned forth the deepest powers of the soul, at which level there is no distinction between the righteous and the ordinary, and where the distinguishing characteristics of men are effaced.

In short, the second version takes the surface point of view where the righteous is distinguished from the others, (and therefore emphasizes the duty of a righteous man); the first, the deeper one where all Jewish souls are equal in their source.

7. A Relationship Above Time

Underlying the idea of the merit of Abraham’s circumcision is that of the eternal worth of every act of service—it unites commander, commanded and commandment in a bond above time.9 But despite the fact that this bond exists even for the unrighteous, (for “even the sinners of Israel are full of Mitzvot”),10 Abraham’s act reminds us that even the righteous has constantly to renew it, by “removing the foreskin of the world”; and when he does so, his reward will be that granted to Abraham: The prophetic awareness of G‑d.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. V pp. 86-91)