The sages identify the beginning of the era of Torah with Avraham’s conversion of the idol worshipers of Charan into believers in God. The question arises why did the sages view this event as ushering in the era of Torah? After all, the Torah pre-existed Creation and was the blueprint for Creation. Adam and Noach learned Torah long before Avraham was born, and Shem and Ever even set up a yeshivah.
In order to answer this question, we must first understand Avraham’s unique role in the transmission of knowledge of Hashem. Raavad (to Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:3) asks why Avraham alone of all the righteous people of his generation and the preceding ten generations is credited with influencing the masses. Surely the others also protested against idolatry and rebuked their wayward contemporaries. He answers that while the other tzaddikim admonished
their contemporaries, they were not able to break the idols because the idol worshipers hid them. Only Avraham was able to find the idols.
Raavad’s words are difficult to understand. Was Avraham Avinu, then, only a better detective than the other tzaddikim, and thus able to ferret out the hidden idols? Moreover, what does Raavad mean that they hid their idols? Nimrod and his cohorts publicly worshiped idols and idol manufacturers, like Avraham’s father, carried on a brisk, open trade.
To understand Raavad we need a deeper understanding of ancient idolatry. Rambam explains that the original idol worship was a well intentioned mistake. Just as one honors the king by honoring his emissaries, so did the generation of Enosh worship various natural phenomena, which God had invested with certain powers, as a means of honoring the Creator of those phenomenon. Their mistake lay in failing to recognize that showing respect to the king’s emissary is only a form of honoring the king when he is absent. But when he is present, it is tantamount to rebellion. Since Hashem is always present, the worship of His creations is always a diminution of Him.
With the sin of Adam, the relative terms good and evil, replaced the absolutes of truth and falsehood. The various shades of good and evil became a confusing admixture. The Torah, by contrast, distinguishes absolutely between pure and impure, light and darkness, life and death.
The idol worshipers of Avraham’s generation did not hide their idolatry physically, but spiritually. They masked it as righteousness and honor to God. They created ideologies to cloak their sins in light and virtue. Prior to Avraham no one was able to expose the sham, to delineate the light and darkness. This failure prevented them from exercising any lasting influence on those they admonished. They could not break the idols. Only Avraham saw the light and darkness in their true perspective and conveyed this to the masses. He exposed evil for what it was and thereby transformed the idol worshipers into believers in God. Avraham’s life work, then, was the beginning of the era of Torah, the delineation of light and darkness.
(Rabbi Zev Leff)