The souls they made

The souls they made

Rabbi Paul Tuchman
Rabbi Paul Tuchman

Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27

What happens between the 11th and 12th chapters of Genesis?

We read at the end of chapter 11 that Terach moves with his family, including Avram and Sarai, from Ur to Haran. They had set out for Canaan, but they only went part of the way.

Suddenly, at the beginning of chapter 12, God is speaking to Avram and appointing him and Sarai for a special destiny. Why?

This question has intrigued Jews for millennia, and the answers usually revolve around aspects of their characters that made them uniquely worthy of God’s attention and care. Answering such questions is the job of midrash, and many of us are familiar with some of the classic commentaries.

Best known is the story of Avram in his father’s idol shop, forcing his father to realize that idolatry is irrational. There is another story, of Avram observing the sky and the weather, and realizing that there is a power beyond them. And there are more besides these.

This week’s Torah portion offers us yet another explanation of what made Avram and Sarai so deserving of God’s favor. We read (Genesis 12:5) that they set out for Canaan with “kol ha-nefesh asher asu,” (all the souls that they made) in Haran.

That seems to be an odd expression, and it provokes commentary. Rashi and other classic commentators agree that the plain meaning is that Avram and Sarai acquired slaves for their household. Saying “made” is the same as saying “acquired.”

But Rashi, typically, doesn’t leave the question there. He also quotes midrash, saying that Avram and Sarai convinced men and women of their own understanding of God. These “made souls” were the original converts, and Avram and Sarai brought them in under the wings of God’s presence, the shechinah.

What was there about Avram and Sarai that made them so effective at “making souls?”

Were they so powerfully persuasive? Did they (God forbid) threaten people with dire consequences if they failed to see things their way?

Let us say, rather, that Avram and Sarai led by example. The goodness of their lives was a reflection of the holiness of their beliefs. People wanted to be like them and willingly adopted their faith.

Perhaps their ability to “make souls” was also a reflection of their legendary hospitality. Not only was their home open to travelers, their hearts were open to people on spiritual journeys. They were able to make a comfortable home for those seeking God. Moreover, let us say that Avram and Sarai made themselves approachable to those who wanted to know about God.

Hizkuni, writing in the 13th century, says that the giving of Torah begins here.

Shabbat shalom.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)