Only God can make a soul. But the Torah states that when Avram and Sarai left Haran to go to the land of Canaan, they took with them some members of their family, and “the souls that they made in Haran”. (Genesis 12:5) How can any human make a soul? Rashi, the famous 11th century French Biblical commentator, quoting a Midrash, says that “the souls that they made” refers to the many converts they made in Haran. But they also made converts in Ur, before they went to Haran, as well as in Canaan and Egypt after they left Haran. Here is the story of two of Sarai’s converts.
Sarai was a very beautiful woman. (Genesis 12:11) When Sarai and Avram went down to Egypt, Pharaoh’s servants who were always on the lookout for beautiful women, heard about Sarai’s beauty. They seized her, and brought her to Pharaoh’s harem.
After a few days a man born on the island of Melos and raised on Crete, who made very beautiful Cycladic style ritual statuettes of women, told Sarai she had to model for him naked, so her sculpture could be sent to Pharaoh for his approval. Sarai refused.
The man offered her silver jewelry to wear and keep. Sarai refused. He offered Sarai gold jewelry to wear and keep. She refused. He told Sarai that none of the other beautiful women had ever refused the silver or the gold. The Egyptians believed Pharaoh was a God, the Devine son of Horus. They felt fortunate to be in God’s harem.
Sarai explained to him that she could not be bought. The one and only God, who had no body and no harem, had made a covenant with her and her husband. If Pharaoh tried to force her, something terrible would happen to him.
When the man from Crete told this to Pharaoh; he laughed. But that night Pharaoh awoke after a very bad dream and couldn’t fall sleep again. In the morning he ordered Sarai’s release; and sent her and Avram on their way with lots of gifts. (Genesis 13:2) The man from Crete was so impressed by Sarai’s trust in God, that he went with them.
Instead of nude Cycladic style ritual statuettes of women, he started sculpting special boxes to be placed in Temples, where people could donate sandals and clothing for the poor. Almost a thousand years later, one of his boxes was placed in the Temple in Jerusalem that was built by Solomon.
Once Sarah met a man named Aner, who was a captain of the guards in Nimrod’s palace in Ur. They began talking about religion. Aner said that he felt that all the silver and gold people spent on making statues to worship, would be better spent helping the poor and redeeming war captives.
Sarah agreed and said that she and her husband were the leaders of a small group of people who were starting a new religious community, They were all determined to follow a path different from the majority of other people.
When you are in the majority, and everyone agrees with you, it is hard to be critical of the way society does things. “We are a small minority and we intend to stay that way,” Sarah said, “although we hope to become a blessing for many other peoples. God willing.”
Aner liked what Sarah told him. Sarah invited him to join their new community; and to come with them to a new land that her husband said would be a special place for them all to start building a holy community. Aner did join them, went to Canaan with them. He settled with Abram’s nephew Lot in Sodom.
When the town was conquered and Lot was carried away as a war captive, Aner was the one who brought the news to Avram. (Genesis 14:13) He and his men, joined Avram in the battle to free Lot. Aner was with Avram when he met with Melchizedek, the King of Salem. (Genesis 14:24)
Almost 2,000 years later, people were still talking about the souls that Abraham and Sarah made in Ur, Haran, Egypt and the Land of Canaan. Rabbi Eliezer taught that because Abraham and Sarah had increased their family so much with the addition of so many converts, they were able to travel throughout the land of Canaan without fear.
Rabbi Abba stated that the personal merit of Abraham and Sarah was augmented by the merit of all the additional souls that accompanied them, because when one person influences another person to join a holy community, the merit (all the Mitzvot) of the joiner is added to the merit of the inviter.
When the Roman Catholic Church became the official religion of the Roman Empire they restricted people from converting to Judaism with fines and lose of inheritance rights. After several generations, when this didn’t stop non-Jews from becoming Jewish; the Romans in the sixth century made conversion to Judaism punishable by death.
This remained the law in all European countries until the 18th century. In Poland in 1749, a Polish nobleman named Valentine Potocki, who had secretly converted to Judaism, was burned alive in the center of Vilna. The more than ten century long established danger of making converts eventually turned almost all rabbis against accepting converts.
Although in theory Judaism warmly welcomes anyone who desires to join the Jewish People to become one of us, in practice many non-Orthodox rabbis, and almost all Orthodox Rabbis, make it difficult to convert to Judaism.
Very few Jews are aware of the teaching of Rabbi Abba that the personal merit of Abraham and Sarah was augmented by the merit of all the additional souls that accompanied them, because when one person influences another person to join a holy community, the merit of the joiner is added to the merit of the inviter.
As we know, Rashi, the greatest of our Bible commentators, taught that Jews started seeking converts from the very beginning of their history, when he explained Genesis 12:5, a verse that states that Abraham made souls in Haran, to mean that Abraham and Sarah made converts.
Also the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) condemns those who push potential converts away by relating that Isaac and Jacob pushed away Timna the sister of Lotan who wanted to become Jewish. She then married a son of Esau. One of her descendants was Amalek who attacked Israel shortly after they escaped from Egypt.
If, instead of being pushed away, Timna had become Jewish, Amalek would have been on our side, and not one of our enemies. A more practical view is hard to imagine.
Indeed, Rabbi Johanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn’t try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish. Even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong according to Rabbi Johanan. And several of our Rabbis felt that discouraging converts in the past had brought troubles upon us.
These are practical, not theological, reasons to seek converts and not to push away those who might be interested. Rabbis today should welcome potential converts and not discourage them. We may not be saving souls, but we should not be making future enemies by rejecting people who want to be Jewish.
The recent attempt by some Haredi Rabbis in Israel to retroactively dejudiaze thousands of Jews who were converted according to Halakah is a shameful example of what not to do.