The Torah portion of Lech Lecha
alludes to the fact that Avraham and Sarah (our patriarch and matriarch) converted many people to monotheistic beliefs, as the Torah says (Gen. 12:5
), “And Avram took Sarai, his wife, and… the souls they had made (אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ) in Charan.” Rashi explains that Avraham would convert the men while Sarah would convert the women. As such, the Torah considers it as if they had “made” them.
The Souls that They Made
This interpretation is based on Bereishit Rabbah 39:14
where it explains that the usage of the plural “עָשׂוּ” (i.e., “the souls that they made” as opposed to “the souls that he made”) indicates that both Avraham and Sarah were involved in transforming these souls.
Plain meaning of the Verse
Rashi says that the more straightforward interpretation of the verse is that it is referring to the servants they had acquired in Charan. In this context the word עשה doesn’t mean “made” but rather “acquired.”
The Chida (in Chomat Anach
) points out that the interpretation that it refers to conversion fits in better with the verse which says that they acquired souls -nefesh – as opposed to bodies.
On a slightly different note than the above Midrash, the Radak suggests that the use of the plural עָשׂוּ alludes to the fact that Avraham’s nephew Lot was also involved in these conversion efforts.
It is noteworthy that from a Kabbalistic perspective, Lot had an exalted soul. (He was, after all, a brother of our matriarch Sarah. See Rashi on Gen. 11:29
. In addition, his father Haran died after pronouncing his belief in one G-d. See ibid on verse 28.) This is why the gematria (numerical value) of his name was 45 (ל = 30, ו = 6 and ט = 9) which is the gematria of one of the names of G-d. (45 is the gematria of the letters yud kai vov kai when they are spelled out יוד – הא – ואו – הא.) As a result of the level of his soul he was the ancestor of two celebrated converts, Ruth, the Moabite (great-grandmother of King David), and Na’amah, the Ammonite (wife of King Solomon and mother of the next king). Unfortunately, Lot was not living up to his exalted potential, and his behaviour was a mixture of holiness and unholiness. The unholiness was so intense that his name also means “curse” (in Aramaic). This is why Avraham needed eventually to separate from him (Torah Ohr, parshat Lech Lecha 11d
The Beginning of the Receiving of the Torah
The Chizkuni writes that Avraham and Sarah’s work in converting people was the beginning of the process of receiving the gift of the Torah (since Avraham was teaching Torah to these converts).
This is based on the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9a
) that says that the 2,000 year period of “Torah” began when Avraham began teaching Torah to the converts. According to the Talmud he was 52 years old at that time. Tosfot (D.H. Gemiri) suggests that Avraham took his first trip to the land of Israel at that time.
Yitzchak and Yaakov Continuing the Tradition
The Rabbeinu Bachaye adds that Yitzchak, too, would convert people in this manner. As it says (Gen. 37:1
) וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו – “And Ya’akov dwelt in the land where his father dwelt.” The word מְגוּרֵי can be read as מֽגוּיָירי – “of the converts.” As such the verse can be understood as saying that Yaakov lived in the land where his father (Yitzchak) had been converting people. Similarly, Yaakov was also involved in converting people, as the verse says (Gen. 35:2
), “And Yaakov said to his household and to all those that were with him, ‘Remove the foreign gods from your midst.’” Who were these people that were with Yaakov other than his family? And why was he exhorting them to get rid of foreign gods? These were the pagans that had come to join the “sons of Israel,” and Yaakov was trying to wean them away from idol worship.
Exile for Converts
The Talmud says (Pesachim 87b
) that the reason G-d exiled the Jewish people amongst the nations is so that converts should be added to their midst, as the verse (Hoshe’a 2:25)
says “And I will sow her for Me in the land.” The Talmud asks (rhetorically), “Does a person plant a measure of grain if not to gather in many measures?” Obviously, G-d did this “planting” for an increase in his “produce.” These are the converts who were added during the exiles.
Another source is given (according to some versions of the Talmud) from the continuation of the above verse, “And I will say to those who were not my nation ‘You are My people.’ And they will respond, ‘You are my G-d,’” (See also Zohar, vol. 1, 244a
.) i.e., as a result of the exile, there will be people who were formerly not part of G-d’s nation and then became part of it.
This does not mean that we are supposed to seek out converts. On the contrary, when a convert wishes to convert we are supposed to discourage him or her from doing so in order to ensure that they are sincere (see Y.D. 268:2 and commentaries
). Rather, it means that we should behave in such a way that the nations around us are so impressed and inspired that they come to convert of their own accord (Ma’ayanei HaChaim by Rabbi Chayim Zaichik, vol. 2, parshat Chukat, quoted in Yalkut Bi’urim).
According to the Kabbalists, every sincere convert is born with a Jewish soul which is trapped in a gentile body. As such, the conversion process is simply revealing that inner soul. One can, however, ask, why was it necessary for G-d to exile the Jewish people? Why could the souls of the converts not be drawn to the Land of Israel to convert there? The No’am Elimelech (Parshat Yitro) explains that the individual spark hidden inside a convert living in a foreign land may not have the strength to inspire the convert to move across the globe and convert. But if there are Jewish people nearby, the soul will sense the holiness, be drawn to it, and be inspired to convert.
The Meaning of “Converts”
The commentaries wonder as to the meaning of the above teaching. Why would G-d exile His people just for the converts who will be added to the nation? Indeed many tzaddikim throughout our history were converts or descendants thereof. But why are they so significant that the Jewish people must literally transverse the globe in order to attract them?
Sparks of Holiness
Rabbi Shne’or Zalman of Liadi explains (Torah Ohr, Parshat Lech Lecha, 11b
) that the Talmud is also referring to the “sparks” of Divine energy that are hidden in the various aspects of the physical world. Wherever the Jewish people go, they utilize the physical world to perform mitzvot and to serve G-d. In so doing they elevate the spirituality hidden in that physicality. This explains the example of a person who plants a measure and reaps many times as many measures. If this teaching were only referring to actual converts, the example would not be precise as the converts represent a small fraction of the Jewish people rather than a majority (Ben Yehoyada
Where Are the Sparks from?
These sparks represent Divine energy that was diverted to the side of unholiness through the sin of the Tree of Knowledge and all subsequent sins (Megaleh Amukot, Parshat Lech Lecha).
These sparks are called geirim as the word ger means a stranger. Because these sparks of holiness are trapped in physicality, they are referred to as “strangers” (Me’ir bat Ayin by Rabbi Meir Bikyam, Siman 44). In addition, just as a convert transforms himself and becomes a holier person, these sparks are transformed to holiness (Bi’urei HaZohar by Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, parshat VaYigash, page 69a).
Even One Jew
Sometimes the spiritual elevation of a place is accomplished by a community that lives in that place. And sometimes it can be accomplished by even one Jew who comes to a place and elevates it by serving G-d there (Marit Ha’ayin by the Chida
70 Souls for the 70 Nations
This is why the number of root souls of the Jewish people parallels the number of the main nations of the world. (There were 70 members of Yaakov’s family who descended to the land of Egypt [see Gen. chapter 46
] and there were 70 main nations in the ancient world.) This is because the Jewish people are the key to the spiritual elevation of all of those nations (Torah Ohr 117b
No Sparks in Egypt
This is the inner reason why the Jewish people are forbidden to live in Egypt (see Deut. 17:16) as during the course of the Egyptian exile, the Jewish people already extracted every spark of holiness from that land. Since we cannot accomplish the very reason for the exile by living there, we may not do so (Panim Yafot on Parshat Yitro, quoted in the Yalkut Bi’urim in the Metivta Shas on Pesachim ibid).
Impacting the Gentile Nations
Some say that the Talmud is not only referring to gentiles who convert and become Jewish but also to those who, through the influence of the Jewish people, learn to believe in G-d and observe the Seven Noahide Laws. The word ger (convert) can also refer to such people as they are called geirei toshav (foreign settlers) [Yachin on Pirkei Avot, 6:11
The Future Converts
Along a similar line, the Chatam Sofer (On Pesachim, ibid, D.H. Lo) explains that the Talmud is referring to all of the nations of the world who, according to the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b
), will attempt to convert in the Messianic era. Although they will not be able to fully convert at that time, they will still achieve a certain degree of holiness. This will be a result of the Jewish people spending time in all of their countries over the course of the exile.
If We Would Not Have Sinned
If the Jewish people had not sinned and been exiled, these Divine sparks of holiness would have been drawn to Israel by the intense holiness there just as a spark is drawn to a bonfire. Similar to how the Queen of Sheba came to Israel after hearing about the wisdom of King Solomon (Tal HaShamayim, Parshat Lech Lecha).
May we Merit to Elevate all of the Divine Energy in this World and Bring Moshiach!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!