“The Souls That Were Made in Haran”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Lech Lecha, the dynamic Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham), enters upon the biblical scene and begins to revolutionize the world by introducing and promoting the concept of ethical monotheism.

Abram is told to leave his homeland, his relatives and his father’s house and go to the land that G-d will show him–the land of Canaan. There G-d promises to make him a great nation, to bless him and make his name great. In Canaan, Abram is to become a blessing to all people.

Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. Scripture (Genesis 12:5) informs us that, “Va’yee’kach Avram et Sarai eesh’toh, v’et Lot ben ah’cheev, v’et kol r’choo’shahm ah’sher rah’chah’shoo, v’et ha’nefesh ah’sher ah’soo v’Charan,” and Abram took his wife, Sarai, and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they had made in Haran, and they left to go to the land of Canaan. And they came to the land of Canaan.

Abram, the son of Terach, was born in the Hebrew year 1948 (1813 B.C.E.). In the Hebrew year 2000 (1761 B.C.E.), he left Ur Kasdim (Ur of Chaldees in Mesopotamia) with his father, Terach, stopped for a while in Haran, and in the Hebrew year 2023 (1738 B.C.E.), arrived with his family (but without his father) in the land of Canaan. The journey that Abram made was to change the destiny of humankind.

The commentators, however, are perplexed by the make-up of Abram’s entourage. Obviously, Abram would be expected to take along his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, and all the possessions that he had amassed in Haran. But who are the “souls that had been made in Haran,” who accompanied Abram to Canaan? Rashi explains that the expression “souls” used in the verse simply refers to Abram and Sarai’s men and women slaves. The term “made,” means that they had been acquired or purchased.

However, Rashi also cites a Midrashic view, found in both Bereishith Rabbah 39:14, 84:4 and in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 99b. The Midrash states that the term “made,” refers to the natives of the land of Haran whom Abram and Sarai “brought under the wings of the divine presence.” Abram would convert the men, Sarai would convert the women. By converting them, scripture considers these converts as if Abram and Sarai had “made” them. In fact, the Talmudic sage, Raish Lakish concludes from this verse that one who teaches his neighbor’s child Torah, scripture considers it as if he had “made” that child.

The Midrash’s perception of Abram as a zealous missionary should not surprise us. This image seems well borne out by the biblical narrative itself. Wherever Abram goes, he builds altars and calls out the name of G-d, to persuade the people to acknowledge the monotheistic G-d that he worshiped.

The Midrash in Sotah 10a goes into fascinating detail regarding Abram’s “outreach” efforts:

When the verse in Genesis 21:33 states that “Abram called there on the name of the Lord,” Raish Lakish said: read not, “and he called,” but, “and he caused to call.” Meaning that our father Abram caused the name of the Holy One to be called by the mouth of every passerby. How did it come about? After travelers [whom he had welcomed to his home as his guests] had eaten and drunk their full, they stood up to bless him. He said to them: “Was it of mine that you ate? You ate of that which belongs to the [everlasting] G-d of the world. Thank, praise, and bless Him who spoke and the world came into being”.

A second Midrash, found in Genesis Rabbah 49:4, 43:7 and 54:6, elaborates a bit more on Abram’s techniques:

Abram used to receive wayfarers. After they had eaten and drunk, he would suggest, “Say grace.” When they said, “What shall we say?” He would reply, “[Say],˜Blessed be the everlasting G-d of the world of whose bounty we have partaken.'” If the wayfarer, having eaten and drunk, accepted this suggestion and said grace, he would be allowed to depart. But if he refused, Abram would say, “Pay what you owe me!” When the wayfarer asked, “How much do I owe?” Abram would reply, “A jug of wine–so much; a pound of meat–so much; a loaf of bread–so much. Who do you suppose is giving you wine in the wilderness, meat in the wilderness, bread in the wilderness?”

The wayfarer, now aware that he must either pay or thank G-d by saying grace, would say, “Blessed be the everlasting G-d of the world of whose bounty we have partaken.” This is the meaning of the description of Abram (Genesis 18:19) as one who “bestows free bounty and justice”–first bounty, then justice.

We see that our forefather, Abram, and his wife Sarai, were the original implementors of the popular outreach motto: For the price of a chicken you can make a Baal Teshuvah! It is, after all, a well-known “trade secret” that one of the best ways to a person’s soul is through his stomach, a hearty meal or a sumptuous kiddush.

Unfortunately, most contemporary Jews never have these positive, joyous Jewish experiences and are therefore not open to hearing the message of Judaism. Abram, through his hospitality, made his guests feel at ease. In fact, a version of this Midrash in Sifra, Deuteronomy 32, says specifically that our father Abram would bring people into his home, give them food and drink, befriend them, and thus attract them, then convert them and bring them under the wings of the divine presence. It was specifically through love, friendship, warmth and hospitality that Abram “scored” his outreach successes.

This analysis of the “souls they had made in Haran” could conclude at this point, leaving us with an important message of how warmth and hospitality effectively touch our brothers and sisters who have no connection to G-d, but the story does not end here. Some rabbis are troubled by the fact that we never again hear about these “souls” that Abram and Sarai had made in Haran.

The Da’at Sofrim adds the following remarkable postscript to the story:

Abram went on his journey, accompanied by a camp of people whom he had taught and who had imbibed the true Torah. These people [however] did not merit that the Torah should effect them personally, because they didn’t have that special [spiritual element] that would keep them connected for generations. These “converts” did not succeed in connecting their children to the Torah, and in the course of years, they assimilated back into the nations from where they came. However, there is no doubt that they transmitted many elements of the Torah of Abram to the gentiles and that their influence on the non-Jewish culture was great.

The fact that scripture never again mentions the souls that Abram and Sarai had made, is indeed perplexing. Of course, it is terribly disappointing to learn that Abram’s students didn’t “make it.” How is it possible that the students of the great Abram did not have the “spiritual connection” necessary to remain committed to monotheism, or have the ability to transmit with enthusiasm those beliefs to the next generation?

Perhaps the answer lies in the Midrashic depiction that states that if the wayfarer refused to say grace, Abram would not allow him to depart and would insist that the guest pay for the wine, meat and bread. While it’s true that eventually the wayfarer uttered the blessing, “Blessed be the everlasting G-d of the world of whose bounty we have partaken,” it is unlikely that it was said with much enthusiasm, given the fact that it was a blessing offered under coercion, rather than through conviction.

There is much that we can learn from the fate of “the souls who were made in Haran.” Perhaps the most important lesson of all is best expressed in that pithy Yiddish statement, “Priv mit gittens,” try with “goodness” and “love,” rather than with force.

May you be blessed.