Abraham and Sarah: Making Converts by Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Only God can make a soul. So what does it mean when 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 300 converts they made; Abraham converting the males and Sarah converting the females.
One of the first converts Avram made was a neighbor named Eved Shemesh from the city of Damascus, He was a sun worshiper. Once Eved Shemesh got a bad sunburn. Avram asked him if the sun god was angry at him for doing something wrong. Eved Shemesh replied that the sun god didn't care what people did; he shined on good people in the same way as he shined on bad people. Avram said, “Don't you think a god should be concerned about how people act to each other? A human judge is supposed to punish the guilty; and help and protect the innocent. Shouldn't a god be as good a judge as a human?”
Eved Shemesh did not know what to say, so he said he would think about it. A few days later he asked Avram to explain what Avram believed about God. They talked for a few hours and Eved Shemesh said he would think about what Avram had said. Two months later Eved Shemesh told Avram he no longer was a sun worshiper. He wanted to change his name which means sun-worshiper to something better. Avram suggested he call himself Eliezer, which means 'my god helps', because Avram believed that God can help people to become better people. Eliezer later went to work for Avram, and eventually became the head of all Avram's workers.
Some time later, Eliezer's wife came to Sarai to tell her about something wonderful. In the months after Eliezer had changed his name, he had started treating his wife with much more respect. She told Sarai that the example of the way Avram treated Sarai had helped Eliezer become a better husband. “Avram believes I am a seer or a prophet.” said Sarai. “My original name Yiscah, was given to me by my father Nachor. Yiscah means visionary or seer”. (Genesis 11:29)
Eliezer's wife was surprised. Pagan religions had both priests and priestesses, but she had never met a female prophet before. (The Talmud in Megillah 14a lists seven female prophets: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda and Esther. According to Midrash Tanchuma on Exodus, Sarah had greater prophetic powers than Abraham. One of her greater powers was the ability to foresee future developments. Malbin, a 19th century Russian commentator, states that when Yiscah married Avram he started calling her Sarati or Sarai both of which mean my chief or my princess. In later years the name Yiscah was no longer used but no one forgot its meaning or Sarai's prophetic abilities. This is why when Abraham was reluctant to send away Hagar and Ishmael as Sarah demanded, God directly instructed him “In all that Sarah says to you, harken to her voice.” (Genesis 21:12) So Yiscah, or Sarai as she was called after her marriage to Avram, was accepted in Avram's family as a visionary or seer.)
Another woman that Sarai converted was Nimrod's daughter Tali. Nimrod was a powerful king who was arrogent, cruel and nasty. His youngest daughter Tali was kind hearted, open minded and very intelligent. One day Sarai met Tali in the garden of the Temple of Sin, the moon God. They began talking about religion. Tali said that she worshipped Sin, the moon God, because, unlike the sun god, the moon was always changing. “My father Nimrod worships Shemesh, the sun god, for three reasons. First, the sun is the most powerful of all the gods. If you stare at the sun you will go blind. Second, unlike the moon, the sun never changes. Third, most people worship the sun and my father likes it when everybody does the same thing. But I think being different, flexibility and change are better religious values to honor than power, rigidity or conformity.”
“You think like I and my husband do.” said Sarai. “Why don't you join us. We are going to leave Haran and go to a new land. There we will start a new people, who will always be different from the majority. We will strive to become a blessing for our future descendants and for all others as well.”
This vision appealed to Tali. She decided to leave behind her motherland, and the wealth and power of her family; and go with Sarai and Avram to a new land that their God had promised to show them.
Once, when Avram was visiting his grandmothers's grave in a vast cemetery in Haran, he met a young man who was sitting next to a grave and crying. Avram tried to console him. The man explained that he was not crying because he had lost someone he loved. He was crying because death made life pointless. “We are born to die.” he said, “Life is meaningless”. Avram told him that life is a blessing given by God. “If you fill your life with love, charity, worship and good deeds; you will die a contented man. Is there anything that make you feel wonder and joy?”
The young man thought for a while and then said, “Sometimes I am awed by the beauty of a sunset when the clouds seem to be on fire.” Avram replied, “Do you thank God for that?” The young man was silent and shook his head-no. “That is your problem, said Avram, “come to my house at sunset and join me in prayer for a few weeks. You may find blessing and purpose in your life.” The young man came, he prayed, and he stayed. He learned that even the sunset of life can be beautiful, and filled with blessings and purpose, if one learns to see the wonders of life and be grateful for them. Years later, when Avram and Sarai left Haran to journey to the land of Canaan, he went with them.