Mayim Hayim – Lech Lecha 5767

“And Avram took his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and all of the property that he had acquired (v’eth hanefesh asher ‘asu v’haran) and they left to go to the land of Cana’an, and they arrived at the land of Cana’an” (Bereshith 12:5). The Hebrew word ‘asu usually means “they made”, so v’eth hanefesh asher ‘asu v’haran would therefore mean “and the soul that they made in Haran”. Let’s take a closer look at this well known verse from the parashah of Lech L’cha to discover a deeper understanding of exactly what Avraham and Sarah did.
Rashi, as he often does with particularly difficult passages, offers two explanations that seem to be mutually exclusive – it means either this or that. (He does this because each explanation has a difficulty that the other one resolves – N.H.). First he says that “they brought them under the wings of the Divine Presence: Avraham converted the men, and Sarah converted the women. The verse credits them as if they had made them” (ibid). He then goes on to offer a different meaning, saying: “And the simple meaning of the verse (p’shuto shel miqra) is that (the ones referred to as being “made” were actually) male and female servants that (Avraham and Sarah) had acquired”.
The source of the first explanation is Bereshith Rabbah 39:12, usually considered to be an Aggadic, i.e. homiletic source; Rashi describes the second definition as being the p’shat, commonly translated as the “literal” meaning – the meaning that the word usually denotes, either alone or in context. Although ‘asu usually means “they made”, Rashi here brings examples where the root of ‘asu (‘Ayin-Shin-Heh) means acquired or gathered, supporting his claim that this is the p’shat.
Sometimes, the homiletic meaning (agadah) differs from the literal meaning (p’shat). But sometimes, as I believe is the case here, they are two sides of the same coin: complementary, non-exclusive explanations.
When Avraham left Haran, he obviously didn’t leave all of his servants behind. They were the Nefesh asher ‘asu v’haran – the property that they bought there. Buying and owning servants was common in those days (the Jewish ‘eved of the Torah is very different than the commonly accepted concept of “slave” – N.H.).
But it is also true that Avraham and Sarah’s whole concern was to spread the knowledge of The One God to all people. They began this ambitious campaign in their own household. Since they were still childless, their servants were the only household they had; the servants that they “acquired” (‘asu) became the first converts that they “made” (‘asu). As the Midrash explains, nobody can really “make” another person, another soul; Avraham and Sarah remade them into believers and servants of The One God. In this case, both meanings are the p’shat.
Rav S.M. Hirsch, in his commentary on this verse, challenges Rashi’s claim that asu here means “made.” He claims that this is the meaning only where there is an object following the verb, such as “life” or “honor”, as in the two examples Rashi brings (see there.) In our verse, however, this is not the case. He therefore also explains that these converts were rather created anew spiritually, in accordance with Rashi’s first “midrashic” explanation.
The Aramaic translations support this usage. The Targum Yonathan says di gairu v’Haran – that these people converted in Haran. And Onkelos, who usually translates according to the p’shat, also says something similar to the first, seemingly homiletic explanation of Rashi – that they were souls whom Avraham and Sarah “made to be subservient” to the Torah (d’sha’bidu l’oraitha).
Onkelos’ version provides us with a fascinating grammatical connection between the two explanations of Rashi. The “servants” (‘AVaDim) bought according to Rashi’s literal meaning correspond to the “subservience” (d’shA’BiDu) of the converted followers according to Onkelos. Servants serve their human master on earth; converts serve their newly realized Master in Heaven.
Furthermore, we see that Onkelos is not satisfied to merely say that these followers were converted to Avraham and Sarah’s path, to their way of life; he specifically describes them as converting to the Torah. In Hebrew, Torah is often figuratively compared to “Or” – Light (Torah Orah – “Torah is light”). In Aramaic, however, the word for Torah is “Or”. More precisely, the Hebrew root of “Torah”, Heh-Resh-Heh, becomes Aleph-Resh-Yod in Aramaic, the source of Onkelos’ translation to ORaItha. In the world of Torah learning, something that is directly from the Written or Oral Torah is referred to as being d’Oraitha; something that was added later by the Sages is called d’Rabbanan.
But if Avraham and Sarah made them into Torah observant souls, what exactly was this Torah? The Torah that we know today was given to the Jewish people much later at Mount Sinai. If they weren’t Torah observant Jews, then what were they?
“Torah” here must be understood in a much wider and more basic sense. It is the teaching and spreading of the knowledge of Hashem and the renunciation of idolatry, the two most basic truths of existence (as expressed in the first two of the ten commandments, “I am the Lord your God” and “You shall not have any other gods besides Me”, archetypes of all proactive and restrictive divine mandates after them – N.H.). This is the fundamental “Torah” for everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike: accepting The One God, and rejecting superfluous service of and dedication to anything else (‘avodah zarah). Jews connect to this reality through 613 categories of activities and constraints; all other people do through the seven categories given to Noah after the flood (Sheva’ Mitzvoth Bnei Noah). (It’s a 613/7 world – N.H.).
May we all merit, as did Avraham and Sarah our pioneering grandparents, to recognize, act upon, and bring others to an appreciation of clarity and truth in a world of blatant and subtle distraction and confusion. And may we also merit to remake ourselves to become joyful servants of the most Compassionate and Beneficient Master.