Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
On one of my visits to Israel a dear friend took me on a tour of the ruins of Shiloh. He showed me the remnants of a huge stone wall atop a massive hill and described how formidable the fortress appeared to lone travelers at the bottom of the hill.
He told me that he often wondered about Abraham’s journey to Jerusalem, which took him right past this fortress. Armed with a Divine promise that this land would one day belong to him, Abraham must have wondered how the powerful Canaanites and their formidable fortresses might fall into his hands.
Listening to his description I wondered whether Abraham experienced fear as he passed the mighty fortresses. I later learned that Jewish mystics asked the very same question and deduced from the Torah that he experienced no fear at all.
The Torah informs us that along with their possessions, Abraham and Sarah took, “The soul they made in Haran.” How does one make a soul? Should all the world’s scientists gather to invest a single insect with a soul they would fail, how could Abraham and Sarah make a soul?
Our sages explained that this refers to the proselytes that converted under their tutelage. While in Haran, Abraham staged mass rallies to explain the theology of monotheism and debate his detractors. He published four hundred manuscripts of persuasive argumentation. In private, Abraham worked tirelessly with the men while Sarah worked tirelessly with the women. By the time they moved to Israel they had converted countless people to monotheism.
The Torah describes Abraham and Sara’s converts as souls that they made and from this our sages deduce that one who brings a gentile to Judaism and mentors the conversion is considered to have created the convert’s soul. Upon conversion, the convert is invested with a new soul. To recruit, guide and sponsor the convert is to create the convert’s soul.
Let’s take this a little deeper. At first blush, this concept is not unique to conversion. Our sages taught that teaching Torah to a child is the equivalent of giving birth to them, which is why the Torah ascribes Aaron’s sons to Moses. Yet here our sages went a step further. Teaching and guiding a convert to conversion is not the equivalent of giving birth to them, but of creating them. In the Torah’s words, the teacher makes the convert’s soul. How does this work? How can a human create a soul?
The answer lies in another enigmatic verse about Sarah. The Torah tells us that “Sarah was barren, she had no child.” In an obscure passage, the Zohar wondered about the apparent redundancy, if she was barren, she obviously had no child. Why does the Torah state the obvious?
The Mystics explained that these words teach us an important lesson about Sarah. She was physically barren, she gave no birth to a physical child, but she was spiritually fertile. Through her relations with Abraham, she conceived countless new souls. How does this work?
To understand this we must first explain a fundamental point with respect to physical intimacy. The Torah prohibits wastage of seed. Yet it is halakhically permissible for a man to enjoy physical intercourse with his wife even when she is pregnant, barren or beyond child bearing and his seed holds no prospect of germination. The legal justification is that halakhic wastage is defined narrowly as spillage. Intercourse is always permissible when the seed is invested directly into the womb. That the seed cannot germinate due to circumstances beyond the couple’s control does not render it wasted.
Yet, this argument, while sound on legal grounds, does not satisfy on mystical grounds. Jewish mystics attributed immense cosmic significance to the creative power in the seed. They explained that when seed is wasted, intense sacred energies are re-routed into the realm of contamination and impurity. When one has relations with a pregnant or barren wife, the creative power in the seed is left untapped. What happens to this powerful energy? How can we not treat it as a waste?
The answer is that the powerful energies are recruited to conceive spiritual souls. Every time a married Jewish couple engages in physical relations a union is triggered between the masculine and feminine projections of the Divine for the purpose of conceiving and eventually creating new souls. When the woman is pregnant these relations result in added spiritual energy to her child’s soul. When she is barren it results in the conception of an entirely new soul that is kept in reserve and eventually allocated to a proselyte upon conversion or at times a sinner upon repentance.
On the surface, the proselyte or penitent enjoys no familial relation with the progenitor of their soul. Yet, in heaven these details are recorded and after a hundred-and-twenty years when they meet their progenitors in heaven they regard them as parents. Sarah was physically barren, but throughout her marriage to Abraham she conceived countless souls that were held in reserve for the proselytes that she and Abraham would eventually attract. Hence the Torah describes these proselytes as souls created by Abraham and Sarah.
An Army of Proselytes
When Abraham and Sarah relocated to Israel, their entire community of proselytes accompanied them. Abraham and Sarah did not travel alone as they passed the formidable Canaanite fortresses. A huge entourage of proselytes, the nation of Abraham, accompanied them on this journey. It was a nation that could easily serve as an army. Thus protected, Abraham and Sarah experienced no fear.
On an even deeper level the mystics suggest that the proselytes might not have actually accompanied Abraham and Sarah on this journey, but the merit of bringing these people to monotheism did.
Wherever we go, our good deeds accompany us and form protective canopies around us to shield us from harm. Abraham and Sarah did not fear the mighty Canaanites because they relied on their merits and good deeds. We too ought to rely on our good deeds because they are our most efficient protectors.