Parashat Vayeshev- Born-Again Jews

We often hear of Christians describing themselves as “born-again.”  But are there “born-again” Jews?  What does it mean to be “born-again” from a Jewish perspective? This week’s parasha, Vayeshev, opens up with a verse (Breishit 37:1) which contains a Hebrew word which can be translated in a few different ways.  

“And Yaakov settled in the land where his father sojourned (megurei), in the land of Canaan.” 

וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן:

Breishit Rabbah on our parasha (LXXXIV:4) comments on this verse and the word “megurei” by beginning with a history lesson.  

Avram made converts, for it is written, ‘And Avram took Sarai his wife... and the souls that they had made in Haran.’(Gen. XII, 5).   

According to Midrash, when the Torah teaches that Avraham and Sarah “made souls” it means that they converted them to the belief in one G-d, a belief that they introduced to the entire world.  Our tradition teaches that in fact, Avraham and Sarah, themselves converts, converted tens of thousands of people.  This is the source for the custom of giving the Hebrew name “ben / bat Avraham v’ Sarah” (son/ daughter of Avraham and Sarah) to converts.  The Midrash however, finds the phrase “made souls” to be strange and continues as follows:

R. Eleazar observed in the name of R. Yosi b. Zimra: If all the nations assembled to create one insect, they could not endow it with life, yet you say, “And the souls that they had made in Haran!” 

Rabbi Eleazar has a colorful and comedic way of expressing his surprise at the phrase “made souls.”  He rightfully explains that only G-d can create life.  Even if there was a global summit of world leaders, they could not create an insect, let alone a human being.  (Perhaps global summits at Rabbi Eleazar’s time were equally unproductive to the ones we have today!)  An anonymous voice in the Midrash replies to Rabbi Eleazar:  

It [souls] refers, however, to the converts. 

Rabbi Eleazar is not satisfied to accept the answer that the Torah is using the phrase “made souls” loosely to refer to “converted souls.”  From Rabbi Eleazar’s perspective, if the Torah said “made souls” instead of “converted souls,” we are meant to learn something from that phrase.  With this reasoning, Rabbi Eleazar replies:

Then let it say, “That they had converted”: why, “Which they had made”? 

The anonymous voice of the Midrash (or perhaps it is Rabbi Eleazar answering his own rhetorical question) replies:

That is to teach you that if one brings a proselyte near [to God] it is as though he created him. 

The Midrash concludes by teaching us that not only did Avraham and Sarah convert people, but so did their son Yitzchak.  How we do we know that Yitzchak converted people?  The Midrash derives this through the opening pasuk (verse) of our parasha and the curious word “megurei” which can be translated a few different ways:

“And Yaakov settled in the land where his father sojourned/ traveled/ settled/ lived/ was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.” which means, megurei aviv (his father's convertings).

The word “megurei” has a the same root as the the Hebrew word “ger” which means “convert,” but also the same root as the word “to live.”  Hence the play on words in the Midrash to explain the curious phrase “made souls.”

The Midrash’s assertion, however, that a person who brings a convert to G-d is doing something similar to creating that person, is a strong statement.  The message seems to be clear- when we bring someone close to G-d, Torah, or Judaism, we are not just changing some part of them.  It is as if a new soul is being born.  Think about this in terms of broader messages than just Torah.  Imagine this as any type of belief/ wisdom that one person brings another person to.  When people are shaped and changed because of new relationships or new experiences, we often say they are a “different person,” than they once were.  Don’t we really mean to say a “changed person?”  This is the question of the midrash.  The answer is that some change is so fundamental to a person’s essence it is as if they are “born again.”

Jews don’t generally use the phrase “born again.”  Sometimes people who become more religious use the term “baal teshuvah,” (loosely “one who has returned,”) and sometimes people who become Jewish are referred to as “converts” or “Jews by Choice.”  However, after reflecting on this Midrash I think the phrase “born-again” can be fitting for any person who is brought closer to G-d.  What is the Jewish way of being “reborn?”  Clearly from this Midrash, the way to G-d is through relationships.  When one person brings another person around to their point of view or their faith, it is as though they created that person.  This empowering message can serve to remind all of us of the potential we have not just for our own personal growth, but to inspire the growth of others.

The entire Midrash appears below in the original for anyone who may be interested.

דבר אחר: וישב יעקב וגו' - אברהם גייר גיורים, הה"ד (בראשית יב): ויקח אברם את שרי אשתו. אמר רבי אלעזר בשם ר' יוסי בן זימרא: אם מתכנסין כל באי העולם, לבראות אפילו יתוש אחד אינן יכולין, ואת אומר ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן?! אלא אלו הגרים שגייר אותם אברהם. ולמה אמר עשו ולא אמר גיירו? ללמדך שכל מי שהוא מקרב את הגר, כאלו בראו. תאמר אברהם היה מגייר ושרה לא היתה מגיירת?! תלמוד לומר: ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן, אשר עשה אין כתיב כאן, אלא אשר עשו. אמר רבי חוניא: אברהם היה מגייר את האנשים, ושרה מגיירת את הנשים. ומה ת"ל אשר עשו? אלא מלמד שהיה אברהם אבינו מכניסן לתוך ביתו, ומאכילן, ומשקן, ומקרבן, ומכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה. יעקב גייר גיורים, דכתיב: ויאמר יעקב אל ביתו וגו', ויתנו אל יעקב וגו'. ביצחק לא שמענו, והיכן שמענו? רבי יצחק ותאני לה, משום רבי הושעיא רבה, בשם ר' יהודה בר סימון: כאן כתיב: וישב יעקב בארץ מגורי אביו. מאי מגורי אביו? מגיורי אביו: