Among the different reasons given to this question, I would like to highlight one midrashic quote describing Abraham in Haran as a flask of mirth with a tight-fitting lid. Only when open — out in the world — could the fragrance be scattered to all. The Midrash expands on this particular point. Immediately after the Lech Lecha call, Abraham’s response is recorded: “Abram took his wife, Sarai ... and the souls that they acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan.”
An intriguing phrase, “souls that they had acquired.” What can it mean? Once again, Midrash Rabba offers an explanation. The souls acquired were converts to Judaism. Abram converted the men, and Sarai the women. Abram was regarded as a proactive outreach figure, a rabbinic perception rooted in the early centuries of the Common Era.
While Judaism has never become a missionary religion, it has rarely seen itself, either, as an exclusive club with no wish to attract new people.
This is an important message for our time, in which we are so concerned with the preservation of our heritage and identity in face of rampant assimilation that the obligation to scatter the perfume of Judaism around the world is easily neglected.
In the Midrash one rabbi said that the nations of the world slept and did not come under the wings of the Shechina. Who woke them up that they might come? Abram. And not only so, but Abram woke them up through charity, for he opened an inn and received within it the passers by. Abram, as a Jewish paradigm, dispensed not only charity, but spiritual teachings to the world, sprinkling the perfume of both wherever he journeyed and welcomed those who would join him in his path.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)