Sunday, October 14, 2007

Parshat Lech Lecha

“G-d said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ … Avram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they made in Charan; and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12; 1-5). This was one of Avraham’s ten tests (Ethics of the Fathers 5; 3); because he hearkened to G-d, and left his home, relatives and family, he showed his faith and trust in G-d. Yet this passage is remarkably similar to that immediately preceding. “Terach took his son Avram, and Lot the son of Charan, his grandson, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of Avram his son, and they departed with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan; they arrived at Charan and they settled there.” The Torah is not merely telling us the travelogue of Terach and his family, but seems to be implying a parallel between Avram and his father. Both set out for Canaan with their families. However, Avram arrived at his destination, whereas Terach gave up en route and settled in Charan. Surely G-d is as concerned with intent as with deed, therefore we should expect that Terach is praised for beginning the process which Avram was to complete.
Yet even from G-d’s instruction to Avram we see that this is not the case. “Go … from your father’s house...”. G-d explains to Avram that he is not to continue in his father’s path, but to make a new beginning, devoid of his past. Similarly, when Joshua gives his farewell address to the nation, he compares Avraham’s actions with those of Terach. “Your forefathers - Terach, the father of Avraham and the father of Nachor - always dwelt beyond the [Euphrates] river and they served other gods.” (24; 2). Avraham, the founding father of the nation, and the first to embrace monotheism, is contrasted with his father Terach who was still an idolater. Thus, rather than considering Terach meritorious for setting out for the Land of Israel, he has become the epitome of an idolater for his failure to reach that goal. In fact, it seems that Terach’s main failing was his inability to cross the river.
Avraham is described (Genesis 14; 13) as ‘Ivri’ (‘Hebrew’ lit. ‘from the other side’) because he came from the other side of the river. It seems that crossing the Euphrates river and entering into Israel is the crucial distinction between Avraham and Terach, between monotheistic service of G-d andidolatrous worship of alien gods. The Midrash highlights the difference in even starker terms: “I shall give to you and your descendants after you the land where you dwell, all the land of Canaan … and I will be for them as G-d” (17; 8). Rabbi Yudan said, if they enter the Land of Israel they accept G-d’s divinity, and if not they do not accept it.” How can such a simple journey make such a difference? Furthermore, Avraham was commanded by G-d to enter Israel; perhaps if Terach had received such an invitation he could have become the founder of our faith in place of Avraham.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbi 41) gives another explanation of the word Ivri. “Rabbi Yehuda says that all the world was on one side, and Avraham was on the other.” Avraham was the original iconoclast, he smashed the idols of the entire generation, and was not afraid to show the world that he was different, even if it meant putting his life at risk. He was prepared to live by his beliefs. Therefore G-d instructed him to cross the river, and enter into the Land of Canaan, the geographical distinction symbolising Avraham’s spiritual separation from the rest of the world.
On the other hand, when Terach reached Charan, he gave up the quest for spiritual growth. The Torah tells us that after arriving in Charan, Terach died at the age of 205 years old (11; 32). However, when we calculate his age upon arrival, we find that he didn’t die until long after Avraham had gone to Israel, and become famous as Avraham the Ivri. However the Torah tells us now that he died to write him out of the story. He failed to reach Israel, and cross the river, even though he recognised the importance of Israel and the symbolic meaning in going to the other side. Therefore he no longer has a part to play in the history and spiritual development of the Jewish nation. Furthermore, rather than dedicate himself to the goal of making G-d known in the world, Terach opted for the comfortable life in Charan. Because of this, the Torah not only considers him a failure, but also classes him as wicked. Rashi’s commentary to that verse states, “The verse calls him dead, for the wicked even during their lifetime are called ‘dead’, and the righteous even after their death are called ‘living’”.
Though it may seem that both Terach and Avraham set out on similar goals, only Avraham had the dedication and perseverance to realise that goal, and make G-d’s presence felt in the world. Terach knew what should be done, but failed to achieve it, and chose the easier option. Thus Jewish history leaves him on the sidelines, and brands him an idolater. Though he gave up worshipping idols made of wood or stone, he became subservient to that greater false god of personal comfort and security.

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