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Parashat Noah: After the Flood: The relationship between Abraham and Terah

Author: Rabbi David Horwitz
Article Date: Monday October 13, 2008

 
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The end of Parashat Noah (Genesis chapter 11) details the Tower of Babel narrative, the generations of the line of Shem, and concludes with a detailed discussion of the family of Terah.
When Terah had lived seventy years, he begot Abram, Nahor and Haran. Now this is the line of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor and Haran, and Haran begot Lot. Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah, in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans. Abram and Nahor took to themselves wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarai, and that of Nahor’s wife Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren, she had no child.
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter- in- law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran (Genesis 11:26-32).
The verses at the end of the Book of Joshua states, which ever –so-briefly detail the generations of the patriarchs, explicitly state that Terah was an idolater: The founder of the Israelite monotheistic people was his son, Abraham.
Then Joshua said to all the people: “Thus said the L-RD, the God of Israel: In olden times, your forefathers- Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor- lived beyond the Euphrates and worshipped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through the whole land of Canaan and multiplied his offspring. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill-country of Seir as his possession, while Jacob and his children went down to Egypt (Joshua 24:2-4).
The beginning of Genesis chapter 12, the beginning of Parashat Lech-lecha, describes the departure of Abram from Haran:
The L-rd said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing:
I will bless those that bless you,
And curse those that curse you;
All the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.
Abram went forth as the L-RD had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1-5).
The difficulty one has with the verses at the end of Parashat Noah, which conclude with the death of Terah, in light of all the other verses, is succinctly made by Ramban to Genesis 11:32:
After Abram had left (Haran, as related in Genesis 12, and had come to the land of Canaan), Terah remained alive for many years after that! {Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran (Genesis 12:4), and Terah was seventy years of age when Abram was born (Genesis 11:26, cited above), making Terah 145 years old at the time Abram left Haran. Terah thus lived for sixty more years, as he died at the age of 205! (Genesis 11:32, cited above) Thus, it is mathematically incorrect to assert that Terah died before any of the events that are transcribed in Genesis 12 (which detail Abram leaving Haran at the age of 75) occurred. But that implication is certainly the simple meaning the verse in Genesis 11:32!}
Ramban has reservations about Rashi’s two answers to the problem. Rashi (commentary to Genesis 11:32) writes:
Why then does Scripture mention the death of Terah before the departure of Abram? In order that this matter (his leaving home during his father’s lifetime) might not become known to all, lest people say that Abram did not show a son’s respect to his father, for he left him in his old age and went his way. (In other words, the Torah purposefully mentioned Terah’s death before the actual time of its occurrence.)
Although Rashi does not proceed to write daver aher, or some other formulation which usually introduces a second answer, he nonetheless proceeds to give what can be viewed as a separate distinct answer:
That is why Scripture speaks of him (Terah) as dead. For indeed the wicked even while alive are called dead, and the righteous even when dead are called living, as it is said, And Benaiah the son of Yehoiada the son of a living man (2 Samuel 23:20) . (In other words, although Terah was still physically alive, spiritually, he was already dead.)
Ramban’s objection to Rashi’s first answer is the following:
This is the customary way for Scripture to relate the life of a father, his begetting a son, and his death, and afterwards to begin the narration of the son in all generations. This is the usual manner of Scripture.
(Thus it was not a special exception from the general rule, …in order that this mater (of leaving his home during his father’s lifetime) might not be publicized at all, lest people say that Abram did not show a son’s respect to his father…that the Torah wrote in this manner; on the contrary, the Torah usually does write in such a manner, even if it is not chronologically exact.)
Ramban rejects the second explanation of Rashi as well.
For the Sages (Bereshit Rabbah 34:4, 38:18) have already deduced from the verse As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace…(Genesis 15:15) that He announced to Abraham that his father would have a portion in the World to Come.
(Thus, it is incorrect to claim that Terah was a wicked man who would be considered “dead.” Apparently, Terah was a righteous man who merited a share in the World to Come! )
Ramban first suggests the following approach at harmonization:
Perhaps the intent of the Rabbis was that Terah repented at the time of his death (but not before that!), but he lived all his days in wickedness and therefore was called “dead.” In the words of Rashi, “Scripture teaches you that Terah did repentance at the time of death.”
Then, Ramban gives a powerful second answer:
Perhaps it may be that Terah has a portion in the World to Come by virtue of his son. And that was the announcement (in Genesis 15:15), for Abraham did not know it until he was informed of it at the time God told him As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace.
In other words, perhaps Terah never repented. Indeed, he remained a wicked man up until and including the day that he died. But nonetheless, God legitimately announced to Abraham that his father would have a portion in the World to Come. How can that be? To help in understanding the idea, Ramban cities a Midrash:
All kinds of wood were valid for use in the altar fire except for the wood of the olive and the vine (Mishnah, Massekhet Tamid 2:3), for since oil and wine were offered upon the altar, the fruits save the trees. And so we find in the case of Abraham, that he saved Terah, as it is said, As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace. (All the aforementioned extracts from the commentary of Ramban can be found in Rabbi Moses Nahmanides, Commentary on the Torah: Genesis, ed. Chavel, pp. 161-63.)
The source that Ramban cites can be found in Midrash Leviticus RabbahVII:2, at the beginning of Parashat Tzav. The Midrash cites Proverbs 10:12:
Hatred stirs up strife,
But love covers up all faults.
The Midrash discusses how Moses prayed to God on behalf of his brother Aaron:
‘Love’ refers to the prayer which Moses offered up for him (Aaron). How did Moses pray for him? R. Mani of Sheab and R. Joshua of Sikhnin in the name of R. Levi said: From the beginning of the Book (of Leviticus) until this passage, it is written: And the sons of Aaron shall present the blood (Leviticus 1:5) etc., And the sons of Aaron shall put fire, etc. (ibid., 1:7), And the sons of Aaron shall lay the pieces, etc. (ibid., 1:8). Said Moses to the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Can it be that the well is hated while its water is beloved? You have accorded honor to trees for the sake of their offspring, as we have learnt in the Mishnah (Tamid 2:3): ‘All trees may be used for the altar fire, except the olive and the vine.” Will You then not accord honor to Aaron for the sake of his sons? The Holy One, blessed be He, answered, “By your life, for your sake will I reinstate him; moreover, I shall treat him as the chief, and his sons as secondary” (as it is said), “And the L-RD spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his sons…” (Leviticus 6: 1). {Midrash Rabbah: Leviticus translated into English by Rev. J. Israelstam [London, Soncino Press, 1939], p. 90.}
Although the Talmud (Tamid 29b, and the Rambam (Hilkhot Issurei Mizbeah 7:3) write that the reason why one does not bring twigs of the olive tree or of the vine to the ma‘arakhah (of the altar) is because of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael (the economy of Israel needs those twigs to produce grapes for wine and olives for olive oil), Ramban, following the Midrash, understands that there is a profound symbolic significance to the law. Moreover, he expands upon the Midrash’s application of the matter. True, the Midrash applies God’s treatment to certain trees in consideration of the role that their future fruits would play to the case of human beings whose sins are forgiven because of their children (their “fruits”). But whereas the Midrash only applied it to Aaron and his children, Ramban introduces this idea with respect to Terah and Abraham as well.
Perhaps one can add that according to Ramban, the analogy to twigs upon the altar is especially appropriate. Terah was saved from the fires of Gehinnom, and accorded a place in the World to Come, precisely because of the deeds of Abraham. Just as the fruit of the olive tree and the vine saves the trees from being burnt (on the altar in the Mishkan, and subsequently in the Temple), Abraham’s good deeds saved Terah from the fires of hell.
This beautiful explanation of the Ramban had special resonance in our own days, when so many younger Jews are more religiously observant than their parents. How do the two generations relate? How can they relate? In general, must observant Jews feel that their non-religious relatives are spiritually lost forever?
Ramban’s notion provides a novel way of looking at this phenomenon. Abraham did not have to feel that his father Terah was doomed to perdition. He knew that his actions could (and did!) save his father. Indeed, fruits save the trees.