> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > The Guiding Light

Depth and Superficiality

Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Torah Portion ends with a very short account of the early life of Abraham. It outlines his family, including his brother, Haran, and how he met an untimely death. The Torah briefly tells us that Haran died in front of his father. The Medrash provides the details to the background of this tragedy. It discusses how Abraham rejected the rampant idol worship of his time and came to belief in one God. He destroyed the idols in his father, Terach's store, and as a result, Terach handed him over to King Nimrod. Nimrod tried to force him to worship idols and when he refused, Nimrod had him thrown into a fire. Haran was an onlooker to all this and knew that he would be forced to side either with Abraham or Nimrod. Before Abraham was thrown into the fire, Haran took a very practical approach - if Abraham would survive, then Haran would join him, but if he would die, then he would side with Nimrod. When Abraham emerged unscathed from the fire, Haran accordingly declared his support for Abraham. As a result, he was thrown into the fire and was killed.(1)

The Medrash points out that his death was somewhat unusual in that only his internal organs were destroyed, implying that his external body was left undamaged. What is the significance of this unusual death?

The answer is given that on an external level Haran was righteous, in that he made himself out to be of the same ilk as Abraham, however internally, he did not believe with complete sincerity.(2) Accordingly, his insides were destroyed because they were lacking merit. However, his exterior was unharmed because it appeared righteous.(3)

This explanation provides us with an example of the principle that it is possible to observe the Torah on two different levels - internally or externally. Internal observance means that a person imbues himself with the attitudes espoused by the Torah - his outlook and life goals are solely defined by the Torah. External observance means that a person may observe all the mitzvot, however his deep-seated desires and aspirations are not in tune with doing God's will. Instead, other factors drive him. Haran proved himself to be someone whose adherence to belief in one God was purely superficial; therefore, he was only protected on a superficial level. Abraham, in contrast, held a deep internal commitment to fulfilling God's will on all levels, as a result he was fully protected from Nimrod's fire.

Haran's trait of externality was emulated by his son, Lot. On a superficial level, Lot observed the Torah; however, many of his actions demonstrated that internally, he was lacking a true desire to follow Abraham's ways. He was more interested in satisfying his desire for financial success and immorality.(4)

The extent to which Lot represents a dichotomy between his internal and external nature is borne out by the Rabbinical sources in the Torah Portion of Lech Lecha. Having settled in the land of Israel, Lot's shepherds begin to justify grazing their animals on the land of the inhabitants.(5) Abraham's shepherds protested his, correctly arguing that it constituted thievery, and as a result, a dispute broke out. At that point, Abraham requested that they separate, arguing that they were 'brothers.' (6) The obvious problem with this argument is that they were not brothers, Abraham was Lot's uncle. Moreover, what was the rationale of his argument that they were brothers? The Medrash explains that Abraham was saying that they were like brothers in that they were extremely similar in appearance. Accordingly, Abraham was concerned that people would see Lot grazing other people's land with his animals and think it was Abraham.(7) We see from here that on a superficial level, Lot was very similar to Abraham, indeed he must have appeared to be a very righteous person, yet internally, he resembled his father, Haran.

Haran had another child, Sarah.(8) It seems that she succeeded in avoiding the failing of her father and brother, and became someone whose external observance was matched by internal righteousness. In our Portion, she is called by a second name, that of Yiskah.(9) The Gemara offers two reasons for this name. One is that she saw with Ruach Hakodesh, (10) the other is that everyone would gaze at her beauty.(11) It seems that these two explanations complement each other. The beauty she possessed was not merely of a physical nature rather it was a spiritual beauty. This emanated from her high spiritual level, which was demonstrated by the fact that she had Ruach Hakodesh. Thus, her external beauty was a result of her internal righteousness. In this way, we see that she was able to emulate Abraham in matching her external observance with internal sincerity.

There are many lessons that can be derived from the failings of Haran and Lot, and the greatness of Abraham and Sarah. As Haran demonstrated, it is very easy to be a 'superficially 'righteous person', it is not hard to dress in a certain way and perform certain actions that make a person look 'righteous'. However, such externality is very dangerous in that it can cause a person to be a mere shell of one who serves God, while on the inside, he is anything but a true servant of God, The Prophet, Isaiah, informs us of the seriousness of this failing: He describes how God will punish the Jewish people, "because this people approached [Me] with it mouth and honored me with its lips, but its heart was far from me..." (12)

Moreover, emphasis on externalities can actually hinder one's internal growth. One of the methods of the yetzer hara (negative inclination) is to make a person who wants to grow focus on external changes, whilst distracting him from internal growth. This pitfall can affect anyone who tries to improve his Service of God and overemphasizes external changes at the expense of true growth.(13) It is essential that a person make a cheshbon hanefesh (14) of the balance between his external and internal Service of God. May we all merit to emulate Abraham and Sarah and internalize what we believe in.



1. Bereishis Rabbah 38:13.

2. The Maharzav on the Medrash writes that Haran's failing was that he was did not have a leiv shalem which means that he was not totally sincere. See the other commentaries on the Medrash for their explanations of Haran's failings in this area.

3. Heard from Rav Moshe Dovid Cohen, shlita, in the name of Rav Osher Zelig Rubenstein shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Torah Simcha.

4. See Lech Lecha, 13:10, Rashi, dh: Boachah Soar. See my essay on Vayeira - 'Understanding Lot' for a thorough analysis of Lot's character.

5. Lech Lecha, 13:7, Rashi dh: Vayehi Riv, for an explanation of nature of this dispute.

6. Lech Lecha, 13:8.

7. Bereishis Rabbah, 41:6, Rashi, Lech Lecha, 13:8, Sifsei Chachamim, dh: velachen.

8. Which means that Sarah and Lot were brother and sister.

9. Noach, 11:29, Rashi, dh:Yiskah. The word comes from the root, "sacha" which means, to see or gaze.

10. Literally translated as the'Holy Spirit'. This is a kind of prophecy.

11. Megilla, 14a, quoted by Rashi, Lech Lecha, 11:29, dh: Yiskah.

12. Yeshaya, 29:13.

13. This is not to say that external changes are never called for. Some externalities directly relate to Jewish law and therefore are obviously of great importance. Moreover, even beyond the boundaries of halacha, one's dress code and appearance is of considerable importance- the point being made here is not to change externally at the expense of internal change. One should consult his or her Rav for guidance in the specifics of these matters.


14. Literally, 'An accounting of the sou'l - it refers to self-reflection.


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