Terach: Completing the Journey
Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )
The Torah makes a fleeting mention of Terach in this week's Torah portion. He is most well-known as the father of Abraham, but with regard to his own persona he is not generally viewed in a positive way. But on a deeper analysis, a black and white description does not suffice. For example, the Midrash tells us that he repented at the end of his life and as a result received a portion in the World to Come.
Yet we do not describe Terach as 'our father' in the same way we refer to Abraham, even though genetically Terach clearly is our ancestor. While it is understandable that we do not revere him, why don't we at least acknowledge our connection to him, given that he did repent?
In order to answer this question let's examine more closely Terach's failings and compare them to the improvements he made in his later years.
It seems that the very trait in which Abraham excelled Terach was found wanting. Abraham refused to follow the lifestyle of idol worship despite the immense social pressure to do so. He used the power of his intellect to discern the truth and dedicated his life to monotheism at great personal risk.
The famous Midrash involving Terach and Abraham demonstrates Terach's failings in this area. Terach owned an idol store and on one occasion asked Abraham to stay in the store. He destroyed all the idols except the largest and put a stick in its hand. When Terach returned, he was in shock at the destruction of all his idols. Abraham explained to him that the largest idol destroyed them all. Terach replied that Abraham was mocking him because the idol could not act in such a way on its own initiative. Abraham responded, "Do you hear what you mouth is saying?!" Abraham proved to him that the fallacy of his own logic - he worships these idols yet asserts that they have no independence!
At this point Terach should have acknowledged the obvious merit of Abraham's argument and changed his ways. Instead he informed the mighty King Nimrod what Abraham had done. Nimrod, a staunch idol worshipper, decreed that Abraham be thrown into the fiery furnace. Unlike his son who broke away from the values that his society espoused, Terach adhered to idol worship with blind faith, to the extent he was willing to have his own son killed!
But the final verses in this week's Torah portion indicate that Terach began the path to repentance. The Torah states: "Terach took his son Abram, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of Abram his son, and they departed with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan; they arrived at Haran and they settled there." Terach decided to undergo the difficult journey to the land of Canaan. The sources offer different reasons as to why he made his momentous decision at this time. The Tana Debei Eliyahu Zuta says that Terach was reacting to the incident at Ur Kasdim where Nimrod had Abraham thrown into the fiery furnace. Terach realized that Abraham's life was in grave danger, therefore he took him and his family far away. Rabbi Aryeh Yehuda Leib Shteinman, explains that after Terach saw the miracle that Abraham survived the fire, he changed his ways and now strove to save his son. Therefore, he took him away to remove him from the danger of remaining in Ur Kasdim. According to this explanation, Terach at least recognized the mistake of handing Abraham over to Nimrod and now tried to rectify that by saving Avraham.
The Seforno offers a different explanation which suggests a deeper intention on Terach's part. He writes that Terach saw that the land of Canaan was on a higher spiritual level than the rest of the world and therefore he took the drastic step of leaving his home to try to reach this Holy Land. However, the Torah continues that once he reached Haran, he stopped there and did not continue on to the land of Israel. Only Abraham completed the great journey and reached the Holy Land. The Seforno does not explain why Terach stopped in Haran, but it is clear that he failed to complete the great journey that he began.
Here we see the root of Terach's failings: he finally recognized the correctness of Abraham's arguments and ultimately repented, but he was unable to follow through with his new-found beliefs and complete the great physical and spiritual journey to Israel. This perhaps explains why despite his repentance, Terach never joined the ranks of 'our fathers' and is not considered to be our spiritual ancestor. He was not an initiator; he was a slave to the values of his society. And even when he repented, he was still unable to attain completion. Perhaps it was because his repentance was not self-inspired that he was lacking enough willpower to go through with his life changes to the fullest extent possible.
The example of Terach teaches us that it is insufficient for a person to merely follow the example of others for his inspiration and growth. He must be willing to develop his own relationship to God and be prepared to put his full effort into the challenging path of spiritual growth.
1. Bereishit Rabbah, 38:12.
2. In the Hagaddah we do refer to him and his ancestors, as our fathers, but only in the negative sense that they worshipped idols.
3. Bereishit Rabbah, 38:13.
4. Bereishit, 11:31.
5. Tana Debei Eliyahu Zuta, End of Ch.25.
6. Ayelet HaShachar, Bereishit, 11:31.
7. Seforno, Bereishit, 11:31.