Terah the Righteous

Taken from Parashah Lech Lecha [Genesis 12:1 – 17:27]

In the Talmud[1], R’ Yitzchak makes a dual statement that I found to be very profound, not only for my life, but for this week’s parashah. The intertwining commentary has been removed for ease of reading:

R’ Yitzchak said, “Three things cause a person’s sin to be recalled [by the Heavenly Court]: [passing under] a leaning wall, expecting prayer [to be answered], and submitting [to] judgment one’s fellow to Heaven.”

R’ Yitzchak [further] said, “Four things cause a [harsh] decree against a person to be torn up: charity, crying out, a change of name, and change of action.”

In the Gemara revolving around these texts, the Rabbis discuss the significance of these statements and show their source is indeed Biblical in nature and scope.

Under the phrase, “a change of name,” the texts makes mention of Sarai’s name change, as it states, “Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name.[2]” Now, taken in context with the Talmud passage, we are granted a peek into the mercy and grace of G-d. By changing Sarai’s name to Sarah, we see that the lifestyle she grew up with – one of idolatry and paganism – was thrown away. Hashem erased the inauspicious degree. He made Abraham know – without a shadow of a doubt – that his wife was forgiven. In addition, we see, further, the blessing of G-d on our Father’s wife: “I will bless her – indeed, I will give you a son through her.[3]

The change from idol worshipper to Tzaddik does not end with Sarah. Abram, too, saw redemption from Hashem for his idolatry as well. The Talmud passage mentioned above continues and provides a fifth way to overturn an evil decree: Some say also a change of place, for it is written, ‘Hashem said to Abram, “Go, you, from this land[4]…” and then, “I will make you a great nation[5].”’ By mentioning Abram and his “Change of Place,” the Rabbis of old realize atonement for his former idolatry.

The Midrash[6] gives a story about the earliest days of Abraham’s life in the house of his father Terah.

One day when Terah left his shop of idols in the care of Abram, the young man smashes every idol except the largest one. To that idol, he gives the stick used to break the other images. When Terah returns to a shop plagued with chaos, his son Abram says that the larger idol became infuriated with the smaller ones and destroyed them all with the stick.

Enraged at the loss, Terah yells at his son. “Why do you make sport of me, Abram. You know as well as I that these idols have no knowledge!”

Abram asks, “Shouldn’t your ears listen to what your mouth is saying?”

In response, Terah sends his son to be burned in a furnace, but G-d miraculously spares him.

In this rabbinic passage, we see Abram expressing a unique ability to see the invalidity of idols. Perhaps Abram’s “G-d Consciousness” began as he looked to the stars and wondered who made and set them on their course; certainly not a figure carved by the hands of a man. Perhaps he reasoned that it is impossible for a god to be all-powerful if he must share residence with another god, for that means the gods must compromise power in one area to that of another god; only in monotheism can the all-powerful and all-knowing G-d exist. All other worship is a waste of time.

We don’t know what happened between Terah and Abram after the events in the story from Midrash Rabbah, but the Biblical text provides a view often ignored or unnoticed:

Vayikach Terach et-Avram beno ve’et Lot ben-Haran ben-beno ve’et Sarai kalato eshet Avram beno. Vayetse’u itam meur Kasdim lalechet artsah Kenaan vayavou ad-Charan vayeshvu sham[7].

“And Terah took his son Abram and Lot [the son of Haran his son’s son], and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they[8] went forth with them[9] from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.”

The affect Abram had on his father is far more profound than what first meets the eye. Apparently the voice of his son saying, “Shouldn’t your ears listen to what your mouth is saying” was not enough to rattle him out of his idolatry, but the miraculous deliverance from the furnace [and the subsequent death of Haran] provided Terah the motivation to change his life. Sadly, Terah only made it about two-thirds of the way [from Ur] to Shechem before he drove tent stakes into the dirt and dwelled in Haran. Once Terah stopped [for whatever reason], G-d called Abram to continue the emigration to the Land of Promise.

Above, the Rabbis mention atonement provided to Abram because he suffered a “change of place,” but we cannot forget Terah. He, too, had a change of place. In a beautiful eulogy for the grandfather of the Jews, the Midrash[10] reminds us that Hashem truly erases the harsh degree:

“Now these are the generations of Terah; Terah begot Abram, etc[11].” R’ Abba ben Kahana said, “Whoever has his name thus repeated has a portion in this world and in the World to Come.” They raised an objection to him. “But it is written, ‘Now these are the generations of Terah; Terah begot Abram, etc.?’ That too does not disprove it.” He replied, “For what is the meaning of, ‘But you [Abraham] shall go to your fathers in peace[12]?’ He [G-d] informed him that his father had a portion in the World to Come.”

[1] b. Rosh Hashanah 16b

[2] Genesis 17:15

[3] Genesis 17:16

[4] Genesis 12:1

[5] Genesis 12:2

[6] Genesis Rabbah 38:13

[7] Genesis 11:31

[8] “They” refers to Lot and Sarai

[9] “Them” refers to Terah and Abram

[10] Genesis Rabbah 38:12

[11] Genesis 11:27

[12] Genesis 15:15

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