11/01/2006

Terach, Haran, and Lot: A Tradition of Mediocrity

In addition to meeting Abram in the end of Noach and in Lech Lecha, we meet a number of his relatives, even those who remain peripheral to the Patriarchal narrative. From there, we can actually get a picture, if not from the text itself, then from Chazal, of the type of family that Abraham had.

First off, it’s clear that the Terahide (I just made that word up, didn’t I?) family was not just any other family. In addition to Abraham, it produced all four (definitely three, probably four) Matriarchs, each from a different part of the family. Furthermore, the Torah introduces Abraham’s story as Terach’s story, and even uses terminology that is generally reserved for those who are central figures – ‘eileh toldot Terach’(11:27). This is a language used by the Torah when it wants to focus the story on an individual and his progeny. Not many characters in Bereishit get the ‘toldot’ treatment – not even Abraham! But Terach does. This all would seem to indicate that Abraham and all the Matriarchs came from something.

Terach emigrates from Ur Kasdim with his entire family, and intends to go to Canaan (11:31), but doesn’t quite make it. He makes it as far as Charan and settles there (i.e., his intent is to remain there; had his intent been to leave eventually, the Torah would have used the verb ‘la-gur’. These terms are extremely specific in the context of Patriarchal migrations). Why is it important that he intended to reach Canaan? Was it known that there’s something different about Canaan? Was there, as Ramban suggests, greater religious freedom there (Gee. Religious freedom in Israel, but not Iraq or Syria. Some things never change)? Was Canaan, as certain Midrashim express, a more conducive environment to spiritual matters, to prophecy, or to prayer (esp. for rain)? Perhaps there was something about the land which attracted Terach; nevertheless, he did not follow through with his aspirations to reach them. Additionally, the Midrash gives us a picture of a man who knows that idolatry is false, but continues the façade in order to make a living. The prosperity of Charan (see 12:5), or the need to ‘earn a living’, kept Terach from realizing any longing he may have had for a more Godly life (though, according to Rashi, he repented at the end of his life, again indicating that there was something there to begin with).

Terach had a ‘middle’ son, Haran. The Torah tells us very little about him, other than that he had a son Lot (and according to the mainstream of Jewish interpretation, 2 daughters, Milkah and Yiskah/Sarai), and that he died prematurely. His daughters each went in the direction of one of his brothers – Sarai with Abram, and Milkah with Nachor. The Midrash fills in the details of Haran’s death: in an ordeal between Abram and Nimrod, Haran waited to see who would win before choosing an allegiance. He was not averse to commitment to God, but he first had to know that there was something in it for him. He was not willing to die for an ideal (though he DID), even if it’s true. Like his father, the Midrash portrays Haran as someone whose concern with prosperity trumps whatever spiritual yearnings he might have.

Next, we come to Haran’s ‘middle’ son, Lot. Once again, we find a similar profile. Lot is clearly something more than his neighbors (though he picked a bad neighborhood), he acts kindly, he invokes God. Yet, he was unable to keep up with Abram. Again, the Midrash (cited by Rashi) explains their ‘break-up’ to a dilemma where prosperity confronts ethical behavior, in this case using owned lands as pasture. For Lot, prosperity remained primary; not so for Abraham. In general, the overwhelming impression of Lot that we get from chaza”l is of somebody who sincerely wants to do the right thing, but can’t seem to rid himself of other desires enough to lead the truly spiritual life.

Finally, we come to Lot’s progeny, Ammon and Moav. They, too, are somewhere in between. They are ethnically related to Israel, and from the books of Ezra and Ruth, we clearly see cultural cross-fertilization taking place (often t1 the chagrin of the prophets). They are a henotheistic tribe – remaining in the no-man’s-land between paganism and ethical monotheism (perhaps we can describe all three characters as ‘anethical monotheists’ – not ‘unethical’ because for them God has no bearing on ethics whatsoever). For a Moabite, Israel is semi-permeable; some (women) can enter, but others can’t. In an interesting Midrash on Sefer Shmuel, the King of Moab is willing to sacrifice his son for the sake of prosperity, but not for an ideal! He has taken his cue from Haran, not Abraham.
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