Lech Lecha: In Defence of Terach

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Our rabbis famously debate the righteousness of Noach. Was he a tzadik only relative to the corrupt society in which he lived, or was his righteousness that much greater because he attained it in such in a corrupt generation? While they debate the righteousness of Noach, there seems to be little debate regarding Terach. He was an idolater—not just any standard idolater, but a purveyor of idols thereby spreading idolatry far and wide. It was his son, the Midrash claims, who, left to guard the idol store, destroyed his father’s wares, mocking the silly beliefs of Terach. G-d, fearful of the influence of father on son, thus commanded Abraham to leave his elderly father and travel to a faraway land. 

All the above is well known, and often forms the first part of the curriculum of Jewish students as they begin to learn Chumash in kindergarten. Our great forefather, Avraham haIvri, stood alone on the side of truth while the rest of the world stood on the opposite, false side. 

There is only one problem with this narrative. None of it actually appears in the Chumash. The story of Terach takes up (at most) all of seven verses in the Torah. In these seven verses, we learn that Terach had three children, with his youngest, Haran, dying during Terach’s lifetime. After his remaining children married, with Nahor marrying his deceased brother’s daughter[1], Terach took his entire family and “set out with them from Ur Casdim to go to the land of Canaan” (Breisheet 11:31). 

The Torah tells us nothing of Abraham’s first 75 years, yet it tells us that Terach wanted to move to Canaan This must be because this is an important piece of information[2]. Yet, we are left wondering why Terach wanted to go to the Canaan. We will soon find out that Canaan is G-d’s special land, the place where the Divine presence is most readily felt, and the place that G-d will promise for His chosen nation.

Apparently Terach, sensing the unique nature of the land of Canaan, sought a closer relationship with G-d and began his journey to the special land. For reasons unknown, he stopped in Haran, and spent the rest of his years there. But his trip was not in vain. His son would complete the journey started by father. 

The Avraham story is actually the culmination of the story that begins with Terach. The word toldot, not easily translatable, appears 11 times in sefer Breisheet[3], and one can, likey should, read Breisheet as a book of 11 “chapters”, with each toldot introducing a major new development. We read of the toldot of the heaven and earth, of (generic) man, the toldot of Noach, Shem, Yitzchak, Yaakov and even Eisav and Yishmael. Strangely, there is no “toldot Avraham”. But we do read of toldot Terach, indicating that the story of Avraham is actually part of the larger story of Terach. This story ends with the death of Avraham (Breisheet 25:11) and is immediately followed by the toldot of Yishmael and, six verses later, by the toldot of Yitzchak[4].

None of this means that Terach did not worship idols. Our Sages, in portraying him as an idol worshipper, are portraying him as a man who sought G-d. He may have been mistaken, but this was a mistake made with the best of intentions. As the Rambam notes (Hilchot Avodat Kokavim 1:1), idolatry began as a mistake, where people sought to worship G-d through His creations: the sun, the moon and stars. From there, it was just a few steps until they mistakenly worshiped icons and idols, forgetting about the link to G-d. 

But had Terach not worshiped idols, it is very possible his son would never have come to recognize G-d. Brought up in a deeply religious home, with a father who provided idols for others, Abraham developed a deep religious consciousness. Yet slowly, Avraham began to realize that his father was, despite his valiant efforts, terribly mistaken. His father would have to die before reaching G-d’s special land, but it was Terach who laid the groundwork for Abraham becoming the founding father of the Jewish people. 

The link between idolatry, avodah zara, and true worship of G-d, avodah, is alluded to in the Torah’s description of the generation of Enosh, the grandson of Adam. The Torah tells us that in his day, “az huchal likro beshem Hashem”, which translates as, “then they began to call out in the name of G-d”, something most positive and something Avraham himself did on numerous occasions. This sound wonderful, and is how some of our commentaries understand the verse. However, Rashi quotes a rabbinic teaching that az huchal should not be understood as “then man began”, but rather, its lashon chulin, profane language, meaning that in the days of Enosh, they profaned the name of G-d. And it was, as the Ramban notes, in the days of Enosh that idolatry began (albeit mistakenly).

The purposeful ambiguity of the Torah allows, perhaps demands, that we understand that both are true. In the days of Enosh, man began to call out in G-d’s name; and yet, at the same time, that call was a profane one. It would take until the time of Abraham for one to call out in the name of G-d in purity[5].

 

[1] Our Sages assert that Avraham married another of Haran’s daughters, identifying Yischa—whom the Torah clearly states was the daughter of Haran—with Sarai. There is no apparent reason to do so, and the fact that both Sarai and Yischa are mentioned in the same verse would seem to indicate that they are not one and the same. Yet our Sages, sensitive to the fact that, as Rashi notes, Yischa and Sarai are both are names of royalty, equate the two. That Terach’s (grand)children would (be and marry) royalty tells us much about him. 

[2] We have a similar phenomenon regarding the many genealogical lists in sefer Breisheet, which we tend to skip over. Yet for the Jew who believes that every word of the Torah is important, that is a big mistake, and a careful reading reveals many gems of information. 

[3] I thank Rabbi Zvi Grumet for this important observation, and for the inspiration to write this devar Torah. His book Genesis: From Creation to Covenant (Maggid Books, 2017) is a masterful read of Breisheet, and I highly recommend it to all.  

[4] While, for obvious reasons, the Torah focuses on toldot Yitzchak, from the perspective of Jewish history, the toldot of Yishmael have had major impact.         

[5] Had the Torah wanted to us to understand that, in the days of Enosh, worship was completely positive, it could have left out the words az huchal, as is the case by Avraham, and we would have noticed that he was the first to call out in G-d’s name. By adding az huchal, the Torah is hinting at the profane nature of his calling out.