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Strong Foundations

By: Rav Ari Berman

The founder of Judaism and the main character of Sefer Bereshit is of course the first of the avot, Avraham Avinu.  It is from his family that we trace back our roots and his belief in monotheism that is the basis of our religion.  Interestingly, though, this accepted understanding of our tradition is perhaps only part of the story.  While it is true that all of the Avot are descendants of Avraham, from whose family are the Imahot?

At the end of this week’s parshah, we are told that Avraham’s brother Nahor had twelve children, eight from his wife Milkeh and four from his pilegesh, Re’umah.  Rashi points out that there is an interesting parallel between the family of Avraham and that of Nahor as this model of twelve children with the exact division of eight children from the wife and four from the pilegesh is also the basis of Avraham’s descendants as seen in the family of Ya`akov.  It is from the family of Nahor that Rivkah the daughter of Betu’el and Rachel the granddaughter of Betu’el were selected to become the wives of the avot.  This of course was no coincidence as both Avraham and Yitzchak issued explicit instructions that a wife from their family’s house be selected as brides for their respective sons.  But interestingly according to Chazal Sarah Imenu also came from Avraham’s extended family as she is identified as Yiska, the daughter of Avraham’s second brother Haran and the sister of Milkeh.  Emerging then is a clear pattern of a family that separated themselves from their neighbors and married within each other.  Looking at this broader pattern and considering the avot and imahot collectively, one might conclude that the chosen family should not just be traced back to Avraham but actually from Terach.  While the avot could be traced back to Avraham, in its entirety the broader chosen family actually consists of descendants of Terach.

This realization directs us to reevaluate our perception of Terach.  While most statements of Chazal focus on Terach as an idolater, there are also rabbinic citations that forward the view that Terach did teshuvah towards the end of his life  (see, for example, Midrash Tanhuma, Midrash Aggadah Bereshit 15:15, and Lekah Tov Bereshit 11:27).  This view is supported by the perplexing statement at the end of Parshat Noah that Terach took his family, left Ur Kasdim and went to Canaan but stopped short of reaching his goal and settled in Haran.  Why did Terah leave Ur Kasdim? Why did he intend to travel to Canaan and why did he not complete his task and reach his destination?  While there are a number of different approaches to understanding this verse, based on the view that Terach did teshuvah at the end of his life one can suggest that Terah himself began a journey to the Promised Land and began moving towards Hashem (see Zohar Shemot Parshat Va-era in which Terah’s teshuvah is connected to his journey to Canaan).  Terah, though, could not finish the job and stopped short of his goal.  In this reading of the story, Avraham does not emerge from a vacuum but continues the journey that his father started and completes the goal of arriving in the Promised Land and forming a profound connection with Hashem.

This view of Terach and his relationship with Avraham is buttressed by the internal division of Sefer Bereshit.  While the division of chapters and verses came later in history, Sefer Bereshit is internally divided into sections through the literary tool of headings.  Each new section begins with the phrase ve-Elah Toldot (see Bereshit 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, 37:2).  But while the narratives of the lives of Yitzchak and Ya`akov (as well as Yishma`el and Esav) begin with ve-Elah Toldot, Avraham’s story does not open in that way.  Interestingly, though, the narrative about Terah’s life opens with the words ve-Elah Toldot.  Perhaps Avraham’s life does not warrant the same heading of ve-Elah Toldot that begins Terah’s life, because Avraham is seen as a continuation of his father’s physical and spiritual journey (compare this idea to the way Terah is portrayed in Yehoshua 24:2-4).   

This rehabilitated perception of Terah perhaps gives us insight into why all of the avot and imahot stem from his lineage.  It also directs us to better understand our own journey in life.  We should not think of our own journey as one that begins in a vacuum and starts anew but as continuations of the journeys of the ones who preceded us, our parents and grandparents, relatives and ancestors.  Even when reaching an age in which it is natural to seek and find one’s own path in life, one should always keep in mind those who were responsible for one’s rearing, and continue to find inspiration from their lives and direction from their guidance.  Avraham reached extraordinary levels of greatness and perhaps he was able to do so because he did not cut himself off from his foundations but instead used them as springboards for growth and success.

Shabbat Shalom








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