Most of the Noah Torah portion is devoted to humankind’s sins, the punishment of the long and terrible flood and Noah’s miraculous salvation. Then, when all that is over, we read the beautiful story of the rainbow, God’s covenant with Noah and his sons. The story is highly dramatic, emphasizing its import for all humankind for eternity.
Maybe this focus on the universal and the eternal are the reason that we tend to forget that the particular Jewish story also begins here. Few remember that the very last two verses of this portion mark the beginning of our history as a people: “And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai, his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.” [Genesis 11:31] Most of us do remember God’s words to Abraham in the next portion, “Leah Lekha…” (Get yourself and go…) [Genesis 12:1]. We love dramas and these words echo through the generations. We know that to follow God’s call and leave your country, your motherland and family and go to an unknown place is an ultimate proof of faith. Against the background of this eternal call and this almost unspeakable act of sacrifice, it is difficult to remember those two closing verses. Yet they tell us a very different, and very important, story.
It is not Abraham but his father, Terah, who decided to leave Ur. Terah is described only briefly, in the same way all the pre-patriarch generations are: “And Nahor lived nine and twenty years, and begot Terah. And Nahor lived after he begot a hundred and nineteen years, and begot sons and daughters. And Terah lived sixty years, and begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran… And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees. And Abram and Nahor took themselves wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah. And Sarai was barren; she had no child.” [Genesis 11:24-30] Terah’s father, Nahor, was the youngest father of those generations, only 29 years old, when his son, Terah, was born. Terah’s children are born to him when he is 70 years old, yet his father is still alive. The generations are connected.
Terah is forced to experience the most difficult tragedy a parent can imagine – he outlives his own son, Haran. While it is not sure what the verse “died in the presence of his father” means, many interpreters take this to mean that Terah witnesses his son’s death. To add to Terah’s sorrow, when Haran died he was the only son who had a child, and while Terah’s remaining living sons are married, one of their wives, Sarai, is barren.
The midrashim depict Terah as a merchant of idols. Some commentators hint that Terah knew that the idols were useless and made his profits from the ignorance of others; others present him as an idol worshipper and evil servant of King Nimrod, in contrast to his pious son, Abraham.
But none of this is explicitly mentioned in the Torah. And nothing is said about Terah’s reasons for leaving Ur and moving to Canaan. Had God spoken to him before He spoke to Abraham? Could he not bear remaining in the place where his son had died? Did he want to change his family’s luck or fate? We do not know.
We rarely stop to consider Terah’s possible contribution or connection to Abraham and to what we have become as a people. Terah died before God speaks to Abraham, giving us the sense that Abraham, our new hero, must split himself off from his past, his city, and his father, in order to embark on a new future. Even his name will be changed. He is unchained, bound to none, free to listen and obey God. Indeed, Abraham never mentions his father or anything connected to him: The past is behind him, the bonds of his father’s household have disappeared.
In many ways, Abraham is an Israeli prototype. He left what he knew and moved to the unknown. He acts as if he has no past, no parents, as if he has done everything himself, accepting help only from God.
Abraham thus represents our adolescence. His sons, Yitzhak and Yaakov, represent our maturity. They acknowledge their past; they recognize their bonds to their ancestors and learn from them.
Israeli society is often stuck in its adolescence. We, too, are proud of ourselves today, forgetting all those who made us into the “us” that we are.
Israelis act as if they have to reinvent each and every wheel. We are prouder of the fact that we were born here than we are of the heroic acts of our grandparents, who made the decision to come here, to the unknown. We pay more attention to our military successes than we do to the heroic deeds of the halutzim (pioneers), who made the country what it is.
Yes, we, too, love drama. And we prefer God’s call to the responsibility of making our personal decisions. Most Israeli Jews prefer Jewish renewal to the existing liberal Jewish movements because they prefer to reinvent themselves rather than connecting to their traditions. All of these are signs of our immaturity, our adolescence.
Will we ever grow up?