“G-d said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ … Avram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they made in Charan; and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12; 1-5). This was one of Avraham’s ten tests (Ethics of the Fathers 5; 3); because he hearkened to G-d, and left his home, relatives and family, he showed his faith and trust in G-d. Yet this passage is remarkably similar to that immediately preceding. “Terach took his son Avram, and Lot the son of Charan, his grandson, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of Avram his son, and they departed with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan; they arrived at Charan and they settled there.” The Torah is not merely telling us the travelogue of Terach and his family, but seems to be implying a parallel between Avram and his father. Both set out for Canaan with their families. However, Avram arrived at his destination, whereas Terach gave up en route and settled in Charan. Surely G-d is as concerned with intent as with deed, therefore we should expect that Terach is praised for beginning the process which Avram was to complete.
Yet even from G-d’s instruction to Avram we see that this is not the case. “Go … from your father’s house...”. G-d explains to Avram that he is not to continue in his father’s path, but to make a new beginning, devoid of his past. Similarly, when Joshua gives his farewell address to the nation, he compares Avraham’s actions with those of Terach. “Your forefathers - Terach, the father of Avraham and the father of Nachor - always dwelt beyond the [Euphrates] river and they served other gods.” (24; 2). Avraham, the founding father of the nation, and the first to embrace monotheism, is contrasted with his father Terach who was still an idolater. Thus, rather than considering Terach meritorious for setting out for the Land of Israel, he has become the epitome of an idolater for his failure to reach that goal. In fact, it seems that Terach’s main failing was his inability to cross the river.
Avraham is described (Genesis 14; 13) as ‘Ivri’ (‘Hebrew’ lit. ‘from the other side’) because he came from the other side of the river. It seems that crossing the Euphrates river and entering into Israel is the crucial distinction between Avraham and Terach, between monotheistic service of G-d andidolatrous worship of alien gods. The Midrash highlights the difference in even starker terms: “I shall give to you and your descendants after you the land where you dwell, all the land of Canaan … and I will be for them as G-d” (17; 8). Rabbi Yudan said, if they enter the Land of Israel they accept G-d’s divinity, and if not they do not accept it.” How can such a simple journey make such a difference? Furthermore, Avraham was commanded by G-d to enter Israel; perhaps if Terach had received such an invitation he could have become the founder of our faith in place of Avraham.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbi 41) gives another explanation of the word Ivri. “Rabbi Yehuda says that all the world was on one side, and Avraham was on the other.” Avraham was the original iconoclast, he smashed the idols of the entire generation, and was not afraid to show the world that he was different, even if it meant putting his life at risk. He was prepared to live by his beliefs. Therefore G-d instructed him to cross the river, and enter into the Land of Canaan, the geographical distinction symbolising Avraham’s spiritual separation from the rest of the world.
On the other hand, when Terach reached Charan, he gave up the quest for spiritual growth. The Torah tells us that after arriving in Charan, Terach died at the age of 205 years old (11; 32). However, when we calculate his age upon arrival, we find that he didn’t die until long after Avraham had gone to Israel, and become famous as Avraham the Ivri. However the Torah tells us now that he died to write him out of the story. He failed to reach Israel, and cross the river, even though he recognised the importance of Israel and the symbolic meaning in going to the other side. Therefore he no longer has a part to play in the history and spiritual development of the Jewish nation. Furthermore, rather than dedicate himself to the goal of making G-d known in the world, Terach opted for the comfortable life in Charan. Because of this, the Torah not only considers him a failure, but also classes him as wicked. Rashi’s commentary to that verse states, “The verse calls him dead, for the wicked even during their lifetime are called ‘dead’, and the righteous even after their death are called ‘living’”.
Though it may seem that both Terach and Avraham set out on similar goals, only Avraham had the dedication and perseverance to realise that goal, and make G-d’s presence felt in the world. Terach knew what should be done, but failed to achieve it, and chose the easier option. Thus Jewish history leaves him on the sidelines, and brands him an idolater. Though he gave up worshipping idols made of wood or stone, he became subservient to that greater false god of personal comfort and security.
The Ramban in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion (12; 6 and 10) explains the reason that the Torah goes to such lengths to explain all the details of the lives of the Patriarchs. Based on the Midrash Tanchuma (9) he says that all the actions of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were precursors of the events that would happen to their descendants in later generations. In a sense their actions and reactions became part of the national psyche to such an extent that they were replayed many times throughout history.
So it is not surprising to find that the war between Avraham and the four kings (chapter 13) hints at future events. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 42; 2) states that “The four kings mentioned here hint at the Four Kingdoms (who would later subjugate the Jewish people): the kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Greece and Edom (Rome)”. Ramban (14; 1) explains in more detail: “This whole episode happened to Avraham to indicate that four kingdoms would arise in the world. Eventually, his descendants would overcome them, and the kingdoms would fall into their hands”.
The leader of the four kings was Amrafel, king of Shinar. We know from last week’s Torah reading that Shinar is another word for Babylon (11; 2), so clearly Amrafel symbolises the Babylonian exile, which is also described in Daniel (2; 38) as the most important exile. In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue symbolising the exiles, Babylon is the head, made of gold. What is even more interesting is that Amrafel was a pseudonym of Nimrod’s. Rashi explains the name Nimrod as related to the word Mered, rebellion, because he was the chief instigator of the building of the tower of Babel. However he explains that Amrafel literally means “told him to fall”, which is a reference to Nimrod’s casting Avraham into the furnace. What Rashi doesn’t say is that Nimrod also means “told him to fall”, in Aramaic. So the two traits which best describe Nimrod are his idolatrous rebellion against G-d, and throwing Avraham into the furnace.
The Rabbi’s teach us that the four exiles correspond to the four cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual licentiousness, murder and causeless hatred. The sin which is most associated with the Babylonian exile is idolatry. Daniel (3) relates that Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden statue and commanded all his subjects to bow down to it. Three of his Jewish advisors, Chananiah, Misha’el and Azariah, refused to prostrate themselves to it. Nebuchadnezzar told them “If you do not prostrate yourselves, you will immediately be thrown into a fiery, burning furnace; and who is the god who can save you from my hands?” (verse 15).
This is so similar to the Midrash about Avraham and Nimrod: Nimrod looked the boy [Avraham] over and started his interrogation. He asked him to bow down to fire. Avraham shot back: “How can I bow down to fire, when water will put out the fire?” Nimrod, his anger quickly rising, shouted out, “Bow down to water.” Again, Avraham had an answer: “How can I bow down to water, when the clouds on high contain water?” Nimrod responded: “Bow down to the clouds!” Avraham responded: “What about the wind that disperses the clouds?” And Nimrod: “Bow down to the wind!” Avraham answered still again: “But what of man, who contains wind (the Hebrew word for wind is “ruach” which can also refer to the life force found in living creatures)?” Nimrod had enough of this game and finally said: “Enough of your words, I worship only fire and into the furnace you go. Your God will come, you pray to Him and He will save you!”.
However, there is an important difference between Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar. Even after Avraham survived in the furnace Nimrod was still prepared to wage war against him. He remained unconvinced of the supremacy of G-d. But Nebuchadnezzar recognised the miracle that he witnessed, “Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed and said, ‘Blessed is the G-d of Shadrach Mashach and Abed-nego (Chananiah, Misha’el and Azariah), Who sent His angel and saved His servants who relied on Him.… for there is no other god able to save in this manner.” (Daniel 3; 28-9).