Monday, October 11, 2010

Before Lech Lecha, What Exactly Was Abram/Abraham Leaving?

Before Lech Lecha, What Exactly Was Abram/Abraham Leaving?!

I know here I go again on my soapbox… we are so (way too much, actually) quick to criticize others, find the wrong in those with whom we don’t agree and villianize those who do not agree with us! Think about the Sunday School vision of Terach we all grew up hearing and taking on as our own. He was a horrible idol worshipper and Abraham had to run as far away from him as possible so that he could be and do the good he was meant to pass on to the rest of us. In fact, Abram was able to fool his stupid father by claiming that one of his idols broke all of the others. Silly Terach! But WAIT, where in the Torah do we see that Terach was so horrible or pedestrian? Let us look carefully at those verses that give us what information we have at the end of Parshat Noach.

In chapter 11, verses 31 – 32, we read:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had com as far as Haran, they settled there. The days of Terach came to 205 years; and Terach died in Haran.

Translation from Jewish Publication Society’s Tanach:The Holy Scriptures.

So, we know these stories of Terach the idol-worshipper did not come from Torah. Where do they come from? The Midrash! Remember, this source tries to rationalize, simplify and give us reasons for things that happen when it appears that there are none. So, why would Abram go on his journey? Right – to leave his father and his wicked ways! BUT, we do not see this in the words of the Torah either! Why? I do not know and frankly, I am not so sure anyone else does either! But wait, there is something here!

At the end of this Parsha of Noach, we have a story that is quite compelling, that of The Tower of Babel. This is the last narrative of importance before we read the generational listing, the next story being that of Abram leaving his home under the instruction and tutelage of G-d. What happens here in this last story of Noach? People have perhaps learned the lesson of the Mabul, the Flood, regarding how poorly people were treating each other (and how this even corrupted the very land on which they lived) and are trying to get along better in working towards a common goal. The problem is that this goal is to “reach the heavens,” that is to try to raise themselves above the human condition and limits! Now, this could be a noble goal to be sure, but in fact, it can lead to excessive hubris and forgetting the limits and realities of what it means to be truly human! We clearly see such dynamics in our world today among so many who claim to KNOW the truth and try to push it down our throats or choke us around the necks with it.

Could this be what Terach was leaving (since we do not know why he took his family and left home either!) when he takes his familial grouping from Ur and moves to Haran? Might it be possible to consider that Terach was actually a decent and realistic person who felt that a new beginning was imminent, not following the ways of those who completely corrupted all around them or those who aspired to reach far further than a human should try to reach? Is it possible that Abram inherited this understanding from his father and thus we might better understand his reasoning for leaving his home and listening to G-d? Does Terach set out roots for Abram to know that there is one G-d and that we are supposed to follow G-d, not “reach for the heavens” as the generation of Babel did? Might Abram be a credit to Terach in carrying on what he learned as “a member of his household?”

I don’t know and clearly all I have at this point are questions, not clear answers. As Martin Buber taught, “Questions unite, answers divide.” Maybe we are JUST NOT SUPPOSED to know all of the secrets of this text… or any other for that reason. Maybe instead of deciding who is right and who is wrong, we should follow the lead of Nechama Leibowitz and so many others who implore us to ask WHY the commentators, or Midrash or modern thinkers say and propose what they do? Why does the Midrash teach about idolatry and Abram’s distancing from it? Remember, its practice does NOT disappear at this point.

Look, I am not saying that this is a correct idea. That would be rather presumptuous of me. What I am suggesting is that we can all engage in the art of interpretation. That is the beauty of the Tanach – “one text and so many different meanings.” Now, zil gimor – go, think, learn and enjoy!


  1. As I recall, there is a Midrash about Abraham growing up in a cave and upon coming out realizing that there was a whole beautiful world there for him to live in. Somebody must have given it! But who? Thus Abraham began his search for G-d and what HE wanted in exchange for giving or being the landlord of this great gift.

    It seems to me, that if he Rabbis thought there was a possibility that Terah was responsible for Abraham's interest in G-d, they would not have come up with that Midrash.

    I feel it is far more likely that Terah learned fom Abraham. Perhaps his son's outrageous story about the idols fighting got him thinking. Perhaps the absurdity of the whole incident put him in touch with how inane it was to beieve in idols. Perhaps he decided his son was on to something.

    How often do we just go blindly along with what we've been taught to do? How much of how we look at things is done without thinking or questioning?

  2. Yes, absolutely, there are many cave stories about reality and being sequestered from surrounding world elements, and this is one too. In fact, the notion I suggested of the reaction against the culture of Migdal Bavel (in Babylonia, the site of this cave in which the Midrash has Avraham grow up) comes in part as a result of my thinking about this Midrash, among other texts. In fact, as the Midrash continues, Avraham comes out and sees all the stars and considers these may be gods; after all his background suggests the possibility of such a position (even after being protected by his cave). Clearly,after a series of observances, he comes to the point where he understands this to not be the case and comes to his spiritual awakenning as does Shimon ben Yochai on his emergence from his cave. The point is that anything is possible within a certain set of boundaries. It may very well be that Avraham was an inspiration to Terach as a result of this learning experience in coming out of the cave, first accepting the stars as G-d, then the sun, and only in darkness, coming to the point of placing his belief in One G-d. In this case too, Terach is devillianized, as he is open to learning from Avram. Yet history has him as buddy-buddy with Nimrod, clearly not the type of influence we might want to think of in terms of Avraham. As always, there continue to be many questions. This is why in learning what the lessons are from the text, it depends on what point of the text one wants to use as an inspiration. There are so many lessons for all of us to learn! That, to me, remains the beauty of the text.