The Journey Of Terach


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:22 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 12:1-17:27
Haftorah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Havdalah: 5:22 p.m.

Abraham’s father, Terach, is often perceived as a primitive symbol of an outmoded religion, from whom his iconoclast, revolutionary son broke away. God said to the newly-penitent Abraham: “Go forth out of your country, from your homeland, from your father’s home, to the land I will show you” [Genesis 12:1].

But what if there is another way of looking at Terach, more in accord with the actual words of the Torah? What if it was Terach who discovered God first — rendering Abraham less a trailblazer and more a faithful follower? Perhaps Abraham was not so much a rebellious son as a respectful son, building upon the road laid out for him by his father?

After all, there is every reason to believe that when God tells Abraham to go forth, God is communicating to a man who was already aware of Him, a man whose mind-set was probably based on a religious perspective first learned at home.

Terach, himself, was at one time an idolater, but may have turned to the One God while Abraham was yet a very young lad, or even before Abraham was born. I suspect that a subtle clue testifying to the correctness of this position is to be found in an enigmatic verse: “Terach took his son, Abram [as the younger Abraham was known]; his grandson Lot, the son of Haran; and his daughter-in-law, Sarai [as the younger Sarah was known], the wife of his son Abram. They set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan, but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there … and Terach died in Haran” [Gen. 11:31-32].

Why did Terach set out for Canaan, the very place where Abraham himself ends up (at the relatively advanced age of 75) at the behest from God? Could Abraham have been completing the journey his father had begun decades earlier? What was special about Canaan? Why would Terach have wished to journey there, and why does the Torah believe the journey significant enough to mention Terach’s effort to arrive there?

Later in Lech Lecha, Abraham wages a successful war against four kings in order to save his nephew Lot, whom the kings took captive. Malkizedek, a priest of God and the King of Shalem [the future Jerusalem, “Jeru” means city, “Shalem” means peace] recognizes the justice of Abram’s battle against tyranny, and greets the victor with bread and wine, offering the benediction:

“Blessed be Abram to God-on-High, Maker of heaven and earth, and blessed be El Elyon (God-on-High) Who delivered your enemies into your hand” [Gen. 14:19]. Abram then gives Malkizedek, whom he clearly respects, a tribute of one-tenth of his spoils.

Shalem/Jerusalem was the capital city of Canaan, and this is the first time that Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible. Malkizedek literally means “the King of Righteousness,” and Jerusalem is biblically known as the “City of Righteousness” [Isaiah 1:26]. From where did this Malkizedek, apparently older than Abram, hear of El Elyon?

Nachmanides [referring to Gen. 14:18] maintains that from the very beginning, the monotheistic traditions of Adam and Noah were preserved in only one place in the world: Jerusalem. Its king, Noah’s son Shem, known as Malkizedek, was a priest to El Elyon. It is then plausible that Terach was someone who had come to believe in this One God, even in the spiritual wilds of Ur of the Chaldeans. He therefore set out for Canaan, the land of monotheism, to raise his family.

Terach may even have had personal contact with Malkizedek, who greets Abraham with religious words of encouragement, after Abraham’s victory. It was a religious victory, in which right triumphed over might, a victory for the God of ethical monotheism. Like so many contemporary Jews who set out for Israel, Terach had to stop half-way and didn’t quite make it. But all along God was waiting for Terach’s son to embrace the opportunity to continue where his father had left off.

The common view of Terach has Abraham defying his father’s way of life as he creates his own path, becoming in eect a model for many modern day ba’alei teshuva (those returning to religion) who attempt to radically break away from non-believing parents, rejecting everything from their past.

According to the understanding we have suggested here, however, Abraham is actually following in his father’s footsteps, building on his father’s foundation, redefining Terach’s way of life. For the first time in history, Abraham paves the way for himself and others to move up the spiritual ladder by not only continuing, but also advancing. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.