By Shlomo Riskin
“The Lord said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, and from your homeland, and from your father’s home, to the land that I will show you.’” (Gen. 12:1)
Abraham’s father, Terah, is often perceived as a primitive symbol of an outmoded religion, from whom his iconoclast, revolutionary son broke away to adhere to a new faith that would ultimately redeem the world. “Get out of your father’s home,” says God to the newly-penitent Abraham.
But what if there is another way of looking at Terah, more in accord with the actual words of the Torah? What if it was Terah who had discovered God first – rendering Abraham less a trailblazer and more a faithful follower? Perhaps Abraham was not so much a rebellious son as he was a respectful son, who continued and built 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 from his country, his birthplace, to a land that God will reveal, God is communicating to a man who was already aware of Him, and of a mind-set that was most probably based on a religious perspective first learned at home.
Terah himself was at one time an idolater, but may have turned to the One God while Abraham was very young or even before Abraham was born. A subtle clue testifying to the correctness of this position is to be found in an enigmatic verse:
“Terah 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 come as far as Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran” (Gen. 11:31-32).
Why does Terah set out for Canaan, the very place where Abraham himself ends up at the relatively advanced age of 75 at the behest of the call from God? Could Abraham have been completing the journey his father had begun decades earlier? What was special about Canaan? Why would Terah have wished to journey there? Why does the Torah believe the journey significant enough to mention Terah’s effort to arrive at that destination?
Further on in this portion, Abraham (then Abram) wages a successful war against four despotic kings in order to save his nephew Lot, who along with others had been taken captive by them. Malkizedek, the King of Shalem (“Jeru” = city, “Shalem” = peace) and a priest of God on High, 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 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. The city of Shalem (Jerusalem) was the capital city of Canaan – and this is the first time it is mentioned in the Bible. Malkizedek literally means “the King of Righteousness”, and Jerusalem is biblically known as the “City of Righteousness” (Isa. 1:26). From whence did this Malkizedek, apparently older than Abram, hear of God on High (El Elyon)?
Nahmanides (on Gen. 14:18) maintains that from the very beginning of the world, the monotheistic traditions of Adam and Noah were preserved in only one place in the world: Jerusalem. Its king, Shem, son of Noah, also known as Malkizedek, was a priest to God-on-High. If this is the case, it is plausible that Terah was someone who had come to believe in this One God even in the spiritual wilds of Ur of the Chaldeans – and therefore set out for Canaan, the land of monotheism, where he wished to raise his family.
Terah may even have had personal contact with Malkizedek, who greets the son of his friend with religious words of encouragement to the victor of a religious battle in which right triumphed over might, a victory of the God of ethical monotheism. Like so many contemporary Jews who set out for Israel, Terah had to stop halfway and didn’t quite make it. But all along God was waiting for Terah’s son to embrace the opportunity to continue where his father had left off.
The common view of Terah has Abraham defying his father’s way of life as he creates his own path, becoming in effect a model for many modern day ba’alei teshuva (penitents) 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 the foundation built by his father, redefining his father’s way of life, and for the first time in history, paving the way for himself and others to move up the spiritual ladder by not only continuing, but also advancing.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.