Gen. 6:9 – 11:32
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Jewish math can sometimes be “creative.” To wit, the final verse in this week’s Torah portion: “The days of Terach were 205 years and Terach died in Haran.” (Gen. 11:32). On the surface, this verse about Avram’s father does not seem to be any different from how other biblical deaths are recorded. However, Rashi notes that Terach was 70 years old when Avram was born (Gen. 11:26) and Avram was 75 years when he is commanded by God to separate from his father in next week’s Torah portion. This means that Terach was at most 145 years old and very much alive when our Torah portion concluded.
How can he be both alive and dead at the same time? I am reminded of the apocryphal story about Samuel Clemens who in 1897 learned about a report of his death through the New York Journal and famously replied, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Rashi, of course, takes a different approach. In his commentary to verse 32 he asks: “Why, then, does Scripture mention the death of Terach before the departure of Avram?” Rashi offers two vastly different answers.
First, he teaches this verse appears before Avram leaves to obscure the fact that Avram left while Terach was still alive. Why does this matter? Rashi believed it was to protect Avram from criticism that he did not show a son’s proper respect to his father – by leaving him in his old age. Our tradition highlights the importance of respecting our elders, and especially our parents. The medieval rabbis may have been embarrassed that Avram acted disrespectfully towards his father, and even worse, did so at the behest of God. Rashi’s reminder helps to strengthen our own commitment to our elders. And it also calls our attention to the fact that God’s call came with personal costs, to Avram and to his family, including his father Terach. God required a difficult choice. Should we judge Avram in this circumstance? Should we question God? We may not know the answers, but Rashi’s commentary is thought provoking.
Second, Rashi leans on the midrash Genesis Rabbah (39:7) to teach: “the wicked, even while alive are called dead and the righteous, even while dead are called living.” Here, he takes a completely different view, casting Terach as wicked, because according to midrash Terach was not just an idolator, but an idol maker. Therefore, Avram needed to leave his father in order to leave idolatry behind and serve God. On an empirical level, the midrash leaves us with something profound: every act of wickedness diminishes our souls, so that when repeated over and over, even if our bodies still draw breath, we become dead inside. Conversely, repeated acts of righteousness impact the world beyond our lifetimes, so that it is as if we are still active in the world even after we have died. Hundreds of years after Rashi we should still ask ourselves, “what do we seek, a living death, or a life that transcends our mortality?”
Jewish math gets “creative” to encourage us to dig deeper. Let’s keep on digging.