Disgrace and praise: A pre-Pesach reflection

The conquest of Canaan had been completed. Each of the tribes had received its allotted portion of the Land. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, had fulfilled their promise to Moses to fight side by side with the other Israelites and not to “return to [their] homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion” (Num. 32:19, JPS translation), so Joshua bin Nun, Moses’s servant and later his successor, had permitted them to return to their homes east of the Jordan River.

Joshua knows that his life’s work is almost finished and that he will soon die. He assembles all the tribes at Shechem to hear his final address to the people. As the biblical book that bears his name recounts it:

Then Joshua said to all the people, Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel:  In olden times, your forefathers — Terah, the father of Abraham and father of Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and worshipped other gods.  But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through the whole land of Canaan   and multiplied his offspring.  I gave him Isaac and to Isaac I  gave Jacob and Esau.  I gave Esau the hill country of Seir as his possession, while Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. (Joshua 24:2-4, JPS translation).

The verses quoted above are familiar even to those who have never studied the Book of Joshua. They are familiar because they have been incorporated into the Haggadah that we read each year on Pesach.

The Haggadah’s excerpt of Joshua’s final address ends at this point, but its biblical counterpart does not. In the biblical version, Joshua goes on to recount God’s miraculous redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. He then describes some highlights of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and their subsequent conquest of the Land. He warns them of the consequences of idolatry and admonishes them:

Now therefore revere the Lord and serve Him with undivided loyalty put away the gods your forefathers   served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  Or, if you are loath to serve the Lord, choose this day which ones you are going to serve — the gods that your forefathers   served beyond the Euphrates, or those of the Amorites in whose land you are settled, but I and my household will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:14-15).

These admonitions, though recorded in the Book of Joshua, did not find their way into the Haggadah. Even the encapsulation of Jewish history up to Joshua’s day, which begins the farewell address, is only partially included. The excerpt of Joshua’s address in the Haggadah ends at the point that we might have expected it to begin — with the verse recounting that God “sent Moses and Aaron” and “plagued Egypt” (24:5). These events go to the heart of the story that the Haggadah is seeking to memorialize, yet they are omitted from the excerpt that appears in the Haggadah.

That excerpt that is quoted in the Haggadah is somewhat puzzling in their own right. Joshua begins his address by mentioning “Terah, the father of Abraham and father of Nahor.” Terah and Nahor are respectively the father and brother of the Patriarch Abraham, but their names seldom appear in Scripture. What little the Torah tells us about Terah, is contained in the last seven verses of Parshat Noach (Gen.11:26-32). Outside of that brief narrative, Terah’s name appears only twice more in all of Tanakh: a perfunctory mention in a genealogical list (I Chron. 1:24) and here, at the beginning of Joshua’s farewell address.

The name of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, appears in the Torah a little more frequently than Terah’s name, mostly because of his connection to the families which produced his granddaughter, the Matriarch Rebekah, and his great-granddaughters, the Matriarchs Rachel and Leah (Gen. 22:20, 24; 24:18; 24; 29:5). In most of the Biblical references to Nahor, he is not presented as an active character in the narrative. Rather, his name is invoked by other characters, usually in the course of identifying other family members. The only unambiguous exceptions are the verse, during the brief account of Terah’s, life, when the Torah tells us that Nahor took Milcah as his wife (11:29) and the quotation from Joshua’s farewell address set forth above.

The Torah contains one other reference to Nahor, however, that is potentially significant. Near the end of Parshat Vayetzei, the patriarch Jacob enters into what might best be termed a non-aggression pact with his uncle and father-in-law, Laban, who is Nahor’s grandson. Laban describes the agreement is as follows:

This mound shall be witness and this monument shall  be witness that I may not cross over to you past this mound  and this monument for evil.  May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us — the god of their father.  And Jacob swore by the Dread of his father Isaac. (Gen. 31:52-53).

If we seek to understand him based solely on the biblical text, without reference to  midrashic embellishments, Abraham’s father Terah is a somewhat enigmatic figure.  After mentioning that Terah had three sons, the Torah recounts:

This is the line [toldot] of Terah; Terah begat Abram, Nahor and Haran.   Haran died in the lifetime of (Heb. al pnei) his father Terah, in his  native land, Ur of the Chaldeans…. 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 Charan, they settled there.  The days of Terah came to 205 years; and Terah died in Charan. (Gen.  11:27-32)

This Scriptural account of Terah’s life leaves much unexplained. It appears that the death of his son Haran had a traumatic effect on Terah, causing him to leave Ur, his native land and begin a journey that was intended to reach Canaan. He took with him his grandson Lot, Haran’s son, as well as his son and daughter-in-law Abram and Sarai (soon to be called Abraham and Sarah). They get as far as Charan and stop there. (Most transliterations make no distinction between Haran, the person, and Charan, the city, although they begin with different Hebrew letters; I am using ch for the place name to avoid confusion.)

Terah never goes further. In the next verse, God commands Abraham leave his father’s house, i.e., to continue the journey without Terah (12:1). Terah’s failure to continue the journey with Abraham did not result, as a superficial reader might infer, from Terah dying before Abraham left Charan. As Rashi points out, simple arithmetic makes it clear that Terah lived another sixty years after Abraham’s departure from Charan.

Why did Terah seek to go to Canaan? Why did he take Abram and Sarai with him, but not Nahor and Milcah? Why did they stop in Charan and not continue the journey? Why does God command Abraham to leave Terah behind when he continues the journey?

On all these questions, the text is silent. The Torah does contain several additional clues, however, that in combination with the previously cited texts may help us to make sense of this narrative. The first of these clues is Nahor’s name, which was the same as his grandfather’s. Terah appears to be the first person in human history to name one of his sons after his father (11:24-26).

The second clue is the Torah’s use of the phrase eileh toldot (usually translated as “these are the generations” or “this is the line”). That phrase is generally used in Sefer Bersishit (Genesis) to introduce the narrative relating to a particular protagonist. Thus, it is used with regard to Noah (Gen. 6:9), his son Shem (11:9), and later to Isaac (25:20) and Jacob (37:2), among others. Yet the phrase is never used with regard to Abraham; instead, the introduction to Abraham’s story is linked to the story of his father Terah (11:27).

The third clue is geographical. The plain meaning of these verses appears to be that Nahor and his family remained in Ur when Terah and Abraham traveled to Charan. Yet we know that by the time of Jacob (28:10) — and probably even in Isaac’s day, though it’s less clear (24:10) — Nahor’s family was living in the vicinity of Charan. How and when they got there is unstated.

Putting these texts together gives us a more complex picture of Terah that differs in significant respects from that depicted in some midrashim. The Terah who emerges is conflicted, torn between loyalty to the idolatry in which he grew up and attraction to the idea of monotheism that his son Abraham has begun to teach. Nahor is a symbol of the idolatry in Terah’s heritage; that he named his son after his own father suggests a misplaced filial devotion. Yet he apparently remained open to Abraham’s new ideas, especially after the trauma of his son Haran’s death led him to change the direction of his life.

Terah evidently knew that to proceed to Canaan as he intended meant choosing Abraham over Nahor. This he was initially willing to do, but at some point after he arrived in Charan, he changed his mind. It thus became clear that Terah could not complete the break with his idolatrous past, so God commanded Abraham to continue the journey without him. The Torah doesn’t explain the reasons for Terah’s change of heart, but it makes no effort to hide the fact that Abraham’s journey was a a continuation of Terah’s — which is why the phrase “eileh toldot” is applied to Terah rather than to Abraham.

Students of Tanakh are frequently puzzled by the persistence of idolatry in biblical times. How could it be that a people who had witnessed God’s miraculous intervention with the frequency that those of the early generations had could so easily be tempted by idolatry? Joshua’s farewell address suggests at least a partial answer. His insistence that the Israelites serve God with undivided loyalty makes clear that his primary concern behind this admonition was not that the Israelites would abandon God entirely, but rather that they would worship other gods in addition to Him. The prophet Elijah expressed the same concern during his confrontation with the priests of Baal on Har Carmel: “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him.” (I Kings 18:21)

By beginning his farewell address with references to both Terah and Nahor, Joshua was pointedly reminding the Israelites of the danger of syncretism. He knew how precarious the hold of monotheism was on the popular imagination. and how urgent was the need to reinforce that message.

So how did the beginning of Joshua’s farewell address, which mentions Terah and his two surviving sons, find its way into the Haggadah? The mishna in Pesachim (10:4) states that fulfilling the obligation to recount the story of the exodus requires us to begin with disgrace and conclude with praise. The Gemara records a disagreement between Rav and Shmuel, the two leading amoraim of the first generation, as to the nature of the disgrace. According to Rav, the disgrace was the Egyptian slavery, while Shmuel argued that the disgrace was not being slaves but rather being idol-worshippers.

Jews being Jews, we resolved that disagreement by including in our Haggadah wording that would satisfy both opinions. Rav’s opinion — that the slavery itself was the disgrace — is satisfied by the first sentence of the Maggid section of the Haggadah: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God our Lord took us out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm..” Shmuel’s view — that the disgrace was our idolatrous past — is satisfied by the sentence immediately preceding the quotation from the Book of Joshua: “At first, our fathers served idols. But now God has brought us close [to Him that we may] serve Him [alone.]” (The Haggdah translations are from the Haggadah edited by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs.)

Whether we accept Rav’s view or Shmuel’s — and Jewish history, alas, has given us more than enough experience with both — the term “disgrace” is not really a moral judgment. It is difficult to consider our enslavement to be a sign of moral defect when God Himself foretold both our slavery and our redemption to Abraham. A better case could be made for moral deficiency when it comes to idolatry, but the Haggadah’s introduction to Joshua’s farewell address implies that the remedy for idolatry was for God to bring us closer to Him.

In either view, our redemption from Egypt was not merely a one-time experience. It was, rather, a paradigm that has repeated itself all too frequently in Jewish history. As the Haggadah sums it up:, “in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us — and the Holy One blessed be He saves us from their hand.”

A happy and kosher Pesach to all.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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