On most Fridays, I study the weekly parasha with my 97-year-old rabbi and 103-year-old friend. I bet there has never been a chevruta consisting of a 97-year-old, a 103-year-old, and a 63-year-old. One of the more humorous moments in our chevruta was when the 97-year-old turned to the 103-year-old and said, “Compared to you, I’m just a kid.” Experiencing their combined life wisdom of two hundred years is always remarkable, but last week’s discussion of one verse was a new high-water mark.
Genesis 11: 31, one of the concluding verses of Parashat Noach and a bridge to this week’s parasha, Lekh Lekha, has always troubled me. “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 come as far as Haran, they settled there.” “Wait,” I said to my sage friends! “Terach started on the journey to the promised land but then settled in Haran, a land that was neither his birthplace nor the future home of Avraham? Why does Terach abandon one of his other surviving sons, Nachor, his clan, and the security of his birthplace and separate from Avraham, his first-born surviving son, who will continue the trek to Canaan?” Here is how we made sense of this confusing family portrait.
When a family experiences trauma, the surviving family members sometimes draw closer. But a loss of that magnitude can also drive family members apart. My study partners and I discussed the possibility that the death of Haran, Terach’s youngest son, was the catalyst for the disintegration of his family. After Haran died, Avraham heard God’s call to leave his birthplace, leaving Terach with an impossible choice. Terach could follow his eldest son Avraham to a new land and relinquish his connection to his other son Nachor, or remain in Ur Kasdim and sever his relationship with his first-born son, Avraham.
Avraham and Nachor don’t seem bothered by the situation in which they placed their father, and the two brothers do not appear together again. Their lack of reconnection stands in contrast to other Biblical brothers who grew apart, like Joseph and his brothers, or Isaac and Ishmael, who reunite to bury their father. Terach, Avaham, and Nachor play different roles in their family drama, leaving Terach geographically bereft of his two surviving sons and the two brothers devoid of contact with each other and their father.
The family of Terach, Avraham, and Nachor exemplifies how loss can drive a family apart. Families are fragile, and resentments and injustices that live under the surface of relationships can break through any time. Is it merely a Divine coincidence that Avraham separates from his family after the death of his brother, Haran? Why doesn’t Avraham bring his father and brother to Canaan, as Joseph did with his father and brothers in Egypt? Avraham travels with his wife and nephew and an entourage of “people he acquired in Haran” (Gen. 12:5), so he clearly isn’t afraid of importing heretical beliefs into his new faith. Also, Avraham sends his household steward to his birthplace when he seeks a wife for his son, Isaac. Avraham never forgot his family of origin and had the means to travel to visit the family he left behind.
The elders in my chevruta knew how little control we often have over consequential events, like the sudden and unexpected loss of a family member. But my 97-year-old rabbi, who values relationships above all else, asserted that when a family experiences trauma that threatens to divide it, its members are responsible for exerting every effort to maintain its integrity. Avraham, who prospered in Canaan and had the means to reach out to his father and brother, did not do so and look at the result: Avraham lived in one place, Terach another, and Nachor, yet a third. In the next generation, there is also dissension, and Avraham and his nephew, Lot, separate from each other. As my 103-year-old friend remarked, “What kind of solution (family members isolating themselves from each other) is that?”
Avraham’s name, which Gen. 17:5 explains means “the father of many nations,” sounds ironic. He is destined to be the father of the Jewish people yet does not fulfill his filial and fraternal responsibilities. He reminds us that we can wind up neglecting those closest to us in our desire to serve God and others. Does that make Avraham a “failure?” No – it makes him and his family human and advises us that leaving our families of origin behind geographically does not mean that we should leave them behind relationally. And if we had doubts about the wisdom of making an effort to maintain our closest relationships, COVID-19 has removed them.