Yael Unterman
Yael Unterman
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What parents begin, children continue

Enoch walked with God and Terach traveled partway to Canaan, but it took Noah and Abraham respectively to actualize the potential of their ancestors (Noah)
Book of Genesis Chapter 7-2 (Bible Illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Fort Worth, Texas, and Gospel Light, Ventura, California,1984. (Wikimedia Commons)
Book of Genesis Chapter 7-2 (Bible Illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Fort Worth, Texas, and Gospel Light, Ventura, California,1984. (Wikimedia Commons)

I dedicate this blog with gratitude to my parents, Alan and Nechama Unterman, praying that I can use wisely and well the gift of their wonderful talents passed down to me in writing, teaching, creativity, and humour.

* * *

I was looking this year at the mysterious figure of Hanoch (Enoch) who appears in Genesis 5:21-24. Verse 24 tells us of his highly unusual ending:

And Hanoch walked with God; and he was not; for God took him.

It’s hard to know what that means. All we know is that at a relatively young age compared to his peers (365 years is not much when everyone is living to 800-plus) he somehow leaves this physical plane.

Striking though is that the language used to describe him (“walked with God”) recurs in his great-grandson Noah (Gen. 6:9). In fact, these are the only two people in the Bible described as walking with God. Not Abraham, not Joseph, not King David. And this loudly calls our attention to the link between the two men. What does this signify?

Here’s how I understand it:

Hanoch had a certain quality, not shared by the people around him, of closeness to God (perhaps this phrase is not only theological but points also to ethical behaviour; Nehama Leibowitz notes that being Godfearing, Yareh Elohim, can refer to being more moral [1]). For some reason, Hanoch was removed from the physical plane prematurely, and was unable to develop this trait and disseminate it in the world around him — perhaps because he was before his time. Yet he had a son (Methuselah), who had a son (Lamech), who had a son (Noah) in whose self the trait suddenly reappeared. Noah walked with God, at a time when no one else seemed to be doing so.

Noah was not taken prematurely; he died a regular death at age 950. And in the course of this long life, he was given a challenge in which this trait of walking with God could be utilised, extended, and stretched to the maximum, in ways that Hanoch in his lifetime did not experience. Thus, what Hanoch began, Noah was given the chance to continue; and not only in his lifetime. In fact, God decided that all future humans would be descended from this genetic line, so that in the spiritual “survival of the fittest,” this particular spiritual strand of DNA would predominate in humankind. This would hopefully prevent the world from once again descending to the depths of corruption.

Now, we can argue that the passing on of the Hanoch trait was not entirely successful. If you look at the letters of Hanoch (Het Nun Vav Chaf), Noah shares only two of them (Nun Het). (I imagine Methuselah saying to Lamech, “Now listen, son, I want you to name the baby after my father, who was taken young,” and Lamech, not wanting to bring such a fate upon his newborn, saying, “Okay, I will name him using a couple of letters from grandfather’s name” — something people do to this day.)

The rabbis argue about whether Noah is a tzaddik (righteous) or not a tzaddik, based on the phrase, “in his generations.” I see both views as right — he is part tzaddik, part not (or perhaps, like as the paradoxical quantum physics wave/particle simultaneity, he is both a tzaddik and not tzaddik at the same time). When he inhabits the Hanoch part of him, he is the tzaddik; when he does not, he is merely a person of his time, mediocre and corrupted.

In Gen 6:8, Noah finds favour in the eyes of God, “Hen,” which is Het Nun, again half of Hanoch’s name, and this time the right way around. But he is unable to fully manifest Hanoch’s trait.[2]

Still, Noah has enough of the trait to be able to walk with God and to be chosen to build the ark, save humans and animals, and be appointed the universal common ancestor for all humans. And in this, he manifests a potential that Hanoch did not.

* * *

This example at the beginning of Parshat Noah is complemented by another example of “parents take a step, children take the next” at its very end. As we will see, it is a different model, but the basic concept is the same.

God’s command to Abraham in Gen. 12:1 “Lech lecha” — “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” is one of the most significant verses in Jewish history, setting in motion a journey of peoplehood, ethics, and worship still in force today. Yet the verses just before it explicitly tell us that Abraham’s father Terach had set out already, to go to the land of Canaan…! And here the mystery land is even named!

Leaving aside the question of why Abraham was told to leave his birthplace if he had already left, let’s ask: If Terach was not commanded by God, how did he know to start the journey in precisely the right direction?

The Talmud indicates that our actions can be shaped by a “knowing” on a level that is not rational, but rather supra-rational, meaning derived from a higher place, our soul. The Gemara in Megillah (3a) describes how the men who were with Daniel did not see the vision that he saw. A question is then asked: “If they did not see, why were they frightened?” The answer is given:

Although they themselves did not see, their ‘mazal’ (star) saw.

And Rabina remarks:

We learn from this that if a man is seized with fright though he sees nothing, the reason is that his ‘mazal’ (star) sees.

We often translate “mazal” as luck, or something written in the stars, but here, its meaning is an innate knowing coming from a place that is beyond the conscious and rational.[3] I want to suggest that Terach’s “star” or innate soul knowing guided him to start the journey towards Canaan, which Abraham could then continue. Terach might not have been aware of why he needed to get up and go to Canaan, he may have thought he was going for trade reasons or something else.[4] Yet in reality, a deeper intention was carrying him along, part of the Divine plan. He was taking Abraham part of the way (to Haran, to be precise), so that Abraham could continue from that springboard.

Abraham’s case would be different. Rather than just his “star” knowing, God wished it to become a specific command, the start of a new journey with God that Terach would not experience. Yet Terach had the merit of beginning that journey, propelled by motives hidden even to him. There was something in him that was, unbeknownst even to him, connected to Godliness (I wonder if perhaps that is what compelled him, in the famous midrash, to set up an idol shop — the desire to share religious worship in the world, albeit not the correct type). This spark came to fruition in Abraham. What the parent began, the child continued.

And I think we can generalise this to most or all parents and children. Many of us have traits and talents we inherit from our forbears, but are able to take one step further. Our parents travel a certain distance with their own skills, and then we get to travel the next part of the way and reach new destinations, achieve greater things. Without what we inherited, however, we couldn’t get there.

This is a shining reason to appreciate our parents and what they have done with what they were given. They travelled the part of the journey that was within their capabilities, and we do the same. Our children will take it one step further. Everyone does their part.

I hope that Abraham recognised that in Terach, and could at some point go beyond their fight about idols to appreciate what his father did do.

[1] The use of the term “Godfearing” in the context of the midwives Shifra and Puah signifies primarily a concern for the defenseless outsider. For it is precisely this attitude that reveals whether one fears God or not; and without fear of God, ethical approaches are liable to dissipate, as “man’s intellect may degenerate and conceive of the most savage and diabolical plans.” (See Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot 36, and Studies in Devarim 252-253.)

[2] The ability to find Hen resurfaces powerfully in Joseph (Gen 39:4) and Esther (Esther 2:9 and Esther 2:15), perhaps another instance of a trait skipping generations and reappearing down the line.

[3] In Chabad Chassidut, this place is referred to as daat elyon.

[4] As the verse (Proverbs 19:21) says: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the LORD, it will prevail.” Through the plans we think we are making, God puts the divine plan in motion, unbeknownst to us – and even if we intended the opposite, as we see in the Joseph story, where the brothers tried to get rid of him, but in doing so, actually set in motion the fulfillment of his dreams, to take place in Egypt. (A similar occurrence takes place in the story of Oedipus.)

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom. www.yaelunterman.com
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