Of Children and Immortality (Ideas #73)

More than one reader has wondered about some of the Torah's minor characters. One such character is Avraham's father, Terach.



The Torah tells us very little about Terach, except for his genealogy and the lone fact that he left his home with the goal of moving to Israel (Eretz Kana'an) but ultimately settled in a different location along the way. This obtuse information has puzzled many commentators, who point out the seeming unimportance of this detail.



The rabbis do not have much to say about Terach’s desire to go Israel, but they did notice another interesting fact implied by the Biblical text, something that on the surface seems contrary to our basic tradition about Terach: When G-d speaks to Avraham (Bereishit 15:15), He tells him that when he dies, he will come to his father in peace, a statement interpreted to mean that Terach too has a place in the world to come.  Given that tradition sees Terach in a basically negative light, there is a disagreement among commentators why he should have received the gift of immortality. Some say that Terach must have repented, while others tell us that it is the merit of Avraham that allowed him to get such a favorable judgment.  



Those who take the latter position base their answer on the Talmud's assertion that, although a father's merit does not influence God's judgment of a son, a son's merit influences His judgment of a father (Sandhedrin 104a). This itself is worthy of analysis: why should it be that a son can share his merit with his father but a father may not do so with his son? Upon further reflection, however, we can understand that a son reflects upon his father in a way that a father does not reflect on his son. We know that we are greatly influenced by our parents, usually more so than by anyone else. In contrast, a child's behavior rarely has a major impact on the already formed character of his parents. As such, if a person is righteous, it is likely that his parents played an important role in this, even if it is not always easily seen, since a child not only picks up on the manifest actions of his parents but also absorbs their latent traits and beliefs as well.



Even as Avraham made an important break from his family and culture, he did not emerge from a vacuum. It is likely that Terach's aborted move to Israel is indicative of that which the Torah wants us to know about him and his impact on his son, Avraham.  In this regard we need to ask why Terach would have chosen to go so for away. Indeed, it would have made more sense to move closer to home, as he eventually did. And even if he wanted to get farther away from the land of his past, there were many other lands that he could have chosen. His choice to go to Israel could hardly have been coincidental, especially since the Torah tells us about Terach's move right before G-d commands Avraham to go to the exact place his father had originally intended to reach. Indeed, in other contexts, the Midrash and later commentators suggest that many people were aware that Israel was a land ideally suited to morality and spirituality, even before G-d promised it to Avraham. According to this tradition, the famous commentator R. Ovadiya Seforno's suggestion, that Terach sought to live in Israel in order to better himself, appears to be an eminently reasonable explanation for Terach's actions.



If we are correct in our understanding of Terach's decision to move to Israel, we must also try to understand why he aborted his mission halfway. In this regard, it is important to remember the difficulty of Avraham's task of challenging a paganism that was as universal as it was base; taking on the entire world is certainly not for the faint hearted. Thus, Avraham is chosen based on the unique strength of his convictions and character. As in all societies, it is likely that he was not the only one who disagreed with the beliefs and practices of his time. Rather, the greatness of Avraham lay in the fact that he was willing to take a public stand and thereby invite the ridicule and scorn of an entire world culture. Even if Terach may have had an interest in morality and spirituality, he does not appear to have the greatness of his son, Avraham. Consequently, Terach's apparently good intentions to go to Israel would likely have been easily stunted. In a culture where people almost  never moved from one country to another, one can only imagine his being frequently questioned about his journey  to Israel while on the road. One wonders how Terach responded to such questions. It certainly would have required great tenacity to continue such a socially uncomfortable journey, a journey that would have taken several weeks.



Like too many of us, Terach might be considered a latently righteous man. This, of course, is usually of no avail; we are generally judged according to our actions and not our intentions. There is one area, however, where our intentions are critically important, and that is in the raising of our children. This is because a child mimics everything he sees the parents doing or even thinking, often to the parent's complete surprise. It is often amusing to note how a child will walk or gesture like one of their parents. Less amusing is when we see our own children picking up bad habits that we never realized we even had. By the same token, even if we don't act upon them, our children know very well what our values are, and in the safe cocoon of the family the child is often able to better internalize his parents' values than even his parents themselves.



While we have once discussed the well-known danger in the parental attitude of “Do as I say, not as I do,” there are different ways that such an attitude manifests itself. If it is simple hypocrisy, it will almost certainly backfire. However, such a position can also be presented as instructing one's children in what the parent sincerely believes to be right, hoping their children will have more strength in its actual fulfillment. A child who hears about or even senses a sincere but unfulfilled parental desire to devote more time to Torah study, will understand that Torah study is a desirable thing – even as he will not completely grasp what is holding his parent back. This very lack of understanding, however, will often propel the child to take the fulfillment of his parents' stated desires as a personal challenge. Thus, it should not be a surprise to see a child who is much bolder than his parents in the pursuit of the values that he learned even subliminally from them.



Such a scenario would provide a paradigmatic explanation as to why Terach received a share in the world to come. If Avraham had the strength to face the world in the pursuit of G-dliness, it is more than likely that Terach had a part in this. As such, Avraham's actual merit is a reflection of Terach's own latent merit. So too, the sincere and true desire of an individual to do well is not worthless, even if it never leads to his own action. The caveat is that such a desire is ultimately worthless if it does not lead to action by someone. So the Talmud informs us that we are judged according to the actions that we bring to the world, even if they are not our own.



What is perhaps most interesting about the Talmud's doctrine that the behavior of a child can revise the Divine evaluation of a person, is that it puts the concept of the individual in a completely different light. It would appear that an individual is not as self-contained as one might otherwise think. In raising another human being (and parents are not the only ones who raise children), one creates an extension of oneself, of one's values and of one's belief. The next time we look at our children we need to remember that. For those who are finished with child raising this realization will hopefully be a source of comfort. For those currently involved in it, this should serve as a challenge. For those not yet involved in child raising it should serve as an incentive.