Rome’s Arch of Titus lit up in support of Israel

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Today’s Terahs

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land. What’s often overlooked is that his father accompanied him. It’s a lesson that resonates today, as we see the importance of political leaders, organizations, and friends standing by our side to defend Israel.

Stuart Halpern
October 27, 2023
Rome’s Arch of Titus lit up in support of Israel

Screengrab: YouTube

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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On Oct. 23, 2023—two weeks after the Hamas attacks on Israel—the Greek prime minister stood in Tel Aviv and said, “I come here not just as an ally, but a true friend.” More than two millennia earlier, in 168 BCE, the Syrian Greeks were in Jerusalem fighting the Maccabees, the defenders of the Temple.

Rome’s Arch of Titus and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, ancient and modern symbols of Jewish destruction, were lit with the kachol ve-lavan, Israel’s blue and white, symbolizing support for the Jewish state. Germany’s chancellor asserted his country has “only one place” during the fight against Hamas, “and that is alongside Israel.”

The prime minister of the U.K., which in 1290 expelled its Jews for hundreds of years, now told the Israeli public: “I am proud to stand here with you in Israel’s darkest hour.”

These are the Terahs of our time.

Who’s Terah, you ask?

In an oft-overlooked verse in the 11th chapter of Genesis, the Bible recounts: “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 set out with them from Ur of the Chaldean for the land of Canaan; but when they arrived in Haran, they settled there.” Before God revealed Himself to Abram (later renamed Abraham) and said, “go forth from your land and your birthplace,” Abram’s father felt a pull toward the same place.

What exactly drew Terah to the land is left unsaid.

As Bar Ilan University’s Jonathan Grossman notes in his recently published Abraham: The Story of a Journey, interpreters throughout the ages have suggested various motivations for the move.

Perhaps Terah was leaving behind local political conflicts. Maybe he was seeking financial opportunity. Possibly he hoped his daughter-in-law Sarai’s barrenness would be cured by a change of scenery. Some have suggested that Terah sensed an inchoate religious attraction to the place that would, in the future, serve as the Holy Land for so many.

“Why,” questions Grossman, “is Terah’s journey—a journey he never sees through; a journey that ends in Haran; a journey that never reaches its final destination—included in the narrative cycle starring his son?”

Some quick math adds a deeper layer to the depiction of God’s command to Abram.

We Jews should appreciate those who, like Terah, accompany us on this long march, whether they remain alongside us for a few steps or many.

Genesis 11:26 notes that Terah had Abram at 70 years old, and six verses later we are told Terah died at 205 years old. The next chapter notes Abram received God’s call at age 75, which would have made Terah a sprightly 145 at the time of the revelation to his son. So even though, narratively, Terah’s death is recorded a few verses before God’s command to Abram, chronologically, Abram came to Canaan while his father was very much still alive.

In light of this context, the sequence of Abram’s journey can be reread and Terah’s own travels properly understood: God came to Abram and told him to go to “the land that I will show you.” Abram shared this divine message with his father. Terah, spiritually inspired by his son, joined him on the journey. For whatever reason, Terah stopped short on the way. Abram then successfully arrived in Canaan.

Though Grossman’s book was published prior to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack against Israel, we might reexamine this reading of Terah’s role in light of the support given by non-Jews to Israel in its time of need.

It’s not only politicians making pronouncements and monuments marked with flags.

There’s Kevin Chen, the young Canadian concert pianist, opening his performance at Carnegie Hall in New York with “Hatikvah” in solidarity.

“Dear Israeli and Jewish friends,” reads one statement published by Tablet. “In these unprecedented times, we, at the National Black Empowerment Council, want to express our unwavering solidarity with you. We understand the pain and fear that comes from these barbarous acts of violence and hate. We stand in unity with you in the strongest condemnation possible of the evil actions of Hamas.”

“The basis of all universities is a pursuit of truth, and it is times like these that require moral clarity,” reads another letter, signed by, among others, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the United Negro College Fund. “Like the fight against ISIS, the fight against Hamas is a fight against evil.”

The Philos Project, which brings thousands of young Christians to Israel through its Passages program, called on its members to observe a 12-hour fast to “come together in solidarity with the people of Israel during this challenging time.” Every day they mobilize their members to “show friendship in action.”

The warm connection between Aziza Hasan, a devout Muslim, and Andrea Hodos, a religious Jew, profiled in The New York Times, recounts how upon hearing of Hamas’ horrific attack, Hasan reached out to her friend and asked, “How are you holding up?” She continued: “I love you. I am sorry. I am here.”

We Jews should appreciate those who, like Terah, accompany us on this long march, whether they remain alongside us for a few steps or many. Whatever their motivations—political, spiritual, or moral—we treasure their company.

The ancient rabbis offered a startling teaching about Terah, usually dismissed as the worshiper of those worthless idols that his son shattered in founding the faith of our forefathers:

Rabbi Abba the son of Kahana said: Everyone whose name is repeated [in the Bible] in immediate succession experiences life in both worlds [the earthly realm and the World to Come]: Noah, Noah (Gen. 6:9); Abraham, Abraham (ibid. 22:11); Jacob, Jacob (ibid. 46:2); Moses, Moses (Exod. 3:4); Samuel, Samuel (I Sam. 3:10); Perez, Perez (Ruth 4:15). However, someone retorted: Is it not also written: These are the generations of Terah, Terah (Gen. 11:27). He replied: Even he had a portion in both worlds. (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot 18)

It would have been so easy to dismiss Terah as a footnote or even a foil to the founder of Judaism. Instead, the rabbis believed his support of Abraham merited exclusive company in the divine hall of fame. Today’s Terahs undoubtedly will someday take their place alongside their biblical predecessor.

During these fraught days, Abraham’s descendants are continuing his journey—this time not toward, but in defense of, the land of God’s promise. But now, like then, it is those who are accompanying us who will help us arrive at our destination.

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Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.