Parshat Noaḥ is filled with epic tales, yet it is the final seven verses of this week’s sedra that tell the most concise, and most overlooked, epic drama of the sedra. It is the first chapter of Avraham’s origin story.
The tale begins and ends with Avraham’s father Terah, and concludes with an unusual and controversial letter ן (final Nun) in the word Haran (חָרָן). In its modesty, this letter ן has quite a lot to say. It speaks of anger, misguided belief, the renewal of faith. It also speaks of pride and of humility.
The curtain opens with Teraḥ, the father of three sons: Avram, Nahor (whom Terah names for his own father), and Haran. The Talmud tells us that Terah was married to Amatlai, daughter of Carnevo (Talmud Bava Basra 91). A joyous occasion arrives for the family – Terah’s first grandson, Lot, is born to his youngest son.
Then tragedy strikes: Haran dies in his hometown of Ur Kasdim. The language of the verse is “עַל-פְּנֵי תֶּרַח”, that Haran died before his father’s very eyes, a death which must have been deeply traumatic for Terah. Until that day, says the Zohar, no man had ever died in his father’s lifetime. The story swiftly moves on to show how Haran’s two older brothers, Avram and Nahor, moved on. They both married and we are introduced to their wives: Sarai and Milcah. We then learn of a second family tragedy – Avram’s wife Sarai is barren. The couple is childless.
Terah decides to leave Ur Kasdim, to forsake that place where he lost his son Haran. In a verse that mentions the word “son” over and over again, as if we are glimpsing the mind of a parent in pain, Terah uproots his family, taking Avram, Sarai, and the orphaned Lot, his grandson, with him.
The Torah tells us it is Terah, not Avraham, who initiated the thousand-mile journey from Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan.
Terah leads his family Eastward. They make it about 700 miles together along the Euphrates until they reach the city of Ḥaran…and there they stay.
וַיִּהְיוּ יְמֵי-תֶרַח, חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וּמָאתַיִם שָׁנָה; וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח, בְּחָרָן.
And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.
Terah grows old and dies in the city of Haran, which echoes the name of the son he lost. A city whose name literally means “crossroads” in Akkadian.
The word Ḥaran has a double meaning: apart from ‘crossroads’, it also means ‘wrath’, a term often used to describe G!d’s anger towards human beings.
Why does this story end with an unusual Final Nun on the word Haran? There is quite a controversy among the rabbis on this. There is disagreement on every aspect of this unusual letter: on its name, form, and of course, its meaning.
Let’s begin with Rashi. He calls this letter a Nun hafucha (הנו”ן הפוכה), which may be translated as a ‘backwards’ or ‘inverted’ Nun. But what does הפוכה actually mean?Inverted, as in backwards-facing? Upside down? Neither? Or perhaps…both?
The Torah Shelemah includes no less than five variations on this Nun Hafucha (above):
- Upside down with a leg in the center
- Upside down and backwards (head facing to the right)
- Upright but with a backward facing foot on its leg;
- Upright but with a slanted leg;
- Upright with wrapped taggim (crownlets) on its head, and might include a wrapped foot.
Rashi, unfortunately, doesn’t specify exactly what the Nun Hafucha in his own Torah scroll looked like. But it was unusual enough to warrant mentioning, and this letter evoked the concept of an about-face, according to his interpretation of its meaning:
בחרן: הנו”ן הפוכה, לומר לך עד אברם היה חרון אף של מקום בעולם
“in Haran: The “nun” of Ḥaran (חָרָן) is inverted (הפוכה), to tell you that until Abram [appeared], the wrath of the Omnipresent was kindled (חֲרוֹן).”
What Rashi is teaching us, in drawing from a concept in Sifrei Devarim (Ha’azinu 311), is that until Abraham’s time, G-d’s wrath was turned against the world. Once Avraham appeared, G!d’s wrath turned to Divine mercy. The inverted letter therefore symbolizes this incredible change in HaShem’s relationship with humanity.
This concept can be better understood in the light of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:3. There we learn that there were 10 generations from Adam to Noah, where G!d demonstrated patience for humanity. Each generation provoked G!d’s anger more and more until they brought the flood upon themselves with their violent and immoral behavior. Then, there were another 10 generations from Noah to Avraham, to demonstrate G!d’s patience again, and again each generation provoked G!d increasingly until Avraham arose and ‘received the reward of them all’, “וְקִבֵּל עָלָיו שְׂכַר כֻּלָּם”.
The Radak takes this concept of divine wrath even further: In his explanation of the Nun, in which he refers to it as Melufefet, ‘wrapped’, Terah died while being out of favor with his Creator, seeing that he had failed to repent from practicing idolatry. In other words, the Nun points accusingly of G!d’s anger not only at the world at large (as Rashi stated) or at a generation, but specifically at one man- Terah.
R. Bachya agrees with Radak, bringing a new reading to the phrase וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח בְּחָרָן, “…and Terah died in Haran”. Radak interprets this as “and Terah died בְּחֲרוֹן” — because of G!d’s anger.
It’s a harsh reading of the text, especially for the father of Avraham, the founder of Monotheism and of our religion as we know it. What could Terah have done that was so terrible that he aroused G!d’s wrath…and even died because of it?
While the Torah does not explicitly state that Terah was an idolater, our Midrashim are rife with this interpretation, and fills in the blanks of the story accordingly. There is a textual basis for this interpretation, however:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר יָשְׁבוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם מֵעוֹלָם, תֶּרַח אֲבִי אַבְרָהָם וַאֲבִי נָחוֹר; וַיַּעַבְדוּ, אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים.
And Joshua said unto all the people: ‘Thus said the LORD, the G!d of Israel: Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor; and they served other gods. (Joshua 24:2)
If Terah served other gods, worshipped idols, and was overall a polytheist, then how does that explain G!d’s anger in singling him out? Didn’t everyone worship false gods at the time?
Furthermore, one can read the verse the same way and come away with the opposite meaning:
וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח בְּחֲרוֹן, …and Terah died in anger.
Maybe it wasn’t G!d who was angry at Terah. Maybe it was Terah who was angry at G!d.
After all, if we focus on the pshat (the simple meaning) of the text, isn’t Terah the one who is the victim of significant suffering? Didn’t he lose his son in a terrible way, creating a trauma that plagued him until the end of his days? Didn’t he get stuck at a literal crossroads, in a city whose very name reminded him of his lost son, Haran?
The Nun Melufefet that Radak mentions describes, in my opinion, the version of this unusual Final Nun preserved in the Yeminite scribal tradition. This Nun’s head is wrapped with curlicues.
This letter reminds me of what it feels like to have too much on one’s mind. To get stuck in negative downward spirals of thoughts that seem to be set on repeat and just won’t go away. To feel “hafucha” in general is a result of trauma – feeling backwards and upside down, disconnected from oneself and from what usually grounds you, without a clue of when the world will right itself again.
There’s no denying that Terah is not alone in experiencing trauma in the parsha. Parshat Noah is filled with trauma and sorrow as the sea is filled with waves. There’s an unfathomable loss of life during the flood. Noah deals with his survivor’s guilt with escapism – he plants a vineyard and drinks ’til he’s drunk. The outcome of the episode of the Tower of Babel is divisiveness and a break between human beings. If we go back to the generations before Noah, there’s not that much good there, either.
Terah seems to get stuck in his suffering. He seems stuck at the crossroads of indecision because of denial or sorrow, or anger at the powers that be.
My read on it is that Terah had unfulfilled potential: He had a son who recognized the truth of one G!d from a young age, who would go on to fundamentally change the religious reality of humanity at large. Terah lived at a time when the world had just been destroyed by a deluge because of evil behavior. The worst thing one can do after such an event, and with such a brilliant surviving son, is to deny the existence of G!d. To focus on what was lost rather than what he still had. To get stuck on where he was, instead of where he should be going.
Blessedly, Radak has an alternative reading of the Nun Melufefet. He quotes Bereshit Rabbah (38:12): “G!d promised Avraham that he would die of a ripe old age before joining his fathers (Gen. 15:15). This is understood as G!d telling Avraham that his father had indeed become a penitent before he died. How else could the prospect of joining his father after his death be a sort of comfort for Avraham?”
This reading offers a glimmer of hope. From this perspective, even if there did exist a burning anger between G!d and Terah, somehow, Terah was able to make peace with his Creator before he died. At the tail end of his life story, the Nun illustrates both Terah’s illness and the cure together – anger and reconciliation.
Upon his father’s death, Avram (not yet Avraham) became the head of his family. He was living at the crossroads of Haran, and was faced with a choice on what to do next.
There is yet another reading of this unusual Nun – what Minchat Shai quotes Rabbi Akiva as calling “Megulgelet”, and representative of the character trait of true humility, a trait that defined Avraham. It is with this trait that we will continue next time.
This piece is dedicated to my Saba, whose Bar Mitzvah portion is Noah. Yom Huledet Sameach!
With thanks to Rabbi Lieberman and Rabbi Jawary for directing me to so many excellent sources, and with gratitude to Elchonon for bringing this controversial letter to my attention in the first place.