Terah is a complex character.
In the Midrashim about him, he is represented as an idol worshipper, a stargazer, and a high priest. He is the father of a nonconformist son, Avraham, who questions the beliefs of his elders. A son who sees truth in a single G!d instead of the crafted deities of wood and stone being worshipped around him.
In one Midrash, Terah is the father who stands idly by while the pagan king Nimrod hurls his questioning son into a fiery furnace. In another Midrash, he is the father who uproots his entire family and moves them to Haran in order to prevent the small-minded pagan society from murdering Avraham.
Last week we explored the letter ן (final Nun) in the word Haran (חָרָן) of Parshat Noah. It is the Nun Hafucha, whose meaning has been debated across the generations. Some argue that it represents G!d’s anger at Terah for his practice of idol worship. I argued last week that it might even represent Terah’s anger at G!d for the loss of his son, Haran, and his subsequent reconciliation. Yet others hold that it represents G!d’s anger at the world turning to favor with the appearance of Avraham.
Rabbi Akiva understands this letter differently. He even calls it by a different name. According to the Minchat Shai, Rabbi Akiva calls this Nun “Megalgelet”, meaning “rolled up”.
R. Akiva says that this letter comes to teach us that G!d lifts up all those who have anavah. Then he makes a surprising statement: “There is no better character trait in all the world than that of anavah.”
Anav or anavah is usually translated as humility. The very term humble comes from the Latin ‘humus’, meaning ‘ground’. This implies a low view of one’s own importance. As such, humility is often misunderstood as requiring self-deprecation, low self-confidence, and low self-esteem to achieve. Certain Christian philosophers have gone as far as to state that humility comes from humiliation.
Yet I believe that Judaism offers a different perspective on humility. I once heard a definition that I love:
True humility is staying teachable, regardless of how much you already know.
A story. There was once a father who came to Britain as a refugee from Poland at the age of six, had to leave school as a teenager, and never had an education– neither Jewish nor secular. He had a son who once asked him a question about Judaism and to which he did not know the answer. The father turned to his son and said,
“My son, I do not know the answer. But one day, you will learn the answer, and then you will come back and teach me.”
That son later became Chief Emeritus Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In a single moment, this father taught his son an incredible lesson: he could surpass his father. His father exemplified true humility by remaining teachable, and counter-intuitively opening himself up to the instruction of the next generation. His son never stopped learning.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that ‘Humble’ “does not mean diffident, meek, self-abasing, timid, bashful, demure or lacking in self-confidence…It means honouring others and regarding them as important, no less important than you are. It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding other people high. It means roughly what Ben Zoma meant when he said (Avot 4: 1), “Who is honoured? One who honours others.”
In his comment on the Nun Megalgelet, Rabbi Akiva does not specify who exactly he is talking about as being humble. One might think that he is referring to Avraham, who after all, exemplifies humility in his actions over and over again.
Yet I would like to suggest that the modest one is Terah. If this inverted letter does in fact refer to his repentance from idolatry at the end of his life, it would have meant that he had to admit in his heart that his son was right in matters of faith. To admit that one is mistaken about such a deeply felt, core personal belief requires mastery of anavah. Terah showed this humility before G!d and man, and this letter bears witness to that strength of character.
The Nun Hafucha is a literal turning point in the text of the Torah, where one generation ends and a noteworthy one begins. Jacob Solomon suggests that the Nun Hafucha is a demarcation point. Until now, the Torah has been universalist, and has told the world’s story from the creation through to the flood and the Tower of Bavel. Now, after this Final Nun, the Torah begins a new chapter and zooms in on the story of the nation of Israel, beginning with the forefather Avraham.
But what exactly made Avraham the turning point of human history, from the Torah’s perspective? Why was he chosen?
Rabbi Sacks gives a subtle answer: Abraham was chosen simply to be a father:
The “Av” in Avram/Avraham means “father”. In the only verse in which the Torah explains the choice of Abraham, it says: “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.” (Gen. 18:19)
Avraham resembled his father in many ways – he too was a religious leader and one who gazed at the stars. He became a loving father to many sons, though he had to wait a very long time for G!d to fulfill this promise. He wrestled with the potential loss of a son, the troubling account of which we will read next week.
Avraham was able to become the man he was, and later the father he was, because of Terah.
Terah was the one who initiated the move from Ur to Canaan, from a place of idolatry to a place where Torah could exist. While he was not able to complete his journey, and indeed while he died at the crossroads, he set up his son Avraham to surpass him in every way.
And yet Avraham could have remained at Haran. We are told that he and his wife Sarah had already influenced a number of souls there.
Yet he is pressed to venture forth when he hears G!d tell him “Lech Lecha”. In a way, even as he surpassed his father with achievements of his own, pioneering an entirely different and revolutionary belief system, Avraham was completing Terah’s vision in completing the journey to Canaan. The Nun Megalgelet evokes a gilgul, a cycle, in this case of moral momentum.
The Final Nun Hafucha / Megalgelet is itself a crossroads. It closes one chapter and opens another. It evokes the trait of true humility, not one who literally lowers himself to the ground, but rather one who is grounded.
One who knows his or her own strengths and weaknesses, one who remains teachable and grounded, feels not threatened by the greatness in others. Rather, as a humble parent, or teacher, one is able to raise others up and help guide them along the path to their own greatest potential.
“There is no better character trait in all the world than that of anavah”, says Rabbi Akiva. G!d lifts up those with anavah. By grounding yourself in humility, you can lift others up. If Terah achieved this trait, Avraham perfected it.