Stand firm - and damn the consequences

Joining up when you see who is winning may be too late.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism עו"ד ניצנה דרשן-לייטנר
עו"ד ניצנה דרשן-לייטנר

Parashat Noach begins with Noah as a 500-year-old father-of-three, which given human life-spans before the Flood made him a spring chicken just entering the prime of life. It concludes ten generations later with Abram beginning his trek to the Land of Canaan.

Spanning 467 years, Parashat Noach covers a longer period of history than any other parashah with the single exception of Parashat Bereishit (which spans some 1,500 years).

Parashat Noach opens with the story of humanity as a whole: Noah and his family – the sole family destined to survive the impending Flood – and their descendants, the founders of the seventy nations of the world.

It then swiftly narrows down to the family of Shem. And then, of Shem’s five sons and 26 descendants all told, the Torah focuses on a single line – the ten generations from Shem to Abram, with which Parashat Noach concludes.

And the rest of Tanach will record primarily the history of Abram (later Abraham) and his descendants, the Children of Israel. Other nations, however close they may be to Israel, even mighty empires – Egypt, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia, Persia, Babylon, etc. – will only feature in the Tanach insofar as they interact with Israel.

If human history is renewed with the Noah and his family exiting the ark at the end of the Flood, Jewish history begins at the end of Parashat Noach with the birth of Abram in Ur Kasdim (often rendered Ur of the Chaldees), in the region of modern-day Iraq, in the year 1948 from Creation (1812 B.C.E.).

The Torah gives a terse account of Abram’s early years. “These are the chronicles of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran, and Haran begat Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah, in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim, and Abram and Nahor took themselves wives – Abram’s wife’s name was Sarai, and Nahor’s wife’s name was Milcah... Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, wife of Abram his son, and they left Ur Kasdim with him to go to the Land of Canaan. When they came as far as Haran, they dwelt there” (Genesis 11:26-31).

These laconic words conceal a series of events which various Midrashic sources (Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, Targum Yonatan to Genesis 11:28, and Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 62 et al.) record.

Terah, Abram’s father, was a merchant who manufactured and sold idols. The young Abram understood the futility of these idols, and publicly made fun of them, demonstrating the foolishness of worshiping carved bits of wood.

As a result, his father delivered him to the regional tyrant, Nimrod, the son of Cush, the son of Ham, who began his reign in Babylon and from there extended his tyranny to the entire region (Genesis 10:6-8).

And then began a philosophical debate between Nimrod, the all-powerful dictator, and Abram, the youthful headstrong rebel.

Nimrod said to Abram, “Let us both bow down to fire”, to which Abram responded, “Why not bow down to water, which extinguishes the fire”.

For sure, if water extinguishes fire, then water is the more powerful of the two. If you are going to worship either, then why not the stronger one?

“Very well”, said Nimrod, “Let’s bow down to water”, to which Abram responded, “If so, better that we bow to the clouds, which carry the water”.

“Very well”, said Nimrod, “Let’s bow down to the clouds”, to which Abram responded, “If so, better that we bow to the wind, which blows the clouds away”.

“Very well”, said Nimrod, “Let’s bow down to the wind”, to which Abram responded, “If so, better that we bow to humans, who can withstand the wind”.

Nimrod told him: “You’re just playing with words. I bow to nothing but fire, and I hereby throw you into it. And let the G-d to Whom you bow come and save you from it!”.

Haran, Abram’s brother, was standing by listening to this debate, and could not decide which of the two to follow. He saw Abram refuse to recant his faith and trust in the One true G-d and was impressed, but he was also aware of Nimrod’s awesome temporal power, so he thought: I’ll watch my brother Abram and see what happens to him. If he survives the furnace, then I’ll declare my faith in his G-d; if not, I’ll declare my allegiance to Nimrod.

Abram was flung into the furnace and survived, whereupon Nimrod turned to Haran and demanded of him: “Whose side are you on?”

Haran confidently declared, “On Abram’s side!” whereupon Nimrod’s henchmen seized him and flung him into the furnace – and his innards were burnt and he died.

This is the inference of “Haran died in the presence of his father Ur Kasdim”: אוּר, Ur, literally “fire” – Haran died in Ur of the Chaldees, in the fire of the Chaldeans, in the furnace into which the tyrant Nimrod flung him as his father looked on helplessly.

But though Haran was dead and Abram survived the furnace, the entire family was still in danger of being persecuted by Nimrod. And so the patriarch of the family, Terah, took them all away from Nimrod’s empire, heading towards Canaan. Travelling along the ancient route following the great fertile crescent, they reached Haran where Terah decided to remain.

His son Abram, with his entourage including his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, continued to Canaan.

An important question that arises from this is: Why did Haran deserve to die? After all, he risked his life no less than his brother Abram did. He defied the idolatrous tyrant Nimrod no less than Abram did. Should G-d not have protected him, as He did his brother?

Haran died because he was only willing to risk the furnace after he saw that G-d saved Abram. His faith did not stretch to unquestioning reliance on G-d. No – he first watched this epic confrontation between Abram and Nimrod and waited to see which side would emerge victorious, then jumped in on the winning side.

By contrast, Abram demonstrated the complete trust and faith in G-d to which every Jew should aspire.

Some 430 years later, following the sin of the spies, Abraham’s descendants made the same mistake. On the threshold of the Land of Israel, Moshe sent twelve men – leaders of the generation – to spy out the Land, and after forty days they returned with their demoralizing report.

Can any Jew look at Israel content to watch the conflict between Israel and her enemies as spectators at a football game or a gladiators’ contest in a Roman coliseum, waiting to see which side wins before deciding which side to support?
Instead of rejecting the spies’ report out of hand, the nation wept in despair, and G-d threatened to destroy them for their lack of faith. Moshe interceded on their behalf, and G-d indeed proclaimed: “I have forgiven as you have spoken!” (Numbers 14:20).

Nevertheless, G-d decreed that that generation would die in the Sinai Desert without seeing the good Land. And early the next morning, some of the Children of Israel ascended, proclaiming their intention to go and inherit the Land of Israel (v. 40).

Moshe admonished them not to make the attempt, but they defied him and headed towards the Land – where they were killed by the Amalekites and the Canaanites (vs. 41-45).

The same question arises: Since they were determined to inherit the Land which G-d had promised to them, and since they were honestly and sincerely trying to make amends for their earlier sin – why were they killed? Why did they not deserve Divine protection?

Apparently for the same reason. Had they rejected the spies and their treason out of hand, relying totally on G-d from the beginning, then they would indeed have merited G-d’s blessing and protection. But instead they listened to the spies, then to Moshe, and waited to see which side would be vindicated – and then jumped in on the winning side.

Now this is not entirely wrong. After all, some 650 years later, when Eliyahu (Elijah) the prophet confronted 850 false prophets (450 prophets of the Baal and 400 of the Asherah-tree), he challenged them to bring down fire from their gods to consume their sacrifices. After they failed, he doused his own sacrifices in water and called on the true G-d to demonstrate His acceptance of his sacrifice, whereupon fire came down from Heaven and consumed his sacrifice.

And the nation’s response was: “Hashem – He is G-d! Hashem – He is G-d!” (1 Kings 18:39).

This is an outstanding example of the nation watching a confrontation, waiting to see which side wins, then joining the winning side. For sure this is not ideal – yet when the nation was at a low ebb, it was an acceptable attitude.

Acceptable, yes – but not ideal.

Can any Jew look at Israel as though at a foreign entity, content to watch the conflict between Israel and her enemies as spectators at a football game or a boxing match or a gladiators’ contest in a Roman coliseum, waiting to see which side wins before deciding which side to support?

Our father Abraham, by his example, showed us the way of faith and trust in G-d, the, Jewish way. Stand with G-d, do what is right, even without knowing what the results will be. Be loyal to Israel, with no guarantee that you will be physically safe.

The Jew is enjoined to follow his G-d, even into the furnace if necessary, and damn the consequences – or bless the consequences as the case may be. To stand on the side of G-d and of Israel, before the fate of the battle is yet known – even though the side of G-d and of Israel may be uncomfortable, controversial, difficult, dangerous, and politically incorrect.

Even though standing on the side of G-d and of Israel inevitably provokes the scorn of the New York Times and The Guardian, the wrath of Haaretz and the UN, the curses of governments and BDS, and the physical attacks of terrorists and their “peace activist” cohorts.

And even though standing on the side of G-d and of Israel is hardly popular, even with so many purported leaders of Israel.

But this is the challenge which G-d has cast before each and every one of us – the challenge which our father Abraham met so magnificently, and by so doing led us on the path that we are enjoined to follow.