Chayei Sarah: A Wife from "Toldot Terach"

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

 'Yichus' [family lineage] has always been an important consideration when selecting one's spouse.  Nevertheless, Avraham's insistence that his 'chosen' son marry specifically a descendant of his brother Nachor requires explanation.

In this week's shiur, we return to our discussion of the 'toldot' in Sefer Breishit in order to answer this question.


As you surely must have noticed, the phrase 'eileh toldot...' appears numerous times in Sefer Breishit.  In the shiur on Parshat Noach, we explained how these toldot [genealogies] form the 'backbone' of Sefer Breishit.

In that shiur, we also explained how Sefer Breishit divided into two distinct sections.  The first eleven chapters included three units that began with toldot, each unit containing a primary story relating to God's dissatisfaction with mankind's behavior:

  • Adam's sin in Gan Eden (and Cain's sin) (chapters 2-4)
  • The corruption of dor ha-mabul / the Flood  (chapters 5-9)
  • The story of Migdal Bavel & their dispersion (chapters 10-11)

After that incident - the Torah begins the 'second (and primary) section of Sefer Breishit - introduced by 'toldot Shem' (see 11:10).  From this point and onward, the focus of the Sefer shifts to God's choice of Avraham Avinu to become the forefather of His model nation [what we refer to as the 'bechira' process].  Each unit of this section is introduced by toldot as well, be it 'toldot Yishmael' or 'toldot Yitzchak' etc, concluding with the story of Yosef and his brothers - introduced by 'eileh toldot Yaakov' (see 37:2).  Sefer Breishit ends, as all of Yaakov's offspring are chosen to become Am Yisrael - God's special nation.

Our introduction as noted the rather obvious 'linear' progression of toldot in Sefer Breishit.  We begin our shiur by noting the existence of a 'parallel' progression as well, which will highlight the significance of the pasuk that introduces 'toldot Terach'.  Afterward, we will show how the nation of Israel stems not only from Avraham Avinu, but from Terach as well.  [And we'll try to explain why.]

Charting the Toldot

The following chart illustrates the progression of these toldot in Sefer Breishit.  The chart lists the names that follow the phrase 'eileh toldot...' and highlights the parallel in their progression in each of the two sections described above.  [The '*' star symbol represents the phrase 'eileh toldot'.]]

Study this chart carefully.

Sefer Bereshit: Units of 'Eleh Toldot...'

*ADAM (see 5:1) * SHEM (see 11:10)
ten generations to: ten generations to:
* NOACH (6:9) * TERACH (11:27)
3 sons: 3 sons:
Shem, Cham, & Yefet AVRAHAM, Haran, & Nachor
| | * YISHMAEL (25:12) - rejected
* BNEI NOACH (10:1) * YITZCHAK (26:1)
| | * ESAV (36:1) - rejected
| * YAAKOV (37:1-2)
| |
70 nations (10:1-32) '70 nefesh become God's Nation


As you study this chart, note how the chart divides according to the two sections described above.  Note also how the bechira process includes a 'dechiya' [rejection] stage together with each bechira stage.  Finally, note how each section concludes with seventy!  [Additional parallels will be noted as we continue.]

'Ten Generations' - Twice!

As the chart shows, each 'section' begins with a detailed listing of 'ten generations'

  • Section One: - 5:1-32  (from Adam to Noach)
  • Section Two: 11:10-26 (from Shem to Terach

[Technically speaking one may be 9 generations, but it’s the overall pattern that is very similar.  Note also how the mishna in Pirkei Avot 5:2-3 relates to this structure.]

This opening 'structural' parallel supports the thematic parallel between these two sections, which we discussed in the shiur on Parshat Breishit.  In that shiur, we explained how the second section of Sefer Breishit begins with 'toldot Shem', and hence the story of Avraham's bechira.  As God's choice of his offspring was for the purpose of lead mankind in the direction of God - it was significant that this section began with the 'shem', whose name reflects man's purpose - to call out 'be-'shem Hashem'.

Strikingly, this structural parallel extends beyond the similarity of these two 'ten-generation' units.  Note from the above chart how the middle and conclusion of each list bear a remarkable resemblance as well: Most obvious is how we find the number 70 at the conclusion of each unit.  But more intriguing is the parallel that emerges in the middle!

Note how:

  • Toldot Adam concludes with Noach, after which we find toldot Noach, & the story of his 3 sons Shem, Cham, & Yefet. (See 5:28-32; 6:9)
  • Toldot Shem concludes with Terach, after which we find toldot Terach, & the story of his 3 sons Avram, Nachor, & Haran. (See 11:24-26; 11:27)

Furthermore, the three sons of Noach, like the three sons of Terach receive either a special blessing or curse:

  • Avraham, like Shem, is blessed with the privilege of representing God.
  • Haran's son Lot, like Cham's son Canaan, is involved in a sin relating to incest.
  • Nachor's offspring Rivka, Rachel & Leah return to 'dwell within the tent' of the children of Avraham, just as Yefet is destined to dwell within the 'tent of Shem’. [See 9:24-27 / 'yaft Elokim le-Yefet ve-yishkon be-ohalei Shem'.]

Even though the meaning of these parallels requires further elaboration, for our purposes here - the parallel itself calls our attention to the significance of 'toldot Terach'.

Toldot Terach vs. Toldot Avraham

In fact, the phrase 'toldot Terach' appears right where we may have expected to find a unit beginning with 'toldot Avraham'!  To our surprise, even though we later find units that begin with 'toldot Yitzchak' and 'toldot Yaakov' [and even 'toldot Yishmael' & 'toldot Esav'], we never find a unit that begins with 'toldot Avraham'!

Instead, at the precise spot where we would expect to find a unit beginning with 'toldot Avraham', we find a unit that begins with 'toldot Terach'.  This alone already hints to the fact that there must be something special about Terach.

This observation also explains why Sefer Breishit dedicates so much detail to the story of Lot.  Since the phrase'"toldot Terach' forms the header for parshiot Lech Lecha, Vayera and Chayei Sara, this unit must include not only the story of Avraham, but the story of the children of Nachor and Haran (Lot), as well.

Thus, in addition to the life story of Avraham himself, these 'parshiot' also discuss:

  • Lot's decision to leave Avraham Avinu, preferring the 'good life' in Sdom (13:1-18(
  • Avraham's rescue of Lot from the four kings (14:1-24)
  • God's sparing of Lot from destruction of Sedom (19:1-24)
  • The birth of Lot's two sons - Ammon & Moav (19:30-38)
  • The 12 children of Nachor (22:20-24) [8 sons from his wife and 4 from his pilegesh.  (Sounds familiar?)]
  • Avraham's marrying off his son to Nachor's granddaughter

Hence, Parshat Chayei Sarah forms a most appropriate conclusion for this unit that began with 'toldot Terach'.  Avraham makes a point of selecting a daughter-in-law specifically from the family of his brother, Nachor, thus bringing the history of 'toldot Terach' full circle.  As we will show in our shiur, all of Terach's offspring may have potential for bechira.  Therefore, if Yitzchak is to be married, his wife should be chosen from the family in which this potential lies.

[This may also explain why Nachor and Avraham themselves married 'within the family' - the daughters of Haran (see 11:29 and Rashi's identification of Yiska as Sara).]

Why Terach?

What was so special about Terach that he 'deserves' his own toldot?  It is really hard to know since the Torah tells us so little about him.

On the one hand, Sefer Yehoshua introduces Nachor as almost a paradigm for the life of an idolater (see Yehoshua 24:2).  Yet, as the end of Parshat Noach teaches us, Terach was the first person to recognize the spiritual importance of Eretz Canaan.  He set out to 'make aliya' even before God had commanded Avraham to do so (see 11:31 & Seforno's explanation).

Even though this may sound a bit too 'zionistic', considering that this is the only detail we find in the Torah concerning Terach - one could suggest that Terach's merit lay simply in his having been the first person to move his family towards Eretz Canaan.

[In the 'spirit' of 'ma’aseh avot siman lebanim' - Terach could actually be considered the first 'Zionist' (in a modern day sense).  Like any good Zionist, Terach plans to 'make aliya' and even encourages his family to do so, but he himself never makes it there.]

We may suggest, however, a more thematically significant approach.  Terach and his offspring may represent a certain aspect of the bechira process - wherein there lies a potential to be chosen - but only if worthy.  Terach's initiative in this regard may have granted the possibility of becoming part of 'chosen family' to any of his offspring who prove themselves deserving of this distinction.

Avraham Avinu not only follows his father's lead and continues to Eretz Canaan, but also follows faithfully God's command throughout.  He then becomes the progenitor of God's special nation.  Nachor, however, stays behind.  Lot (Haran's son) had the opportunity to remain with Avraham, but detaches himself by choosing the 'good life' in Kikar HaYarden (see shiur on Parshat Lech Lecha).  However, Nachor's granddaughter, Rivka, and great-granddaughters, Rachel & Lea, prove themselves worthy of joining the distinctive nation, and work their way back into the family of Avraham.

In fact, this may explain the reason for the Torah's minute detail of Rivka's hospitality - in the story of how she was chosen to become the wife for Yitzchak.

Even though the bechira process at times may appear random and indiscriminate, the framework of 'toldot Terach' may reflect the importance of personal commitment in earning that bechira.  These observations can serve as a 'reminder' that our nation was not chosen simply for the purpose that we are to receive divine privilege, but rather towards the purpose that we understand and internalize the eternal responsibility of our destiny.