Torah Study

Charan – Externally Righteous

Charan was Avraham’s younger brother. He is mentioned briefly in parashas Noach, and his death is discussed in the Midrash. The single event in his life that we are aware of was his witnessing of the confrontation between Avraham and Nimrod, in which he sided with Avraham after he survived the fiery furnace of Ur Kasdim. Yet Charan was killed when he was thrown into the fire. His children were Sarah, Lot, and Milkah.

Parashas Noach ends with a very short account of the early life of Avraham Avinu. It outlines his family, including his brother, Charan, and how he met an untimely death. The Torah briefly tells us that Charan died in front of his father. The Medrash provides the background to this tragedy. It discusses how Avraham rejected the rampant idol worship of his time and came to belief in one G-d. He destroyed the idols in his father Terach’s store, whereupon Terach handed him over to King Nimrod. Nimrod tried to force him to worship idols, and when he refused, Nimrod had him thrown into a fire. Charan observed all this and knew he would be forced to side with either Avraham or Nimrod. Before Avraham was thrown into the fire, Charan took a very practical approach – if Avraham survived, Haran would join him, but if he died, he would side with Nimrod. When Avraham emerged unscathed, Haran accordingly declared his support for Avraham. As a result, he was thrown into the fire and killed.

The Midrash points out that his death was unusual in that only his internal organs were destroyed, implying that his external body remained undamaged. What is the significance of this bizarre demise? Outwardly, Charan was righteous, pretending to be of the same ilk as Avraham. Internally, however, he did not truly believe. Accordingly, his insides were destroyed, because they lacked merit, while his exterior was unharmed, because it appeared righteous.

This explanation exemplifies the principle that it is possible to observe Torah and mitzvos on two levels – internally and externally. Internal observance means that a person imbues himself with the attitudes espoused by the Torah; his outlook and life goals are defined solely by the Torah. External observance means that a person may observe all the mitzvos, but his deep-seated desires and aspirations are not in tune with HaShem’s will; other factors drive him. Charan’s belief in one G-d was purely superficial; therefore, he was protected from Nimrod’s fire only superficially. Avraham, in contrast, harbored a deep, internal commitment to fulfilling ratzon HaShem, so he was fully protected.

Charan’s trait of externality was emulated by his son, Lot. On a superficial level, Lot observed the Torah, yet many of his actions demonstrated that he lacked a true desire to follow Avraham’s ways. He was more interested in financial success and immorality. The extent of the dichotomy between Lot’s inside and outside is borne out by Chazal in parashas Lech Lecha. Having settled in Eretz Yisrael, Lot’s shepherds justified grazing their animals on the inhabitants’ land. Avraham’s shepherds protested that this practice constituted thievery. Avraham then requested that they separate, arguing that they were “brothers.” The obvious problem with this argument is that they were not brothers – Avraham was Lot’s uncle. Moreover, even if they had been brothers, why was that a reason to separate? The Medrash explains that they were like brothers in that they looked extremely similar. Accordingly, Avraham was concerned that people would see Lot grazing on other people’s land and think it was Avraham. We see from here that on a superficial level, Lot was very much like Avraham – indeed, he must have appeared very righteous person – yet internally, he resembled his father, Charan.

Charan had another child, Sarah Imeinu. It seems that she succeeded in avoiding the failings of her father and brother, becoming someone whose external observance was matched by internal righteousness. In Lech Lecha, she is called by a second name, Yiskah, meaning “see” or “gaze.” The Gemara offers two reasons for this name. One is that she saw with ruach kakodesh; the other is that everyone gazed at her beauty. It seems that these two explanations complement each other. Sarah’s beauty was not just physical, it was spiritual. It emanated from her lofty spiritual level, which included ruach hakodesh. Thus, her external beauty reflected her internal righteousness. In this way, she was able to emulate Avraham, matching her external observance with internal sincerity.

Many lessons can be derived from the flaws of Charan and Lot and the greatness of Avraham and Sarah. As Charan demonstrated, it is very easy to be a “superficial tzaddik,” to dress and act as if righteous. However, such externality is very dangerous in that it can cause a person to be a mere shell of an eved HaShem (servant of HaShem), while on the inside, he is anything but. The prophet Yeshayahu informs us of the gravity of this failing: He describes how HaShem will punish Klal Yisrael, “because this people approached [Me] with its mouth and honored Me with its lips, but its heart was far from Me….”

Moreover, emphasis on externals can actually hinder one’s internal growth. One tactic of the yetzer hara is to focus a person on external changes, distracting him from internal growth. My rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, shlita, knows a violent person who became “observant.” He dramatically changed his dress code and behavior, but he retained his internal tendency to violence. He just channeled it in a “frum” way, throwing stones at those he disagreed with. His true self never changed. In a less dramatic fashion, this pitfall can affect all people who try to improve their avodas HaShem and overemphasize external changes at the expense of true growth. It is essential that a person make a cheshbon hanefesh regarding his external and internal service of HaShem. May we all emulate Avraham and Sarah and internalize what we believe in.

From the book “Beacons of Light”



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