The Death of Haran. by Rav Zvi Belovski

Noach(Genesis 6:9-11:32)
After the well-known stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, the sidrah concludes with a long genealogy. It traces human history from Noach and his family to Avraham Avinu ten generations later. We pick up the story with Terach, Avraham’s father:

These are the generations of Terach: Terach fathered Avram, Nachor, and Haran. Haran fathered Lot. And Haran died in the lifetime of Terach, his father, in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim. (Bereishis 1:27-28)

We know a little about the life of Haran and what happened to him, and that should enable us to build a picture of his character. The holy Arizal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, provides us with an enigmatic start on our quest to understanding Haran. He claims that according to the Kabbalistic tradition Haran possessed the same soul as Aharon HaKohen. This soul lived first in Haran and then was reincarnated many years later in the body of Aharon. Let us try to fathom a little of what this means.


The Maharal of Prague provides us with a fascinating insight into the nature of Aharon HaKohen:

In the name Aharon there are four letters – alef, hei, reish, and nun. The reish has a value of two hundred and is the middle letter of the hundreds. The nun has a value of fifty and is the middle letter of the tens. The hei has a value of five and is the middle letter of the units.(Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael, ch. 22)

This Maharal reveals the true nature of Aharon. His name (which expressed his true nature) indicates that he was a man who focused on the “middle” aspects of life – the internal, spiritual facets of existence rather than the more external, visible ones.

Although the Maharal suggests a reason for the alef at the beginning of Aharon’s name, we can suggest our own explanation. The alef is the first letter of the alef-beis and has a numerical value of one. It is the chief of all letters; indeed, its very name means “chief.” It also hints at the Alef of the world – God himself. The alef at the start of Aharon’s name indicates that Aharon’s whole aim in life – indeed, all of the spiritual development implied by the rest of his name – was focused on drawing close to God.


Assuming this, we may observe that the names Aharon and Haran are very similar. Haran merely lacks the alef at the start of Aharon. We say “merely,” for therein lies all the difference between them. Haran had all the correct aims in life, concentrating on the spiritual, internal aspects of life, as the letters of his name, hei, reish, and nun, suggest. However, one crucial factor was absent: he wasn’t able to direct his aims toward service of God and to closeness to Him, as was Aharon. Hence there is no alef at the start of Haran. There is no question, however, that Haran was basically a good person; he was the progenitor of Rachel, Leah, and ultimately David HaMelech, descendants with outstanding spiritual qualities. The qualities must have been latent within Haran even though they were not fully developed.


Although the Torah provides no details as to the nature of Haran’s untimely death, Chazal received traditions which fill in the details for us. There are two versions of the story:

[After Avram destroyed the idols belonging to Terach], Terach handed Avram to King Nimrod … Nimrod was a fire worshipper and threatened to throw Avram into a furnace to see if he would be saved by his God. Haran was watching and was unsure as to whom to support – his brother or Nimrod. He reasoned that if Avram was to emerge unscathed, then he would tell Nimrod that he supported Avram. If Avram died, then he would claim to support Nimrod. Avram was thrown into the furnace and emerged unscathed. When Nimrod demanded that Haran pledge his allegiance, he said that he supported his brother. They threw Haran into the furnace, and he was burned to death. (Bereishis Rabbah 38:23)

Nimrod threw Avram into the furnace because he would not worship Nimrod’s idolatry, but the fire was unable to injure him. Haran was there and was vacillating as to whom to support (see above). When all the people saw that Avram was unharmed by the fire, they reckoned that Haran must be a great wizard, and it must have been his presence that had saved Avram. A flash of fire came down from heaven and killed Haran. (Targum Yonasan ben Uziel, Bereishis 11:28)

It is important for us to realize that Avraham and Haran lived in an environment permeated with Godlessness. They were contemporaries of the dor haflagah (generation of the Dispersion) at the time of the construction of the Tower of Babel. Many midrashim point out the rejection of God’s control of the world and the rebellion against it that was prevalent at that time. A tremendous display of kiddush haShem was needed to overturn this atmosphere of denial and rejection. Rabbi Yosef Karo describes the best way in which this can be achieved:

It is good if one can merit in this world to give up one’s life for kiddush haShem, particularly one who is burned to death … for one who dies by fire is comparable to an elevated offering, which is totally consumed and goes up to heaven; his body goes to a great and holy place. (Maggid Meisharim, Vayikra)

Haran achieved the best possible rectification for his soul and for his generation. For his generation, he brought a desperately needed manifestation of the Divine. For according to the version of the story in the Midrash, his death verified that Avraham’s salvation had in fact been miraculous. Onlookers could not claim that Avraham had saved himself from the fire with magic, as obviously he had been unable to save his brother. They had no option but to attribute his salvation to the God in whom Avraham professed belief. Even according to the Targum’s rendition, Haran’s death authenticated Avraham’s salvation, for until Haran died, the observers assumed that he had saved Avraham with his wizardry. It became clear when he could not even save himself that he had not saved Avraham.

As we have seen, Haran himself lacked the capability to focus his great qualities toward the service of God. To correct this, he died for kiddush haShem by fire. This helped him gain the highest possible level of connection to God, as explained by Rabbi Yosef Karo. As such, the defect present in his soul, which had manifested itself in his life as Haran, was rectified. It could now be reincarnated in its full glory as Aharon HaKohen, a man with all the qualities of Haran, as well as the ability to remain in constant contact with God.

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One Response to The Death of Haran. by Rav Zvi Belovski

  1. Noach(Genesis 6:9-11:32)
    Depth and Superficiality
    by Rav Yehonasan Gefen

    The Torah Portion ends with a very short account of the early life of Abraham. It outlines his family, including his brother, Haran, and how he met an untimely death. The Torah briefly tells us that Haran died in front of his father. The Medrash provides the details to the background of this tragedy. It discusses how Abraham rejected the rampant idol worship of his time and came to belief in one God. He destroyed the idols in his father, Terach’s store, and as a result, 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. Haran was an onlooker to all this and knew that he would be forced to side either with Abraham or Nimrod. Before Abraham was thrown into the fire, Haran took a very practical approach – if Abraham would survive, then Haran would join him, but if he would die, then he would side with Nimrod. When Abraham emerged unscathed from the fire, Haran accordingly declared his support for Abraham. As a result, he was thrown into the fire and was killed.(1)

    The Medrash points out that his death was somewhat unusual in that only his internal organs were destroyed, implying that his external body was left undamaged. What is the significance of this unusual death?

    The answer is given that on an external level Haran was righteous, in that he made himself out to be of the same ilk as Abraham, however internally, he did not believe with complete sincerity.(2) Accordingly, his insides were destroyed because they were lacking merit. However, his exterior was unharmed because it appeared righteous.(3)

    This explanation provides us with an example of the principle that it is possible to observe the Torah on two different levels – internally or externally. Internal observance means that a person imbues himself with the attitudes espoused by the Torah – his outlook and life goals are solely defined by the Torah. External observance means that a person may observe all the mitzvot, however his deep-seated desires and aspirations are not in tune with doing God’s will. Instead, other factors drive him. Haran proved himself to be someone whose adherence to belief in one God was purely superficial; therefore, he was only protected on a superficial level. Abraham, in contrast, held a deep internal commitment to fulfilling God’s will on all levels, as a result he was fully protected from Nimrod’s fire.

    Haran’s trait of externality was emulated by his son, Lot. On a superficial level, Lot observed the Torah; however, many of his actions demonstrated that internally, he was lacking a true desire to follow Abraham’s ways. He was more interested in satisfying his desire for financial success and immorality.(4)

    The extent to which Lot represents a dichotomy between his internal and external nature is borne out by the Rabbinical sources in the Torah Portion of Lech Lecha. Having settled in the land of Israel, Lot’s shepherds begin to justify grazing their animals on the land of the inhabitants.(5) Abraham’s shepherds protested his, correctly arguing that it constituted thievery, and as a result, a dispute broke out. At that point, Abraham requested that they separate, arguing that they were ‘brothers.’ (6) The obvious problem with this argument is that they were not brothers, Abraham was Lot’s uncle. Moreover, what was the rationale of his argument that they were brothers? The Medrash explains that Abraham was saying that they were like brothers in that they were extremely similar in appearance. Accordingly, Abraham was concerned that people would see Lot grazing other people’s land with his animals and think it was Abraham.(7) We see from here that on a superficial level, Lot was very similar to Abraham, indeed he must have appeared to be a very righteous person, yet internally, he resembled his father, Haran.

    Haran had another child, Sarah.(8) It seems that she succeeded in avoiding the failing of her father and brother, and became someone whose external observance was matched by internal righteousness. In our Portion, she is called by a second name, that of Yiskah.(9) The Gemara offers two reasons for this name. One is that she saw with Ruach Hakodesh, (10) the other is that everyone would gaze at her beauty.(11) It seems that these two explanations complement each other. The beauty she possessed was not merely of a physical nature rather it was a spiritual beauty. This emanated from her high spiritual level, which was demonstrated by the fact that she had Ruach Hakodesh. Thus, her external beauty was a result of her internal righteousness. In this way, we see that she was able to emulate Abraham in matching her external observance with internal sincerity.

    There are many lessons that can be derived from the failings of Haran and Lot, and the greatness of Abraham and Sarah. As Haran demonstrated, it is very easy to be a ‘superficially ‘righteous person’, it is not hard to dress in a certain way and perform certain actions that make a person look ‘righteous’. However, such externality is very dangerous in that it can cause a person to be a mere shell of one who serves God, while on the inside, he is anything but a true servant of God, The Prophet, Isaiah, informs us of the seriousness of this failing: He describes how God will punish the Jewish people, “because this people approached [Me] with it mouth and honored me with its lips, but its heart was far from me…” (12)

    Moreover, emphasis on externalities can actually hinder one’s internal growth. One of the methods of the yetzer hara (negative inclination) is to make a person who wants to grow focus on external changes, whilst distracting him from internal growth. This pitfall can affect anyone who tries to improve his Service of God and overemphasizes external changes at the expense of true growth.(13) It is essential that a person make a cheshbon hanefesh (14) of the balance between his external and internal Service of God. May we all merit to emulate Abraham and Sarah and internalize what we believe in.


    1. Bereishis Rabbah 38:13.

    2. The Maharzav on the Medrash writes that Haran’s failing was that he was did not have a leiv shalem which means that he was not totally sincere. See the other commentaries on the Medrash for their explanations of Haran’s failings in this area.

    3. Heard from Rav Moshe Dovid Cohen, shlita, in the name of Rav Osher Zelig Rubenstein shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Torah Simcha.

    4. See Lech Lecha, 13:10, Rashi, dh: Boachah Soar. See my essay on Vayeira – ‘Understanding Lot’ for a thorough analysis of Lot’s character.

    5. Lech Lecha, 13:7, Rashi dh: Vayehi Riv, for an explanation of nature of this dispute.

    6. Lech Lecha, 13:8.

    7. Bereishis Rabbah, 41:6, Rashi, Lech Lecha, 13:8, Sifsei Chachamim, dh: velachen.

    8. Which means that Sarah and Lot were brother and sister.

    9. Noach, 11:29, Rashi, dh:Yiskah. The word comes from the root, “sacha” which means, to see or gaze.

    10. Literally translated as the’Holy Spirit’. This is a kind of prophecy.

    11. Megilla, 14a, quoted by Rashi, Lech Lecha, 11:29, dh: Yiskah.

    12. Yeshaya, 29:13.

    13. This is not to say that external changes are never called for. Some externalities directly relate to Jewish law and therefore are obviously of great importance. Moreover, even beyond the boundaries of halacha, one’s dress code and appearance is of considerable importance- the point being made here is not to change externally at the expense of internal change. One should consult his or her Rav for guidance in the specifics of these matters.

    14. Literally, ‘An accounting of the sou’l – it refers to self-reflection.

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