This week’s Torah reading begins with the story of Noah and the flood, and ends with a sort of footnote introducing Abraham. We are told here that Terah had three sons—Abraham, Nahor, and Haran—and that Haran “died in the lifetime of his father in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans,” while Terah and the rest of the family left Ur for the land of Canaan. Shlomo Riskin notes a commonality between Noah and Haran as they are portrayed by the medieval commentator Rashi, who draws on midrashic literature to fill in the blanks of their stories:
The Bible states that Noah, along with his sons, his wife, and the sons’ wives, went into the ark “because of the waters of the flood” (Genesis 7:7). From this verse, Rashi concludes that “Noah had little faith; he believed and he didn’t believe that the flood would arrive” . . . until the water literally pushed him in. . . .
When it comes to Haran, Rashi explains the seemingly irrelevant detail about his death by citing a midrash in which the king of Ur threatens to throw Abraham into a furnace if he does not recant his repudiation of the local pagan gods. While Abraham prefers to die rather than blaspheme, his brother Haran opts to wait and see. Abraham miraculously emerges from the flames unharmed, so Haran immediately proclaims that he, too, is a monotheist—at which point he is thrown into the furnace and consumed. Thus, Riskin notes, a striking contrast can be found between the two doubters, Noah and Haran:
Noah was a man of little faith, and yet not only does he survive the flood, he becomes one of the central figures of human history. He is even termed “righteous” by the Bible.
In contrast, Haran . . . hovers on the edge of obscurity, and is even punished with death for his lack of faith. Why is Haran’s skepticism considered so much worse than Noah’s? . . .
Noah, despite his doubts, nevertheless builds the ark, pounding away, [the midrash tells us], for 120 years, even suﬀering abuse from a world ridiculing his eccentric persistence. Noah may not have entered the ark until the rains began—but he did not wait for the flood before obeying the divine command to build an ark!
Noah may think like a skeptic, but he acts like a believer. Haran, on the other hand, dies because he waits for someone else to test the fires. In refusing to act for God during Abraham’s trial, he acted against God. In eﬀect, his indecision is very much a decision.