The Parsha ends with a very short account of the early life of Avraham Avinu. 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 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, 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 Avraham or Nimrod. Before Avraham was thrown into the fire, Haran took a very practical approach – if Avraham would survive, then Haran would join him, but if he would die, then he would side with Nimrod. When Avraham emerged unscathed from the fire, Haran accordingly declared his support for Avraham. As a result, he was thrown into the fire and was killed.
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 Avraham, however, internally, he was totally insincere in his beliefs. Accordingly, his insides were destroyed because they were lacking merit. However, his exterior was unharmed because it appeared righteous.
This explanation provides us with an example of the principle that it is possible to observe Torah and Mitzvos 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 Mitzvos, however, his deep-seated desires and aspirations are not in tune with doing ratson HaShem (HaShem’s will), rather, other factors drive him. Haran proved himself to be someone whose adherence to belief in one G-d was purely superficial, therefore, he was only protected on a superficial level. Avraham, in contrast, held a deep internal commitment to fulfilling ratson HaShem 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 Avraham’s ways. He was more interested in satisfying his desire for financial success and immorality. The extent to which Lot represents a dichotomy between his internal and external nature is borne out by Chazal in Parsha Lech Lecha. Having settled in Eretz Yisroel, Lot’s shepherds begin to justify grazing their animals on the land of the inhabitants. Avraham’s shepherds protested his, correctly arguing that it constituted thievery, and as a result, a dispute broke out. At that point, Avraham 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, what was the rationale of his argument that they were brothers? The Medrash explains that Avraham was saying that they were like brothers in that they were extremely similar in appearance. Accordingly, Avraham was concerned that people would see Lot grazing other people’s land with his animals and think it was Avraham. We see from here that on a superficial level, Lot was very similar to Avraham, indeed he must have appeared to be a very righteous person, yet internally, he resembled his father, Haran.
Haran had another child, Sarah Imeinu. 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 Parsha, she is called by a second name, that of Yiskah. The Gemara offers two reasons for this name. One is that she saw with ruach Hakodesh, the other is that everyone would gaze at her beauty. 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 Avraham 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 Avraham and Sarah. As Haran demonstrated, it is very easy to be a ‘superficial tzaddik’, 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 an Eved HaShem (one who serves HaShem), whilst on the inside, he is anything but an Eved HaShem. The Prophet, Yeshaya, informs us of the seriousness of this failing: He describes how HaShem will punish Klal Yisroel, “because this people approached [Me] with it mouth and honored me with its lips, but its heart was far from me…”
Moreover, emphasis on externalities can actually hinder one’s internal gowth. One of the methods of the yetser hara is to make a person who wants to grow focus on external changes, whilst distracting him from internal growth. My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits describes a secular person who had a tendency to violence. He became ‘observant’, dramatically changing his dress code and external actions, however, he retained his internal tendency to violence. Now he channeled it in a different, ‘frum’ way, by throwing stones at people whom he disagreed with, but he did not change his true self. 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 of the balance between his external and internal Avodas HaShem. May we all merit to emulate Avraham and Sarah and internalize what we believe in.