The Death of Haran
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.
WHO WAS HARAN?
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.