November 20, 2019

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on a verse from the weekly parsha

Parsha Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:11-13:

“Now it came to pass when he drew near to come to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, ‘Behold now I know that you are a woman of fair appearance. And it will come to pass when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife,’ and they will slay me and let you live. Please say [that] you are my sister, in order that it go well with me because of you, and that my soul may live because of you.’”

Rabbi David Woznica, Stephen Wise Temple

Abram (whose name later became Abraham) understood that while Egyptians
respected the bond of marriage, they did not value human life. Therefore, he believed, if an Egyptian “wanted” a married woman, he would first murder her husband, thereby rendering her unmarried and available.

The Torah entered a world in which murders such as this were deemed acceptable and where widows were routinely abused. It sought to change both. The sixth of the Ten Commandments, “Do not murder,” prohibited all murder (although, of course, not morally justified killing). And there are countless Torah commandments to protect the widow, the woman left with no husband to protect her.

When Abram heard God tell him, Lech lecha (“Go forth”), those words meant far more than “Leave your father’s home.” They meant, “Leave the moral world in which you lived” — and become the father of a nation that will lead humanity to a new moral plane.

Those words changed history. And just as God promised, through Abram and his descendants, “all the families of the Earth will be blessed.”

Rabbi Arielle Hanien, Rabbinic adviser, International Trauma-Healing Institute

This script pokes out from the unfolding story of Avram and Sarai in uncomfortable ways. Was Avram, who inspires us with his faith, so unsure of God’s providence that he would flee to Egypt during a famine? Was our courageous ancestor so afraid of Egyptians even without encountering them? Was our righteous forefather willing to lie about his marriage — and was he callous to the implications this would have for his wife?

This year, in this story, the detail that cries out loudest to me is silence.

Sarai’s voice is absent. Her feelings — even her presumed consent to Avram’s plan — are masked from us.

“Please pretend we are not married,” says Avram, “to spare my life and make things go well for me.” Indeed, the Torah affirms, every word he says is fulfilled.

Meanwhile, we can only imagine Sarai’s wordless feelings, if not her protests.

This year, we read this story as #MeToo reveals to our society how often this script plays out even today. Your body is a problem. My needs come before yours.

It strikes me as fitting that the stories of our foremother, Sarai, are all read in the month of Cheshvan, the barren month. The one whose very name sits at a nexus of yearning and silence — the beginning of desire (cheshek) and the end of whisper (lachash). It is a month to dwell with Sarai in her silence until she dies of pain, say the rabbis, a month to hear what is suffered in silence — to pause to listen.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, Rav and Dean at Yeshivet Yavneh

The Torah is a perfect Divine document — no word is superfluous. Our verse could easily have said, “Behold, now I know you are beautiful.” Why is the word “woman” added? Each of the patriarchs and matriarchs goes through an evolution, from simplicity to sophistication.

Jacob, for example, initially is called “a simple man who dwelled in tents.” Yet, in a short matter of time, he becomes a cunning warrior. Joseph is an innocent child, oversharing his dreams. Kidnapping, accusations and dungeons quickly mold him into a far different individual.

The same is true of Abraham. Up until this point, he recognized Sarah’s beauty, but in his innocence, he didn’t understand the ramifications of her appearance in a world that can objectify a woman. At this particular moment, as he was traveling through unfriendly soil with his beautiful wife, he noticed the hooting, catcalling and gazes. For the first time, he understood the type of cruel world that women are often born into. With this in mind, he advises his wife, “Say you are my sister.” In the spirit of fraternity, perhaps they will see Sarah as somebody’s sister — not somebody’s object, waiting to be taken.

Salvador Litvak, Founder of the Accidental Talmudist

Our Sages generally extend themselves to justify the actions of our Patriarchs. Jacob lied to Isaac, for example, and David sent Uriah to the front lines. The commentator Ramban, however, calls Abraham’s ruse a “great sin” because it put Sarah in danger. I agreed, until I thought about Sarah’s role in the subterfuge. She never did anything she didn’t want to do.

Sarah joined the plan because she and Abraham were partners in a Divine awareness project. They weren’t going to halt that work for anything, including famine or forced relocation to the most depraved nation on Earth.

In fact, they viewed their descent into Egypt as a chance to reach those who were most in need of their message. Accordingly, they devised a structure that would enable them to interact with as many people as possible. Rather than hide Sarah in a box, as one midrash suggests, they shielded her with common parlance, calling her Abraham’s sister — a truth, since she was his niece as well as his wife, according to a midrash. They might even have called her Abraham’s “sister in faith.”

Their plan was wildly successful. Not only did they gain followers and financial support for their outreach organization, they also brought awareness of the One God to Pharaoh, who thought he was God until HaShem afflicted him and his household for encroaching on the Jewish priestess’ honor.

In a time when popular culture blazes with immodest and immoral behavior, people of faith would do well to emulate Sarah and Abraham’s commitment to spreading Divine awareness.

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, Professor of Literature Emerita at American Jewish University

With not us, but me. Not “our souls,” “my soul.”

How Abram’s words troubled our commentators. How incisively they noticed that Abram says “now I know” that Sarai is lovely. Had he not known before? Before leaving Haran; while, as midrash says, busy converting others, had either gazed upon the other in appreciation? Passion? Love? Before trudging from Haran to Canaan, through the searing/freezing desert to Egypt, had Abram ever pleasured in his wife’s beauty?

Had there been any intimacy between our ancestral parents?

Or is that very lack of intimacy, that failure to see one’s partner, the price one pays for focusing on one’s own life’s vision, one’s own mission? Does one have to choose, as the poet Yeats said, “perfection of the life or of the work”?

The cost of Abram’s choice is dear. “Sarai” disappears. Like the enslaved women of the American South, the Yazidi women under ISIS. Like any woman viewed as an object, Sarai is erased. The Egyptians saw the woman … the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house (Genesis 12: 14, 15). Only God’s intervention — afflicting Pharaoh — restores her identity, and then with bitter irony, she is again “Sarai, Abram’s wife.” (Genesis 12:17)

But just as Isaac will disappear after the Akedah, Sarai now disappears from the text. When she returns, it is to offer “Hagar her handmaid the Egyptian” to Abraham. I wonder, when she did so, whether she looked her husband straight in the eye.