BY AMY JOSEFA ARIEL
LECH LECHA GENESIS 12:1-17-27
Abraham was a good person. He was the kind of guy who didn’t know a stranger. You know how when we are really in touch with our values, they express themselves in everything we do? This guy? When he designed his desert home, he left it open on four sides. Why? Well, because no matter which direction a traveler approached it from they’d be able to come right on in. He welcomed everyone. That was just his way. I mean, we’ve all heard the stories, right?
What’s more, in an era of ditching wives who didn’t get pregnant, Abraham stayed with his wife, Sarah, through decades of infertility.
A man of hospitality. Humble. Righteous.
He was a good person, Abraham.
I know a lot of good people. I like to think I’m a good person.
You’re probably a good person, too.
The thing is, sometimes even good people, even people who do amazingly good things in one part of our lives, do wrong things somewhere else. Sometimes we do nothing.
Quick interlude: Before I quote the text, I should remind us all that God is going to change Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah. It just hasn’t happened quite yet in the story. Once their names are changed, we are supposed to always refer to them by their new name unless we are quoting the text.
From our parsha: Lech Lecha:
Abram said to his wife Sarai, ". . . you are a physically beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will exclaim, “This is his wife!” and then will kill me and let you live. Please, say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me for your sake, and that I may live on account of you."
. . . . when . . . Pharaoh’s officials saw her . . . the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s house, and [Pharaoh] treated Abram well for her sake, and [Abram] acquired sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves and maidservants, female donkeys, and camels. (Genesis 12:11-16)
This. Can’t. Be.
Abraham is a good person. Abraham did not just stand there and let Pharaoh’s officials turn Sarah into a sex slave. And he most certainly did not just accept gifts from Pharaoh.
We read that wrong . . . right?
We misunderstood . . . right?
We don’t know the whole story . . . right?
Abraham did not just ask Sarah to lie to make his life easier while giving up her autonomy and her freedom. Right?
Except . . . he did.
Abraham. Our Abraham.
God just said, to Abraham, that those Abraham blesses will be blessed and those he curses, cursed. (Genesis 12:3) Later when Lot is captured, Abraham doesn’t hesitate to run into a war – an actual war – to save him. (Genesis 14:13-16) But here, Abraham not only stands idly by, he accepts gifts – gifts – in this not-exactly-a-sale of his wife.
Our sages have twisted themselves into knots trying to find ways around this story. Josefus Flavius (1st century) explained Abraham’s fear and response were reasonable because of the wild licentiousness of the Egyptians. Rabbi David Ben Joseph Kimchi, also known as RaDaK (1160 – 1235), backed up Flavius and claimed that the Egyptians were ugly, dark, and lustful. Great. Sexism plus racism. A lovely combo and well-rooted in biblical and rabbinic thought. So many attempts to excuse Abraham.
The biblical narrative only hints vaguely about what happened to Sarah in the palace:
And God plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. (Genesis 12:17)
Excellent. Personally, I’d like to see more action from God on Sarah’s behalf, on so many people’s behalfs, but an interruption isn’t nothing. Being an active bystander seems like the very least God could do.
And because God acted, we know Pharaoh did something serious enough to justify God sending plagues.
Some commentors say he took off her shoe, some that he touched her garments, and in Yalkut Shimony by Shimeon HaDarshan (13th century) that Pharaoh “had sex with” Sarah. Even though HaDarshan may not have seen it this way, let’s call it like we know it is – if there was sex between Pharaoh and Sarah, it was rape. Midrash HaGadol (14th century), concerned with Sarah’s potential status as an adulterus, claims that in the plagues God made Pharaoh unable to sustain an errection thereby preventing intercourse.
These authors, all men, strive, for centuries, to explain that Sarah was not technically violated, but their striving only emphasizes the dehumanization and abuse Sarah experienced. Twice. Abraham repeats this scenario with Abimelech in just a few chapters. (Genesis 20)
Ramban states a fundamental principle in understanding the Torah’s narrative of our ancestors: Whatever happened to the ancestors is a portent for the children. And, sure enough, Isaac repeats his father’s behavior with Rebecca. (Genesis 26) Lest we think the pattern is only about women, we should reflect on what happened to Joseph – also spoken of by the text as beautiful, also sold into slavery, and sexually assaulted by Potiphar’s wife. (Genesis 39) In Megillat Esther, which we hear at Purim, Mordechai silenced Esther and told her to hide her identity before she was taken to that king’s palace. There is also a striking omission in these stories: The voices of those who experienced the sexual harassment or violence. When these ancestors of ours speak, they do not speak about this.
Ramban asserts that Abraham’s sin caused the future enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. I think the connection between the two episodes runs deeper. This dehumanization of Sarah creates a pattern, and that pattern doesn’t stop with slavery in Egypt. It doesn’t stop with Esther. This isn’t just an old story; it’s a perpetual story. It is the story of the silencing and degredation of others – even by otherwise good people. Even sometimes by people who love them. It will arise again. And again. And again.
I wish I could end on a positive or hopeful note, but we aren’t there in our collective story yet. We aren’t yet at the place where things . . . turn, and we have no idea how they will turn out. We are in our own early verses of our own Lech Lecha - still just setting out. What can I say other than this: #metoo.