Lech Lecha

 

Rabbi Bernard Fox


 

 

ďNow, say that you are my sister so that I will prosper and I will live on your account.Ē(Beresheit 12:23)

In some instances the Torahís attitude towards women seems somewhat troublesome.Bluntly stated, the Torah has been accused of blatant chauvinism.However, this criticism is often based upon simplistic interpretations of difficult passages.These passages deserve careful analysis and consideration.A conclusion that these passages reflect a chauvinistic attitude is the result of a remarkably shallow approach to the understanding of these passages.It is not possible to analyze every instance in which the Torah is subject to this superficial criticism.However, there is one instance found in this weekís parasha that is instructive.It serves as an excellent example of a difficulty that may be superficially explained as an example of chauvinism but in fact has a completely different and compelling explanation.

Avram follows Hashemís instructions.He travels to the land of Canaan and settles there.Suddenly, a famine strikes the land.Avram is faced with the challenge of saving his family and his flocks.He decides that he has no alternative other than to seek temporary refuge in Egypt.In Egypt there is food and he can retreat there until the famine in Canaan passes.

 

But establishing himself in Egypt posses its own dangers.The Egyptians are an immoral and lawless people.Avram recognizes that as a stranger in this foreign land he will be prey for all those that covet his possessions.†† Even his marriage to Sari will not be respected by this lawless and lustful people.Sari is an attractive woman.To the Egyptians, she will be an exotic beauty.She will be coveted and Avramís marriage to Sari will be and obstacle that an Egyptian suitor will want to eliminate in the simplest most expedient manner Ė through murdering Avram.†††††

Avram is faced with a dilemma.He must escape the famine of Canaan.But Egypt seems even more dangerous!

 

Avram develops a solution to his dilemma and presents it to Sari.He asks Sari to present herself to the Egyptians as his sister.In other words, she should conceal her marriage to Avram.Avram explains his reasons for this request.He asks her to present herself as his sister so that the Egyptians will treat him well and he will survive the sojourn in this dangerous foreign land.

Although we can understand Avramís fears and we can accept the inevitability of his solution, his explanation of his motives to Sari seems quite bizarre and at the least remarkably insensitive.We would expect Avram to enlist Sariís cooperation by first explaining the danger he will face if he is identified as her husband.He should then ask for her to save him by disguising their relationship.This does not seem to be Avramís approach.He does appeal to Sari to conceal their relationship.He explains to her that this is the only way to save his life.But he also tells Sari that by executing this masquerade he will be treated favorably by the Egyptians.It is hard to imagine a more insensitive or ill-chosen remark.Is this the way to enlist oneís wifeís support?How would a normal woman react to this plea?Surely, her response would be anything but sympathetic!She would think, ďWhat kind of person is my husband.He is asking me to willingly allow myself to be abducted by a stranger.And he tells me that I should do this so the Egyptians will treat him favorably!Itís one thing for him to ask me to make this sacrifice in order to save his life.But what kind of boorish person would ask for this sacrifice so he can be treated well?ĒWas Avram so insensitive to Sari that he did not recognize that this would be her likely response?

 

The shallow response is to conclude that Avram Ė the first of the forefathers Ė was a chauvinist and completely incapable of appreciating the Sariís reaction.Furthermore, the fact that the Torah regards Avram as one of humanityís most righteous people clearly indicates that the Torah condones this attitude.

 

But letís consider whether this is a reasonable explanation of this incident.Even more amazing than Avramís presentation is Sariís response.She accepts Avramsí suggestion without any criticism.She allows herself to be taken by Paroh and even after she is miraculously rescued does not confront Avram with even the mildest complaint.Now, one might respond that Sari was completely dominated by Avram.She had no mind of her own or the fortitude to confront her domineering spouse.But it is important to remember that Sari was not a passive individual.She did forcibly confront Avram on other occasions when she felt he was mistaken.When Avram took Hagar Ė Sariís servant Ė as a wife, Sari told Avram that she held him personally responsible for Hagarís haughty treatment of her.After the birth of Yitzchak, Sari insisted that Avram send away Yishmael Ė Avramís other son.It is amazing that Sari never rebuked Avram for this insensitivity!

 

But the inescapable conclusion is that Sari understood Avramís meaning and did not regard his remarks as insensitive.What was Sariís interpretation?

 

There is another obvious problem with Avramís presentation.Even if we assume that Avram was insensitive to Sari, we cannot fully explain Avramís behavior.Insensitivity may explain Avram mentioning that he wanted to secure favorable treatment.But insensitivity does not explain the order in which Avram presented his motivations.Even the most insensitive person would first plea for his life and only afterwards mention additional benefits he would accrue through his scheme.If Avram had said, ďSay you are my sister so my life will be spared and Ė by the way Ė I will even be treated quite well,Ē one might be tempted to explain his remarks as an expression of insensitivity.But Avram did not express his concerns in this order.First, he mentions that he will be treated well and then that he will be saved.This seems more like the comments of a fool, not those of an insensitive person.Now, to claim that Avram was a fool is clearly preposterous!

 

This observation leads to a second conclusion.Avram was arguing that if Sari could secure favorable treatment for him, this treatment would lead to his being spared.He was presenting a plan to Sari.ďSay you are my sister.This will result in me being treated well.Once I receive this treatment, my life will be spared.ĒSari fully understood Avramís plan.She had no criticism and she readily accepted it as the most reasonable solution to their problem.But to us Ė the reader Ė the plan still requires some explanation.

 

There is one other important element of Avramís presentation that cannot be overlooked.Avram told Sari that if she followed his plan, he would be spared on her account.How does this follow?It was true that the plan Avram concocted would remove him from immediate danger.But it would not provide him with protection.Yet, Avram argued that his plan would do more than remove a threat.Somehow, it would actually secure his safety.How would this be accomplished through Sari presenting herself as his sister?

 

Gur Aryeh provides the final details that completely explain Avramís behavior and Sariís response.Avram was entering Egypt as a foreigner.He has no friends or allies.He was a natural target for the Egyptians.His association with Sari placed him in even graver danger.Avram desperately needed a powerful ally and protector.But how could he secure this guardian?Avram realized that Sari could help.Her beauty would bring her to the attention of all elements of Egyptian society.If Sari revealed that Avram was her husband, the lowest strata would not have a second thought about murdering him in order to take Sari.But the nobility of society would not demean itself in this way.Alternatively, if Sari masqueraded as Avramís sister the noblest elements of society would line up to suit her.They would try to secure Avramís support by plying him with presents.Avram would become an important person Ė the friend and associate of nobility.Avram would have powerful protectors.No lustful commoner would lay a hand on him.

 

Now, Avramís remarks and Sariís reaction make perfect sense.Avram asks Sari to disguise herself as his sister.He explains to her that this will lead the nobility to court him in order to win Sariís hand.Once the members of Egyptís nobility become his guardians he will be safe.He will not long be an unknown foreigner Ė the target of every jealous criminal.He will be a dignitary Ė the friend of kings and princes.No one will dare harm him!He will be saved on her account.[1]



[1] Rav Yehuda Loew of Prague (Maharal), Gur AryehCommentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:13.