Vayera: She is My Sister

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Vayera 
 
Avraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negev and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he was sojourning in Gerar, Avraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ So King Avimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him. . . . (Bereshit/Genesis 20:1-2)

 
Hello again! My apologies for the erratic production of these weekly commentaries over the summer and holiday season. My hope is to get back in the regular swing of things but lately I’ve learned the value of saying bli neder.
 
Well, enough about me, what about Avraham and Sarah? Why is Avraham always passing his wife off to other men? Really, last week (see verses 10-20) and now, as above, this week too? 
 
Now, if I was scholar of Biblical literature or history, I’d point out that if there are two stories of Avraham encountering a foreign king and telling him that Sarah was really his sister, this can’t be an accident but probably evidence that the earliest sources of the text were oral narratives, in which a story might take different forms (Pharaoh? No, it was Avimelech!) and enter the shared culture in different ways. 
 
On the other hand, the sages and teachers of classical Judaism believed that every word and every story had its own meaning and lesson, and this is no different. In fact, our friend Rashi notices a profound difference between the verses above and the verses inBereshit 12 which tell of Avraham going down to Egypt and telling them that Sarai was his sister. So let’s take a look: 
 
As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.” If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” (Bereshit 12:11-13)
 
What you may have noticed, and Rashi points out, is that in the earlier story, Avraham (then Avram) asks Sarah (then Sarai) if she will change how she presents herself to others. In the second story (the verses at the top) Avraham just does it on his own, without asking Sarah for permission. Rashi’s language seems rather critical of Avraham; he says that he did this “against her will, because she had already been taken into the house of Pharaoh on account of this.” 
 
I read Rashi as strongly implying that Avraham abused the permission that Sarah had granted him in one situation by presuming it applied in a different one. Of course, in both of these stories, there is a divine intervention so that Sarah is neither harmed nor sexually exploited, but still, it seems that Avraham should have obtained Sarah’s permission before speaking on her behalf. 
 
Whatever the origins of these two odd stories, we read them not as historical curiosities but as narratives with moral force. In this case, we see ourselves in Avraham’s thoughtless act; who among us has never taken a loved one for granted, deciding for ourselves what is best for them without consultation or dialogue?
It is all too human to act impulsively out of fear or anxiety, forgetting that others may have their own perspectives and desires and dignity. It is both ethical and loving to make sure we include others in decisions that affect them; we can understand Avraham’s fear without excusing his act. Avrahamwas called a prophet in Avimelech’s dream, but he also appears to us as only human, sometimes falling short, sometimes rising to great heights,  just like us, the inheritors of his legacy. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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