Sunday, November 05, 2006

Parshat Lech Lecha

I was preparing a short d'var torah earlier this week on Parshat Lech Lecha. Typically, when preparing a d'var, I start by looking at the text. I am often shocked, when reading the Parsha, to discover huge sections of text that I don't remember reading before. This week was no exception.

Lech Lecha, as most people probably remember, is the story in which G-d tells Abraham to go. Leave your family, leave your home, leave your town, leave your country, and go to the place that I will show you. This story is supposed to show us the absolute faith Abraham had in G-d. (This story always makes me think of Debbie Friedman's song, L'chi Lach, as well.)

But the story that I didn't remember -- or only vaguely remembered -- is the one shortly following. In this story, there is a famine, and Abraham goes to Egypt to find food (sound familiar? I never realized before that the Passover story was foreshadowed here in Genesis. ) He then tells Sarah that she should pretend to be his sister instead of his wife, because if the Egyptians see how beautiful she is, they will want her, and will kill him! For some reason, Sarah agrees with this plan, and indeed, the Egyptians are captured by her beauty, and take her to the Pharoah.

G-d strikes the Egyptians with plagues (again, forshadowing the future...) and Pharoah realizes that it has to do with Sarah. He asks Abraham: is she your wife? And he admits that she is. Then -- not sure why -- Pharoah gives Abraham lots of stuff, which increases his wealth, and they leave Egypt.

What a strange, strange story on so many levels! I hardly know where to begin.

Here is one version of the text:

There was a famine in the land. Abram headed south to Egypt to stay there for a while, since the famine had grown very severe in the land.
As they approached Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, 'I realize that you are a good-looking woman.
When the Egyptians see you, they will assume that you are my wife and kill me, allowing you to live.
If you would, say that you are my sister. They will then be good to me for your sake, and through your efforts, my life will be spared.'
When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that his wife was very beautiful.
Pharaoh's officials saw her, and spoke highly of her to Pharaoh. The woman was taken to Pharaoh's palace.
He treated Abram well because of her, and [Abram] thus acquired sheep, cattle, donkeys, male and female slaves, she-donkeys, and camels.
God struck Pharaoh and his palace with severe plagues because of Abram's wife Sarai.
Pharaoh summoned Abram and said, 'How could you do this to me? Why didn't you tell me that she was your wife?
Why did you say that she was your sister so that I should take her to myself as a wife? Now here is your wife! Take her and go!'
Pharaoh put men in charge of [Abram], and they sent him on his way along with his wife and all that was his.

I've been searching through all the commentary I can find, trying to discover what to make of this text. The results aren't very comforting. Turns out that this same scenario repeats itself three times in Genesis, twice with Abraham, and again with Issac and Rebecca. Each time, the man says that his wife is his sister, in order to save himself from...something. And the is implied... has sexual relations with the male in authority. But then ends up back with her husband.

Bottom line: we need a midrash to explain why a) this happened b) the man agreed to it c) most importantly, why (or if!) the woman agreed or at least acquiesced to it. And why 3 times???

There are many stories of this ilk in the Bible. Stories in which something profoundly disturbing happens to a woman, but because the Bible is written from such a male-centric perspective, the feelings, thoughts, impact on the woman are completely discounted. One example is the story of Dina, described so eloquently in Anita Diamont's The Red Tent. What we need here is a Red-Tent-like story to explain what was going on in Sarah's mind during this disturbing episode. How could she not feel afraid, being taken as a wife (one assumes) of Pharoah, when in reality she is already married? Not only afraid, but humiliated and violated? Possibly raped? And to learn that her husband is receiving wealth in return for her? Until finally, the truth is known, and then she is returned to her husband? And how does she feel then? And how does he feel, knowing that she has been with another man? None of these questions are answered in the text, nor are the questions even asked in commentary

One commentator summarizes his exploration of this topic as follows:
Apparently the Torah has no problem accepting what Abraham did, for a similar story is told three times in Genesis: Sarai and Pharaoh (Gen. ch. 12), Sarah and Abimelech (Gen. ch. 20), and Rebecca and Abimelech (Gen. ch. 26). In all these instances the wife is called “my sister,” and when the highest-ranking of the people wants to take her, she is delivered only by divine intervention.

This episode reminds me of a book I read recently called The Other Boleyn Girl which tells about life in King Henry the Eighth's court. (a great book, by they way) It is kind of horrifying how the Boleyn family is so interested in furthering their interests (political, financial, etc.) that they are willing to sacrifice, literally, their daughters in order to gain favor with the king. Similar to this biblical episode, it is assumed that the king can sleep with whatever woman he wants, and the fact that she is already married has no bearing on this matter.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the Torah "wouldn't have a problem" with this episode...but it angers me how we look at Abraham as such a model of moral behavior, when in reality, his behavior in this instance was questionable at best !?!


Margaret McConchie said...

I think you need to write that book! Congratulations and good luck with this blog! Margaret

FollowUpQuestion said...

Just discovered this post 3 1/2 years after you wrote it! In searching for background material on Lech Lecha for T's Bar Mitzvah, your dvar torah came up. How cool is that. And I completely agree with you! I, too, was troubled by the anti-feminist writings, but T made a good point. "It was the BC time period. People weren't thinking like we do today!" Still doesn't stop me from questioning how women were treated.