My Sister or My Wife?

Avram was supposed to have been the paradigm of purity, fully devoted to serving G-d. After all, at the end of our portion, G-d commands him התהלך לפני והיה תמים, “walk before me and have integrity.”[1] One can question Avram’s integrity, however, when examining an early section of our parsha: There was a famine in the land, and Avram went down to Egypt to live there, for the famine was severe. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife “for now I know that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you and say ‘it is his wife,” they will kill me and allow you to live. Say you are my sister so that it will be good for me and my life will be saved because of you.”[2]

This passage raises a number of questions: why did Avram just now notice his wife’s beauty? How was he so sure he’d be killed by the Egyptians? Why did he command her to lie, in effect enabling her to be taken by Pharaoh? Isn’t this a breach of the very integrity that G-d commanded him to have, or why G-d chose him from amongst all the people in the world to be the first Jew?

The commentators have a field day answering these questions. Rashi provides three interpretations, beginning by referencing Midrash Tanhuma. The Midrash asserts that until this point Avram didn’t recognize the beauty of his wife because of the modesty that they had.[3] I don’t buy it-a husband not seeing his wife as beautiful doesn’t make sense. He then quotes from Genesis Rabbah, stating that during an arduous journey people can often become unattractive, but Sarai kept her beauty.[4] A better explanation yet also one that I find problematic. I am sure we all know people who go backpacking, to camp or on long trips and come back with dirt in their hair or with ripped jeans yet does Sarai really have something special that enables her beauty to survive the desert hardships? Then we have Rashi’s final explanation which he says is the pshat-of course Avram knew of Sarai’s beauty, yet they are coming to the land of swarthy, unattractive people, the brothers of the Kushim, who had not known of a beautiful woman. Ibn Ezra goes one step further, stating that there were other beautiful women, just not in Egypt and the land of the Negev because one’s physical form changes depending on the air.[5] Also an explanation I do not accept-the dry desert air would help preserve the skin and enhance beauty; and I also believe that beauty is independent from race or from a particular geographic location.

It is Ramban, or Nahmanides, who I believe gives the best interpretation. He begins by questioning Rashi’s third interpretation, for if the reason is that the Egyptians have never before seen a beautiful woman, why did Avraham do the same thing when they encountered the Avimelech and the Philistines? The Philistines lived on the coast and had a different complexion-yet Avraham’s actions were the same there. The answer he gives is that this was an attempt at pikuah nefesh-saving Avram’s life from bad people. Pharaoh had a tradition of bedding new women-after all he was the king and could do whatever he wanted. In order to save Avram from the wrath of Pharaoh he had to engage in this deception.[6]

But was it a lie? We know for the story of Avimelech that Avram just didn’t tell the entire truth; after all Sarai was his half-sister.[7] Sarai and he had the same father. Even if this was not the case, Jewish tradition would argue that a “white lie” can be said to preserve a person’s dignity,[8] all the more so to save a person’s life! Nevertheless, was Avram correct that Pharaoh would have killed him? Could he have been forthcoming, told the entire truth and saved Pharaoh from experiencing great plagues afflicting his entire household, without losing his life?

This election season was full of numerous truths, half-truths, lies and evasions of information. It has led to many of us not knowing what or who to believe. Candidates were called criminals, sex offenders and liars. We had fact checkers at every turn and then fact checkers of the fact checkers. There was a surprise at every corner-from the tape, to the leaks to the FBI. It’s not always clear who was right and who was wrong. Just as with the election coverage, we can question Avram’s action in claiming that Sarai was his sister. Was this a selfless act to save his life or a selfish act in not revealing the entire truth to Pharaoh?

Now that the election is over, there is a larger concern-bringing together a divided country with love and with healing. The hateful rhetoric that has been spewed by people on all sides is unacceptable. We have a President Designate, Donald J. Trump, elected through our electoral process, who we now need to unite behind as Americans. It’s not easy after many of the things he’s said or how he has contributed to the divisiveness and incitement that many of us feel. We can and should question his temperament, his mockery of individuals, and his belittling of generals, among other things. What we must avoid at all costs, however, is to perpetuate the hatred, the vitriol and the negativity spewed during the 2016 campaign, from Clinton as well as from Trump. When I see people on Facebook telling their friends in pain to “get over it and move on” or I see people saying they will never accept the President Designate, I feel great anger. When I see people defriending their friends and family members, I feel immense sadness. Some have forgotten how to show basic human decency and respect to one another-and our beloved America needs us to come together and talk face-to-face, rather than engaging in Facebook posts and Twitter Wars. We need to talk to those with whom we disagree and genuinely hear and try to understand their point of view.

Let us finally consider that our actions have a profound impact on our children, something I realize every day with my 8 month old. Avram’s actions, though perhaps morally justifiable, pay a price in the eyes of our sages. They function as an example of מעשה לאבות סימן לבנים, that the actions of the fathers will be a sign for their children to emulate.[9] We never know what our children will learn from us and how it might manifest itself, directly or indirectly, in their lives. Isaac will also deceive Avimelech, stating that his wife, Rebecca, is his sister, which from the text is not their biological relationship.[10] Like his father, he deceives Avimelech. With Rebecca’s help, he is in turn deceived by his son Jacob, who will be deceived by eleven of his sons regarding Joseph.

When we speak and act, let us ponder if this is what we would like our children and grandchildren, our nieces, nephews and cousins, to learn from us. In so doing, may we strive to follow the mandate G-d gave to Avram, התהלך לפני והיה תמים, walk with me and have integrity.

[1] Genesis 17:1

[2] Genesis 12:10-12

[3] Midrash Tanhuma 5

[4] Genesis Rabbah 40:4

[5] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 12:11 ד”ה הנה נא ידעתי

[6] Ramban on Genesis 12:11 ד”ה הנה נא ידעתי

[7] Genesis 20:12

[8] See Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 16b-17a regarding Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai’s responses to a bride on her wedding night.

[9] See Ramban on Genesis 12:6

[10] Rebecca is his first cousin once removed. Examine Genesis 22:23 to see how Rebecca’s lineage fits in.

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