Moving the Matriarchs from Objects to Subjects: Lekh Lekha 5777

How dashing and heroic does Abram appear in his devotion to God! With alacrity he relocates upon command, risks everything to rescue his captive nephew Lot, and circumcises himself and all of his household males at the end of the portion. Yet there is also a moment in which Abram appears craven and insensitive, namely the passage in which he “realizes” that his 65-year-old wife Sarai is beautiful, and instructs her to be abducted, “that it go well with me, and that I may remain alive because of you.”

This sister-wife story has troubled commentators since antiquity, especially since it is a thrice-told tale, with two parallel versions related to Abimelekh in Genesis 20 and 26. Modern scholars have noted that the abduction of a hero’s wife is a theme in ancient literature, from the Ugaritic tale of King Keret and his wife Hurrai, to Homer’s Helen of Troy. In all of these cases, a woman plays a narrative role but only as a beauty object. The man who can control such a woman has virility and power; the husband who loses control of his wife is humiliated and requires revenge.

Reading these stories this week, when a strong woman has lost her bid for the presidency, and a man who has been accused of molesting 12 different women and has been heard boasting of such exploits is now our president-elect, we must look more closely at what Phyllis Trible calls “Texts of Terror”. The great scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky z”l dedicated a chapter called “The Disposable Wife” to this subject in her 2002 book, Reading the Women of the Bible.

Dr. Frymer-Kensky notices that in this passage, all of the active verbs are masculine singular—Abram and Pharaoh act, whereas the feminine verbs are passive—Sarai is acted upon. She writes of Sarai:

She is also stripped of her individuality, no longer recognized as a person, for both Abram and Pharaoh treat her as “a woman”-an unspecified generic object of desire. Sarai has been commodified, and nobody in these stories uses her name. No longer Sarai, she is “she” or “wife,” or “this one” or “woman,” an object being transferred from Abram’s household to Pharaoh’s, there to be a slave-concubine. But God has other plans. (95-96)

This reading is p’shat—clear, contextual, and true. What are we to do with it?

The Sages of Israel generally sought to soften the image of Abram exposing Sarai to such danger and using her abduction to enrich his family. In the Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) they read his statement, “Now I know that you are a beautiful woman,” as a testament to his angelic innocence—he had never before noticed his wife’s beauty. But the words of our sages are telling. They say literally, “he had not even looked at his own.” Sarai is his property, subject to his gaze but not even worthy of that. He is just now realizing how valuable she can be. She is as passive to these rabbis as Frymer-Kensky shows her to be in Genesis.

Midrash Bereshit Rabba somehow reads this text as one of patriarchal self-abnegation—Abram has made himself secondary (tefeilah) to Sarai in this incident, and because he humbles himself, he is exalted. This is a common religious theme—humility leads to greatness—which can be criticized on its own merits, but the mechanism here is a person! Sarai has no say in her role as catalyst for his spiritual ascent, despite her husband’s use of the polite word na. Again, she is an object, a tool.

Some traditions have Abram trying harder to protect Sarai by placing her in a box to hide her from the Egyptians. The keen customs inspectors insist on opening the box, and the glory of Sarai’s beauty dazzles the land (this becomes fodder for a Sefirotic reading of Sarai in the Zohar). In this retelling, Abram tries to protect his wife, but what more can he do? She is just too beautiful, and so of course the most powerful man in town will find a way to take her.

In all of these readings, Sarai’s objectification is taken for granted, and Abram’s spiritual heroism remains assured. Yet not all is well for Abram in rabbinic discourse. Ramban boldly takes Abram to task, saying that, “he sinned a terrible sin in putting his righteous wife at risk in order to save himself from being killed. He should have trusted in God.” Ramban here is willing to fault Abram and, equally important, to exalt Sarai, not just as chattel, but as a righteous person with her own spiritual worth.

Even more remarkable is the interpretation offered in Or HaHayyim. According to this, Abram recognized two problems facing his family: they were impoverished, and they were barren. While risky, his plan could solve both problems simultaneously. They could emerge from Egypt with a big pay-out. And because of rabbinic readings of the sotah (the suspected wife), Sarai by emerging uncompromised from this most compromising position could be blessed and allowed to become pregnant. This reading rescues Abram from moral hazard—he had a virtuous plan and it worked! And it also restores Sarai to the dignity of agency—by enduring this ordeal, she could increase the merit of their family and guarantee their fertility. Yet even this reading leaves Abram callously willing to use his wife as an object, and does not give Sarai control of her own body.

Back to Ramban, he is not finished with the sin of Abram. In fact, he pegs the future punishment of Israel—the enslavement in Egypt for dreadful centuries—on this incident. Instead of acting justly in this moment of peril, Abram caused his progeny to be exiled to a situation of evil and sin.

Which unfortunately brings us back to our current situation. America has already slipped in its moral standing based on the unjustified statements and actions of our new leader. Nations around the world have announced that they will no longer assume that our country is able to offer moral guidance or judgment. Allies have put our government on notice that shared moral values are the foundation of their alliance, and that an America which treats people as objects is an America that will be isolated and punished.

We do not know if such conduct will continue, or whether our president will begin to speak and act presidentially now that the greatest authority has been placed in his hands. I certainly hope so, and will do my best to reinforce the values of justice that are the true source of American greatness, and whose abandonment is the greatest source of American weakness. From Father Abram, a courageous and often selfless man, we learn that even one incident of objectifying others can undermine moral standing and cause centuries of national woe.


בראשית פרק יב

(יא) וַיְהִ֕י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִקְרִ֖יב לָב֣וֹא מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ הִנֵּה־נָ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֛י אִשָּׁ֥ה יְפַת־מַרְאֶ֖ה אָֽתְּ:  (יב) וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי־יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ: (יג) אִמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ: (יד) וַיְהִ֕י כְּב֥וֹא אַבְרָ֖ם מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיִּרְא֤וּ הַמִּצְרִים֙ אֶת־הָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּֽי־ יָפָ֥ה הִ֖וא מְאֹֽד: (טו) וַיִּרְא֤וּ אֹתָהּ֙ שָׂרֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה וַיְהַֽלְל֥וּ אֹתָ֖הּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וַתֻּקַּ֥ח הָאִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה: (טז) וּלְאַבְרָ֥ם הֵיטִ֖יב בַּעֲבוּרָ֑הּ וַֽיְהִי־ל֤וֹ צֹאן־וּבָקָר֙ וַחֲמֹרִ֔ים וַעֲבָדִים֙ וּשְׁפָחֹ֔ת וַאֲתֹנֹ֖ת וּגְמַלִּֽים:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף טז עמוד א

אברהם אפילו בדידיה לא איסתכל. דכתיב: הנה נא ידעתי כי אשה יפת מראה את, מכלל דמעיקרא לא הוה ידע לה.

בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת לך לך פרשה מ ד”ה (יא – יג) ויהי

אברהם היה עיקר ויקח אברם את שרי אשתו וגו’ (בראשית יב ה) [ועשה עצמו טפילה אמרי נא אחותי את], ונעשה טפילה ולאברהם היטיב בעבורה (שם שם /בראשית י”ב/ טז).

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מ

ה [יב, יד] ויהי כבא אברם מצרימה ויראו המצרים, ושרה היכן היתה נתנה בתיבה ונעל בפניה כיון דמטא למכסא אמרין ליה הב מכסא אמר אנא יהיב מכסא, אמרין ליה מאנין את טעין אמר אנא יהיב דמאנין, אמרין ליה דהב את טעין אמר אנא יהיב מן דדהב, אמרו ליה מטכסין את טעין אמר דמטכסי אנא יהיב, מרגלין את טעון אמר אנא יהיב דמרגלין, אמרין ליה לא אפשר אלא דפתחת וחמית לן מה בגוה, כיון שפתחה הבהיקה כל ארץ מצרים מזיוה

פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) בראשית פרשת לך לך פרק יב

יד) ויהי כבוא אברם מצרימה. ושרה היכן היתה, נתנה בתבה ונעל בפניה, ולבסוף ויראו המצריים את האשה כי יפה היא מאד, כי לא היה בו כח להסתירה מהם: כי יפה הוא מאד. מלמד שהבריקה לפניהם כשמש. ר’ עזריה ור’ יונתן ב”ר חגי בשם ר’ יצחק אמר, איקונין של חוה היתה נמסרת לראשי דורות:

רמב”ן בראשית פרק יב

ודע כי אברהם אבינו חטא חטא גדול בשגגה שהביא אשתו הצדקת במכשול עון מפני פחדו פן יהרגוהו, והיה לו לבטוח בשם שיציל אותו ואת אשתו ואת כל אשר לו, כי יש באלהים כח לעזור ולהציל. גם יציאתו מן הארץ, שנצטווה עליה בתחילה, מפני הרעב, עון אשר חטא, כי האלהים ברעב יפדנו ממות. ועל המעשה הזה נגזר על זרעו הגלות בארץ מצרים ביד פרעה. במקום המשפט שמה הרשע והחטא:

אור החיים בראשית פרק יב

עוד ירצה בדקדוק עוד אומרו כפל ענין בעבורך ובגללך שהיה לו לומר ייטב לי וחיתה נפשי בגללך או בעבורך:

אכן נתכוון לב’ דברים הא’ למען יטיבו לו בעבור אחותו טובה גשמיית. ועוד וחיתה נפשי וגו’ על דרך מה שדרשו ז”ל (ברכות לא ב) בפסוק (ש”א א) אם ראה תראה שאם לא יפקידה תעשה שעל כרחך יראה לתת לה זרע ע”י שתלך ותסתר וכו’ ותבדק כסוטה ונזרעה זרע. כמו כן חשב אברהם כי על ידי סתירת האשה עם האיש והיא נקיה ה’ יפקדנה בבנים בדומין לו והוא אומרו וחיתה נפשי בפקודת הזרע בגללך פירוש בדברים המתגלגלים ממך על דרך מה שדרשו ז”ל (שבת קנא ב) בפסוק בגלל הדבר וגו’, ולזה הפסיק בתיבת בעבורך לומר כי הם ב’ דברים.