And the Lord had said to Abram, "Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed." (Genesis 12:1-3)
Parshat Lech Lecha begins with a Divine directive given to Abram. With this revelation the Jewish people come into being.1 This command is also cited as one of the ten trials Abraham endured.2 With great faith and trust in God Abram starts on his journey:
And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan; and to the land of Canaan they came. (Genesis 12:5)
However, there was a problem: almost immediately we are told of a famine which struck the land. Abram goes on the road again.
And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was severe in the land. And it came to pass, when he came near to enter to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, "Behold now, I know that you are a pretty woman to look upon. Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see you, that they shall say, 'This is his wife' and they will kill me, but you they will keep alive. Say, I beg you, that you are my sister; that it may be well with me for your sake; and my soul shall live because of you." And it came to pass, that when Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw the woman that she was very pretty.(Genesis 12:10-14)
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DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND
It is quite difficult for us to understand how Abram leaves Canaan and travels to Egypt, ostensibly contradicting God's order. The compromised position in which Sarah is knowingly placed seems even more difficult to understand. This question reverberates with religious, moral and ethical considerations. One of the classic commentaries, Rav Moshe Alshech poses the question thus:
How could a man like Abraham come up with a plan which would save his soul from being taken, God forbid, to leave Sarah, who was greater than he in prophecy, to be defiled by heathens, she being a married woman. This is one of the seven Noachide laws, and (Abraham was) someone who observed (even) Eruv Techumin! (12:10-13)
The Alshech Hakadosh expresses shock and moral outrage at Abraham's behavior (and, if I am not mistaken, his words contain a degree of sarcasm and cynicism as well). How can a spiritual giant like Abraham, a man who uniquely and alone discerned the Divine imperative, a man who reportedly adhered to the entire Torah, including halachic minutia, be guilty of such morally questionable behavior? To save his own skin, he was willing to have his wife consort with the enemy.3
To save his own skin, was Abraham willing to have his wife consort with the enemy?
Perhaps it seems inappropriate to question a man like Abraham. Nonetheless Nachmanides -- better known as Ramban -- does just that, although he uses more restrained language:
And know that Abraham sinned a great sin inadvertently, by bringing his wife the saint in a compromising situation, due to his fear that he be killed ... likewise leaving the land which he was commanded initially (to move to Israel) was a sin, for he should have trusted in God. Because of this action it was decreed that his descendents be exiled to Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh.4 (Ramban 12:10)
The Ramban's position is clear: Abraham decision to leave Israel was mistaken, as was his treatment of Sarah.5 The Ramban speaks of the ramifications of these actions for future generations: Abraham's children would return to the land to which Abraham had traveled.
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THE LARGER THEME
This is part of a larger theme, which is one of the major ideas in the Ramban's commentary on the Torah: Masseh Avot Siman L'banim, "the actions of the fathers serve as a sign for the children."6 The Ramban had already observed in the beginning of this Torah portion that Abraham's arrival in Shechem unleashed the spiritual power which enabled his grandsons Levi and Shimon to take possession of Shechem as the first foothold of the Israelites in the Land.
This concept is also discernable in the words of the Midrash:
Rabbi Leazar said: "He built three altars: one on account of the good tidings about Eretz Israel, another for his possession thereof, and a third [as a prayer] that his descendants might not fall at Ai, as it is written, And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the Ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel, and they put dust upon their heads." (Joshua 7:6).
Rabbi Leazar ben Shamua said: "They began recalling the merit of our father Abraham, who said, I am but dust and ashes (Genesis 8:27); did then Abraham build Thee an altar at Ai for aught but that his children should not fall there! ... and called upon the name of the Lord with prayer. ... and Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south (Genesis 7:9), he drew a course and journeyed toward the [future] site of the Temple." (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 39:16)
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IMPACT ON ISRAEL
We see that specific actions of Abraham impact later generations of Israelites. With regard to Abraham's journey to Israel, and subsequently to Egypt, we again find the Midrash addressing the impact that Abraham's deeds would have on future generations:
Rabbi Pinchas commented in Rabbi Hoshaya's name: "The Holy One, blessed be He, said to our father Abraham, 'Go forth and tread out a path for thy children.' For you find that everything written in connection with Abraham is written in connection with his children:
- In connection with Abraham it is written, And there was a famine in the land (ibid. 10);
while in connection with Israel it is written, For these two years hath the famine been in the land (ibid. 45:6).
- Abraham: And Abram went down into Egypt;
Israel: And our fathers went down into Egypt (Numbers 20:15).
- Abraham: To sojourn there;
Israel: To sojourn in the land are we come (Genesis 47:4).
- Abraham: For the famine was sore in the land;
Israel: And the famine was sore in the land (ibid. 43:1).
- Abraham: And it came to pass, when he was come near (hikriv) to enter into Egypt;
Israel: And when Pharaoh drew nigh (hikriv) (Exodus 14:10).
- Abraham: And they will kill me, but thee they will keep alive;
Israel: Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive (ibid. 1:22).
- Abraham: Say, I pray thee, that thou art my sister, that it may be well with me;
Israel: And God dealt well with the midwives (ibid. 20).
- Abraham: And it came to pass, that when Abram was come into Egypt;
Israel: Now these are the names of the sons of Israel, who came in Egypt (ibid. 1).
- Abraham: And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold (Genesis 8:2);
Israel: And He brought them forth with silver and gold(Psalm. 105:37).
- Abraham: And Pharaoh gave men charge concerning him, and they sent him away;
Israel: And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out (Exodus 12:33).
- Abraham: And he went on his journeys (Genesis 13:3);
Israel: These are the journeys of the children of Israel(Numbers 33:1). (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 40:6)
We see that "history repeats itself." All that happened to Abraham happens again to his children. However, the Ramban explains that this is not simply a case of historical themes: Abraham's actions actually determine the future. If Abraham leaves the land of Israel and travels to Egypt, his children will be destined to undergo similar experiences. Abraham is a spiritual maverick whose every action creates spiritual realities which will be repeated.
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SETTING A PATTERN
If this is so, we must repeat our question. How can Abraham choose to abandon Israel, to leave the Promised Land, and allow the possibility of exile to be established? Furthermore, his poor judgement in the matter of Sarah creates the power for other Jewish women to be captured in the future.
When Pharaoh takes Sarah to his palace he is struck with plagues, just as his descendants will be struck.
If we posit that the actual exile was independent of these actions, the only thing determined by Abraham was that the exile would take place in Egypt, and not elsewhere.7 Perhaps we may discern some positive outcomes. When Pharaoh takes Sarah to his palace he is struck with plagues, just as his descendants will be struck. When Abraham leaves, he goes with great wealth, as will his descendants at the end of the exile.
And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife. And Pharaoh called Abram, and said, "What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, She is my sister? I might have taken her for my wife. Now therefore behold your wife, take her, and go your way." And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they sent him away, he and his wife and all that he had. And Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, to the Negev. And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. (12:17-20,13:1-2)
The Zohar explains this relationship:
Rabbi Isaac said: "Woe to the sinners of the world who do not know and do not observe the work of the Holy One, blessed be He, nor do they reflect that all which takes place in the world is from God, who knows from the outset what will be at the end, as it is written, declaring the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). He looks ahead and lays a train now for developments in the distant future. Thus, had not Sarai been taken to Pharaoh, he would not have been plagued, and it was his castigation which caused the subsequent castigation of the Egyptians. The word 'great' is applied here to the plagues inflicted on Pharaoh and also to thesigns and wonders which God showed upon Egypt (Deut. 6:22), to indicate that here, as there, were ten plagues, and that just as God performed wonders for Israel by night, so He performed wonders for Sarai by night." (Zohar Bereshith, Page 82a)
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Sarah's fidelity in the palace created the possibility of future generations of Jewish women to remain faithful.
Rabbi Abba ben Kahana said: "Sarah went down to Egypt and guarded herself against immorality, and all the women guarded themselves in her merit. Joseph went down to Egypt and guarded himself against immorality, and all the men guarded themselves in his merit." Rabbi Pinchas said in the name of Rabbi Hiyya: "This avoidance of immorality was itself sufficient merit to procure the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt." (Midrash Rabbah - The Song of Songs 4:25)
According to this approach, our original question disappears: Abraham was confident of Sarah's greatness. He recognized that she was, indeed, a greater prophet than he was, as the Alshech noted above. Therefore, he felt, she would certainly be protected from the lecherous advances of Pharaoh. Abraham was not nearly as confident of his own merit. The Zohar explains that when Abraham looked at Sarah and observed her beauty, he saw far more than merely a beautiful woman -- he saw the Divine Presence, the Shechina:
Another explanation is that Abram said so because he saw with her the Shechina. It was on this account that Abram made bold to say subsequently, "She is my sister", with a double meaning: one the literal, the other figurative, as in the words Say to Wisdom, thou art my sister (Proverbs 7:4).
Rabbi Yesa said: "Abram knew that all the Egyptians were full of lewdness. It may therefore seem surprising that he was not apprehensive for his wife and that he did not turn back without entering the country. But the truth is that he saw with her theShechina and was therefore confident. That it may be well with me for thy sake: these words were addressed to the Shechina, as if to say: 'that God may entreat me well for thy sake.' And that my soul may live because of thee because through this (the Shechina) man ascends and becomes privileged to enter on the path of life." (Zohar, Bereishit, Page 81b-82a)8
There is, however, another aspect to be examined. We know that by virtue of the exile the Jews' numbers grew exceedingly, from a tribe into a powerful nation.9 If the experience of exile is what served as the catalyst for the people to become multitudinous, perhaps going to Egypt would help Abraham and Sarah become "fruitful and multiply" in the microcosm.
Egypt would help Abraham and Sarah become "fruitful and multiply" in the microcosm.
The precise dynamics of this idea are elegantly described by the Or Hachaim Hakadosh.10 We know that the land of Egypt is singled out in various biblical passages as being a land of particular licentiousness.11 It seems strange that Abraham, who was surely aware of this, continues his journey and does not choose a safer haven. We could posit that only Egypt had food, as was the case later in the Joseph narrative.
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A MOST UNUSUAL PLAN
The Or Hachaim suggests that Abraham wanted Sarah to be captured! The Torah teaches that when a woman is secluded with a man other than her husband and the husband had warned her against such seclusion, she receives the status of a woman suspected of adultery -- a sotah. The Torah describes the ordeal which she must then endure; if, in fact, the woman was innocent, the Torah says:
And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean, then shall she be cleared, and shall conceive seed. (Bamidbar V, 28).
The reward for fidelity is procreation. This, according to the Or Hachaim Hakadosh, was Abraham's plan: By going to a place which was known for its immorality, he knew that they would take Sarah. He preferred that it not be "over his dead body." He warned her not to be secluded with the king, in order that Sarah would then be blessed with a child. Abraham and Sarah become "numerous" due to this plan; the Or HaChaim traces the spiritual power unleashed here as the force which holds sway in the future when the Jews become numerous during their exile in Egypt.12
Rabbi Isaac said: "It is written, And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then shall she be cleared, and shall conceive seed(Numbers 5:28). Then this woman [Sarah] who had entered the houses of Pharaoh and Avimelech and yet emerged undefiled -- surely it was but right that she should be remembered." (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit LIII:6)
We see that Abraham and Sarah were more than ordinary individuals: Their actions and interactions inspire generations of Jews. Their behavior creates not merely the benchmark of acceptable behavior, but the spiritual power of subsequent generations. Their deeds need to be studied and understood, and sometimes questioned.
- The precise moment of the creation of the Jewish People could be debated. It is unclear whether Abraham should be labeled "Jew" or "Proto-Jew." (I recognize the anachronistic difficulty in the word "Jew" -- I use it for lack of a better term, and in its generic sense.) The "Jewish experience" begins Biblically with this verse, while Midrashically the beginning of Judaism is found in last week's portion, when Abraham earns his reputation as an iconoclast. The Jewish experience of alienation, of being the Ivri -- the individual or nation from the wrong side of the river -- begins here. This isolation has been the Jewish experience for millennia. (return to text)
- For the source of the ten trials, see Avot 5:3. Midrash Rabbah - Exodus 15:27 connects the ten trials with the ten plagues which befell the Egyptians. Also in Midrash Rabbah - Exodus 44:4, Moses used the ten in his argument to save the Jews, after the sin of the Golden Calf. "Moses pleaded: 'Lord of the Universe! Why art Thou angry with Israel?' 'Because they have broken the Decalogue,' He replied. 'Well, they possess a source from which they can make repayment,' urged he. 'What is that source?' He asked. Moses replied: 'Remember that Thou didst prove Abraham with ten trials, and so let those ten [trials serve as a compensation] for these ten [broken commandments].' This is why he said: Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel."
The Midrashic enumeration of the ten trials is not consistent. According to some sources the famine which precipitated Abram's journey to Egypt, and Sarah's ordeal there in the house of Pharaoh, are two of the trials. In other sources, neither of these events are included in the ten. (return to text)
- See Torah Shelemah, Lech Lecha note 145 where the halachic implications are considered. (return to text)
- The Ramban does not state that this was the cause of exile, rather that this was the cause of the exile to Egypt and Pharaoh; Abram's actions dictated the nature of the exile, not the fact of exile or the necessity for exile. See the notes by Rav Chavel in his edition of the Ramban's Commentary. (return to text)
- The Maharal disagrees with this position: If this behavior was so problematic, why would Abraham repeat this strategy in his dealings with Avimelech? See G'vurot Hashem chapter 9. Others point out that Abram's departure from Israel, and Sarah's ordeal in the House of Pharaoh are enumerated as tests for which Abraham is subsequently rewarded. See Torah Shelemah Lech Licha note 130. (return to text)
- Rabbi Soloveitchik once described this idea with the following formulation: "Jewish history is Jewish destiny." (return to text)
- The actual exile was connected to other events, the only thing which was determined here was the locale -- Egypt. (return to text)
- The Zohar draws other parallels between the Shechina and Sarah:
"Assuredly God is a shield to the righteous to save them from falling into the power of men, and so God shielded Abram that the Egyptians should not have power to harm him and his wife. For the Shechina did not leave Sarai all that night. When Pharaoh tried to approach her, the angel came and smote him. Whenever Sarai said "smite," he smote, and meanwhile Abram firmly trusted in God that He would allow no harm to come to Sarai, as it is written, the righteous are bold as a lion (Proverbs 28:1). This is one of the trials which Abram endured without complaining against God. Rabbi Isaac said that God purposely refrained from telling Abram to go down to Egypt, and allowed him to go of his own accord, in order that people might not be able to say that after making him go there He brought trouble on him through his wife." Zohar, Bereshith, Section 1, Page 82a (return to text)
- See Torah Shelemah Lech Lecha note 135. (return to text)
- Or Hachaim Hakadosh on the verse 12:13. (return to text)
- For example see Leviticus 18:3, And Midrash Tanchuma on this verse, which explains that Abraham was afraid of the Egyptians for that reason, and therefore hid Sarah in a box -- (echoes of Dinah). (return to text)
- According to the Pesikta Rabbati section 43, Chanah had devised the same plan, in the event that her supplication went unheeded (cited by Or Hachaim). (return to text)