LECH LECHA 5774
Rabbi Michael Gold, in his book, The Ten Journeys of Life, asks an interesting question: “Did Abraham love Sarah?” We know from the Torah that Isaac came to love Rebecca after they married. We know that Jacob loved Rachel and not Leah. But nowhere does the Torah say that Abraham loved Sarah. It simply says that Abraham travelled with Sarah, including a dangerous trip down to Egypt.
There’s an insightful Midrash (Rabba 40:5) on a verse in today’s Torah portion that weaves a wonderful story. Abraham and Sarah finally arrive in the land of Canaan following Gd’s lead only to soon find the land stricken with a severe famine. They decide to go down to Egypt where there’s food—a journey to be repeated later by their descendants. The Torah explains that Abraham was worried about this trip—that it might endanger their lives...that if they thought she was his wife, they would kill him in order to take her. Apparently, adultery in those parts was strictly forbidden, but murder—not so much! So Abraham tells her to make believe she is his sister.
And sure enough, the Torah (Gen. 12:14) tells us: “And it was when Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was.” The Midrash then elaborates on this verse and tells us that Abram hid her in a box and tried to sneak her across the border. There he was confronted by customs agents who asked him:
“Do you carry garments in the box?”
“I will pay the duty on garments,” he said.
“Perhaps you carry precious silks in the box.”
“I will pay the duty on precious silks.”
“Perhaps you carry precious stones in the box.”
“I will pay the duty on precious stones.”
The customs agents realized that there must be something in the box more valuable even than precious stones. They forced him to open the box, and, says the Midrash, “The whole land of Egypt was irradiated by her beauty.”
From this Midrash Rabbi Gold learns that this is a story of a man who for the 1st time sees how beautiful and how valuable his wife really is. Until now—as the story appears in the Torah—Sarah had been his wife and travelling companion. But nowhere does it say that Abraham sees who she really is. Now that the Egyptians want him to pay customs, he realizes the value of the woman he married. In the end he could not protect her from Pharaoh. Sarah was taken into the harem of Pharaoh only to be released with Gd’s intervention. But that’s a story for another day.
Whether or not you accept Rabbi Gold’s approach to the relationship of Abraham and Sarah, his question is nevertheless intriguing: “Did Abraham love Sarah?” I guess it depends upon how you define love. As a couple’s therapist I see different dynamics in successful relationships. But there’s one thing they all have in common—whether they’re able to express it or not. Being in love means truly seeing your love—your love’s heart, your love’s soul, your love’s value and your love’s needs. And being in love means putting your “self” aside to serve the needs of your love. And when we do this, says Rabbi David Aaron (Love is my Religion), “We do not lose ourselves but mysteriously find ourselves.”
And so it’s no surprise that the Hebrew word for love, ahava, comes from the root, hav, meaning “give.” It’s fascinating—as I’ve pointed out before—the gematria, the numerical value of the word ahava is 13 (1+5+2+5), which is also the gematria for echad (1+8+4), “one” or “single.” If 2 singles come together giving their love—indicating a compatibility of love and values—that will be 13 + 13 which equals 26—which is the gematria, the numerical equivalent of Gd’s name—Hashem. What it all adds up to is that 2 loving people who give themselves to each other have the power to bring the presence of Gd into the world, into their relationship and into their home. And that we certainly see in the union of Yochanan and Aminah who are celebrating Yochanan’s Ufruf today. I’ll speak more about them tomorrow at the wedding.
In our overly romantic, overly sexual culture, we speak a great deal about love. Young people want nothing more than to “fall in love,” as if love is something you fall into—like falling into a hole by mistake. But when you ask them what they mean by love, they inevitably answer: “I want someone who turns me on...” or “I want someone who makes me happy…” or “I want someone who will take care of me.” When people fall in love, they’re more focused on themselves and whether the person they’re falling in love with will fulfill their needs. But is that really love? The Talmud (Avot 5:16) teaches that any love that has conditions attached to it—like what my love can do for me—is destined not to last.
True love happens in a relationship when we reach a point where we stop focusing on ourselves and start focusing on the other—when we really see the other...when we see what makes this person truly beautiful…when we see what makes this person valuable…when we see what can I do to serve this person’s needs.
There’s a famous Chasidic story of Rebbe Moshe of Sasov, who claimed he learned how to love from a peasant in a tavern. He saw this peasant put his arm around his friend as they were drinking and ask him, “Ivan, do you love me?”
“Of course I love you.”
“Ivan, do you know what causes me pain?”
“How could I know what causes you pain?”
“Ivan, if you do not know what causes me pain, how can you say you love me?”
How much do we really know about those we love? To love someone is to see them and know what causes them joy and pain. We tend to see what we have in common, and we tend to overlook the differences. When people say, “love is blind,” this is what they mean. But true love is not blind. True love is seeing—seeing the differences, the otherness, the good and the bad. True love is seeing and still loving. In Hebrew, the verb “to see,” lirot, is directly related to the verb “to respect,” l’yira. True love requires that we see, accept and respect those we love for who they are, without projecting our dreams and fantasies upon them.
This is very hard, because we tend to want to fit those we love into our imaginary pictures of love. And if they don't quite fit, we try to change them to make them fit. But if we succeed in seeing not just what we have in common with those we love, but what makes us different, and if we appreciate and honor those differences, then we can take the next step toward giving of ourselves to that person and creating true love.
So, did Abraham love Sarah? The Torah doesn’t explicitly say. But perhaps at that moment when they crossed the border into Egypt and he saw how desirable she was to others and how much he really feared losing her, perhaps then Abraham finally saw how truly precious his wife was. And perhaps at that moment, he grew to love her.
My dear friends, may we see those whom we love for how truly desirable and precious they are so that we give them our love, our support and most of all, our appreciation. Let’s find a way every day to tell them that we love and appreciate them. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis