LECH LECHA 5778
The brouhaha concerning the revelations of the inexcusable behavior of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein over several decades with impunity has focused attention on the victimization of women. The sad truth is, just about every woman has a story to tell about at least one incident in her life. A movement of sorts has sprung up on twitter—#MeToo—where women who have been sexually harassed are invited to post their stories and many have done so—including 4 U.S. senators! Unfortunately, this is nothing new.
In today’s Torah portion, soon after Abraham arrived in Canaan there was a famine and so he took his family to Egypt to find food. He appreciated how absolutely drop-dead gorgeous his wife Sarah was, so he asked her to say she was his sister—which has some truth to it since she was the daughter of his brother. It seems that the morality of ancient Egypt was so twisted. Murder was not so bad, but adultery? That was absolutely forbidden. So if you wanted somebody’s wife, you would simply kill him 1st.
Well, as it turns out, Sarah caught the eyes of the Egyptians who told Pharaoh how gorgeous she was and she was immediately abducted and taken into Pharaoh’s harem. Gd then afflicted Pharaoh and his household with severe plagues and Pharaoh then understood that it was because Sarah was really a married woman. Pharaoh then complained (Ge. 12: 18) to Abraham. Listen to this complaint; it’s unbelievable: “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” Do you hear the absurdity of Pharaoh’s complaint? What have you done to me?? It’s as if it’s ok to abduct a woman against her will and take her to be sexually abused in a harem; but it’s not ok if she’s already married??
Jeremiah (29:23) speaks of predators who commit adultery, which he calls acts of n’vala—acts committed by those who have no moral or religious scruples. And this behavior was usually acts of the powerful over the weak, the strong over the vulnerable. Such behavior, Jeremiah tells us, is an abomination in the eyes of Gd—though we know of all too many incidents where “religious figures”—also powerful—have taken advantage of their parishioners, even minors.
Next week, we read (Genesis 20) a similar story where Avimelech, king of the Philistines abducts Sarah. He’s described as not fearing Gd, and so he takes whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. Besides, who believes a slave who has been mistreated? Who cares about a child who is too frightened to tell a secret he’s been bound never to reveal? And the woman who has ambitions…in business, in broadcasting or the movies can often be taken advantage of at the hand of a man who’s master of her fate. It’s vile; it is, as the Bible puts it, a n’vala, which also interestingly enough, shares the same root as a neveyla, corpse, something dead, or something treyf, morally repugnant.
While all this was happening to his wife Sarah—Abraham stood silent. The acts of predators while noticed, is subsumed under a conspiracy of silence. Remaining mute is the bystanders contract with the powerful, so that they, themselves, will not suffer retaliation. Meanwhile, the innocent suffer. The institution of the Pharaoh, like the institutions of the corporate world, protects the mighty from judgment and casts aside the defenseless.
Yes, Abraham’s life was in danger and he felt powerless to confront Pharaoh. But if we read the text carefully we’ll see that Abraham grew from this experience to be able to challenge anyone—even Gd Himself. Shortly after returning from Egypt, Abraham separates from his nephew Lot because of disputes over grazing land. Rather than create a feud between them, he nobly suggests that Lot choose his direction and he will go elsewhere—casting aside any hard feelings.
Sometime later, however, a rebellion breaks out among several city-states and Lot is kidnapped. Abraham had a dilemma. Should he risk himself and his family and fight for the release of his nephew? After all, he was just one person—a stranger in the land. Abraham’s retinue of soldiers was small in comparison with the formidable warriors of the city-states. He could easily have ignored any responsibility towards his nephew. But in his growth, Abraham looked beyond himself, acted nobly with dispatch and saved his nephew.
Right after this Abraham had a great vision. Gd told him not to be afraid and that his reward would be great. Abraham counters (Gen. 15: 2): “My Lrd Gd, what can you give me, seeing that I am childless?” Who cares about a reward when I have no heirs to pass it on to? Abraham has grown again in stature to challenge Gd—something that he’ll do with great eloquence and courage in next week’s parsha when Gd will tell him He’s about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Abraham of the Pharaoh story is not the Abraham who goes to war…and is not the Abraham who confronts Gd.
Abraham is not perfect. There were times—like the Akeyda—when he didn’t confront Gd—even to save his own son…or when he again resorted to identifying Sarah as his sister to Avimelech, King of the Philistines. However, the Abraham of the abduction of Sarah by Pharaoh has changed.
But, and here’s what’s troublesome. Sarah was taken advantage of, told to lie to protect her husband and through it all she was silenced. She made no demands and asked for no explanations. What could she have done or said to change things? And so there’s a silence shrouding the outcome of these abduction stories. But in today’s world women no longer need to remain silent. Indeed, today Sarah, together with women all over the world who likewise were abused by men in power and those who were bystanders to their pain, today Sarah should sign in together with them # MeToo. Amen!