One of the things I find most inspiring about studying Torah is that the biblical characters are human. They may be our valorized, mythical ancestors, but they also consistently make mistakes, leaving a record of paradigmatic human foibles from which we can learn. There is one biblical failure, however, that I have always struggled to understand as a useful example. It occurs for the first time in this week’s parashah, as Avram goes to Egypt to avoid the famine in Canaan:
As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”
When Avram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was. Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace. And because of her, it went well with Avram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.
Each time I read Parashat Lech Lecha, I want to scream—how could Avram describe Sarai as unmarried and allow her to be taken into Pharaoh’s harem?! Later in the parashah Avram bravely gallops off to war to save his kidnapped nephew Lot, yet here he puts his wife at risk of sexual exploitation to protect himself. Worse, only a few chapters later Avram refuses to be sullied by “so much as a sandal strap” of the spoils of war, but this passage implies that Avram accepted a great deal of wealth in return for this appalling quasi-sale of his wife.
The medieval biblical commentator Ramban seems similarly disturbed by Avram’s actions, saying “know that our father Avraham sinned grievously . . . because he feared for his life.” While Ramban condemns these actions, he and other commentaries emphasize that Avram’s fears were legitimate. Rashi points out that the story ends with Pharaoh sending Avram and Sarai away with armed guards, which Rashi believes Pharaoh finds necessary to protect them from the Egyptians, who are prone to violent and immoral attacks on travelers.
While this context of vulnerability does soften the story somewhat, it is Ramban’s next comment that finally enables me to learn from this troubling story. He sees this passage as an example of ma’aseh avot siman l’banim, the idea that the actions of biblical ancestors cosmically influence future events for the Jewish people. In this case, Ramban asserts that Avram’s sin causes the future enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. On a simple level, Ramban associates Avram’s travel to Egypt with his descendants’ later enslavement in the same place. However, I believe the connection between the two episodes runs deeper.
Throughout the story, Avram relates to Sarai not as a person, but as a tool that can bring him safety and as a commodity whose sale can bring him wealth. This dehumanization of Sarai creates a pattern: Avram engages in the same deception again later in his life, and his son Isaac tells the identical lie about his wife, Rebecca. Perhaps this action led to the enslavement of the Israelites because it indicates that the idea that a person could be a tool or commodity had become part of the culture of the community. Avram’s descendants thus needed to experience being exploited themselves in order to break their negative pattern of dehumanizing others. Only as former slaves could they fully understand how destructive this mindset is and most deeply appreciate the personhood and rights of themselves and all other people.
Around the world today, many women are, like Sarai, viewed by their men and by society as tools and commodities rather than as people—particularly in situations where they, too, are made vulnerable by displacement from their homes and communities. In Liberia, women refugees fleeing violence in their native Côte d’Ivoire have reported being offered food and housing by local villagers—on the condition that they accept their hosts’ sexual advances, as well. Cambodian women who work as domestic help in Malaysia are frequently denied freedom of movement and are exposed to terrible work conditions. These women and others around the world are treated as means for the fulfillment of others’ desires, rather than as people with their own desires and rights to security and freedom.
How can we break this damaging cycle? Is a communal experience of slavery the only way to teach that all people must be treated as human beings with rights? Our parashah offers another way forward, by way of a striking omission from the story—that of Sarai’s voice. Strangely, even though Avram asks Sarai for her permission or cooperation with his plan, her response is missing. In fact, she never speaks at all, nor does the narrator tell us what happens to her in Pharaoh’s palace. Here, then, is what we need to do to break the pattern—we must create opportunities for women to raise their voices and share their experiences so that it will be impossible to ignore their stories, their personhood and their rights. Only then can women forge their own destinies, breaking the cycles of slavery and abuse and achieving equality and freedom.
Click here for the annotated Dvar Tzedek.
Sarah Mulhern is a Program Associate in the Department of Experiential Education at AJWS. In that role, she develops educational resources including curricula, prayers, divrei Torah, and text studies; and teaches and speaks on behalf of the organization. She also manages On1Foot, the online portal for Jewish texts and social justice. Prior to joining AJWS, Sarah taught at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and in the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies’ Social Justice Track. She studied at Pardes from 2008-2010 and at Yeshivat Hadar in 2008. Sarah holds a BA from Brandeis University in History and Political Science. Sarah can be reached at email@example.com.