Rabbi Yosef Edelstein
(November 8, 1997)
Does anyone remember last year's highly publicized Bill Moyers series
on the book of Bereishis, "Genesis: A Living Conversation?" From what I
understand, it basically consisted of various study sessions on topics in Bereishis,
featuring an eclectic assortment of writers and
scholars from various religious (or non-religious) perspectives.
The main inspiration for the program was Rabbi Burton
Visotsky of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who conducted some of the sessions.
Though I didn't watch the program, I did see a piece in the Sunday New York Times Magazine
on Visotsky. He explained that his goal was to knock the Torah down off of its
pedestal, to rescue it from the tiredly pious
readings of Sunday school teachers. In other words, to really understand what those
patriarchs and matriarchs were
all about, in terms we moderns can relate to. To employ a bit of healthy irreverence
to open up new shades of meaning in the text...and so on and so forth.
I will never forget one remark he made regarding an incident in
this week's parsha. Visotsky referred to Avraham Avinu (Abraham) acting like
a...well, let us tiredly pious folk just say it's a four-letter word meaning,
"someone who procures customers for women of ill-repute," which rhymes with
"blimp." Catch my drift?
Definitely no pedestal there! A refreshingly bold assessment
of our forefather, you say?
One wonders, though, if it is an accurate reading of Avraham's behavior--however
liberating it may be to talk that way about Scriptural figures.
Let's have a look at the story to which Visotsky is alluding. And we'll try to give
Avraham the benefit of the doubt long enough to see if we can find, with the help of our
great commentators (and their profound understanding of Torah and human behavior), a more
favorable explanation that even the skeptics among us can live with.
The background is as follows: at the beginning of the parsha,
Avraham is called on by Hashem to forsake his home (Charan) in Mesopotamia, and to head
for an unspecified land where he would be blessed with wealth and children (Rashi), and
would be able to find a somewhat more receptive audience for his monotheistic teachings
(Munk, The Call of the Torah:I, p. 155). He obeys the command, leaving with his wife
(who is also his niece), Sarah, and her
brother, Lot, and followed by the disciples they had attracted in Charan; Avraham is 75
years old, and Sarah is 10 years younger. They arrive in Canaan, where Hashem
appears to Avraham and promises to give the land to his offspring. They continue
travelling south, teaching local inhabitants about the way of G-d as they go.
The Torah then states the following:
There was a famine in the land, and Avraham descended to Egypt to sojourn there, for the
famine was severe in the land. And it occurred, as he was about to enter Egypt, he
said to his wife, Sarai, 'See now, I have known that you are a woman of beautiful
appearance. And it shall occur, when the Egyptians will see you, they will say,
'This is his wife!'; then they will kill me, but you they will let live. Please say
that you are my sister, that it may go well with me for your sake, and that I may live on
account of you. (Chapter 12, 10-13; Artscroll Chumash, p. 57)
Pharaoh's officials end up spotting Sarah, and they decide that she must be the
sovereign's basherte! She is taken to the palace. Avraham is lavished with
gifts from a resumably
lovestruck Pharaoh, making him quite wealthy (he gives it all away later to his sons,
according to Rashi). Before the would-be consummation of this marriage, Hashem
plague on Pharaoh which prevents him from having relations, and assorted maladies on the
rest of his household. Pharaoh guesses the reason for this divine visitation: the
woman must already be married. He summons Avraham, reproves him for not revealing
the truth about Sarah, and sends him out of the country.
There is no doubt that it's a strange story, and needs clarification. First of all, how
could Avraham abandon the land to which he was led by Hashem Himself? Second, and
more pertinent to our discussion, was Avraham, in fact, peddling his wife to save his own
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt'l, the great German thinker and champion of Orthodoxy,
prefaces his discussion by warning us, in our study of Chumash, against the very same
pedestal-raising that Visotsky deplores "The Torah never hides from us the faults,
errors and weaknesses of our great men. Just by that, it gives the stamp of veracity
to what it relates. Were they without passion and without internal struggles, their
virtues would seem to us the outcome of some highter nature,hardly a merit and certainly
no model that we could hope to emulate...
From our great teachers of the Torah...we would accordingly
learn that it may never be our task to whitewash the spiritual
and moral heroes of our past, to appear as apologists for them. They do not require our
apologies, nor do such attempts become them.Truth is the seal of our Torah, and
truthfulness is the principle of all its true and great commentators and teachers."
(Hirsch Chumash: I, ibid., p. 237)
Hirsch goes on to quote the Ramban, who comes down strongly against Avraham here. Ramban
declares that Avraham sinned both by leaving the land of Canaan, and
by bringing his wife into such spiritual danger; in both cases, he should have trusted in
Hashem to save them. But note well: even Ramban is not saying that Avraham was
coarse, or immoral. Rather, he transgressed unintentionally and with pure motives:
he did not want to rely on miracles, a classic
trait of the righteous, either with regard to the famine or to his own mortal danger in
the land of Egypt. Ramban feels,however, that Avraham--on his exalted spiritual
level--should have shown more bitachon, more trust in the Almighty.
We can certainly understand that the story about Sarah's being his sister was a ruse to
try to buy time. Maharal explains that he never dreamed she would be seized by
Pharaoh or his men, since this was not the usual way of a sovereign. Avraham was
more worried about the general
populace. And here, Malbim explains, Avraham reasoned that as her
"brother," he would be treated as her guardian, and anyone who wanted to marry
her would have to get
his permission first. Avraham would then set her "price" higher than any
citizen could pay, and she would end
up remaining with him, unharmed.
Hold on. You may ask, "Why was it better to call Sarah his sister than to just
present her as his wife? Surely, if anyone was going to want to seize her, it wouldn't
make the slightest
difference, right?" Rav Hirsch answers this quite sensibly, without
whitewashing (which he deplored) or, in any other way, offending the intellect:
"...we can conclude that virgins, unmarried women were more protected against the
prevailing immorality than married women...In both cases, married or
unmarried, Sarah's honor was in danger. But as a married woman, the danger would be
imminently threatening. One simply kills the objecting husband and rapes the wife.
In the case of an unmarried girl accompanied by her brother, one hopes to get her
the favor of that brother. In any case, this way takes longer,
postpones the matter, and in the meantime, G-d can help. This alternative Avraham
put to himself before they came to Egypt. And for Sarah's sake, he decided for it.
As a married woman, she would certainly be lost; as unmarried, there was still a
possible chance."(Hirsch Chumash: I, p. 238)
Hirsch further argues that the danger must have been very great indeed in those parts of
the world, for we see Avraham repeating the very same trick in the land of the
Philistines, later in the book of Bereishis (next week's parsha). If Avraham had
seen some other reasonable alternative, it's hard to believe that someone on his exalted
would have repeated it a second time! Or taught it to his son, for Yitzhak, too,
would employ it later.
Avraham's exalted spiritual level--this is the crux of the issue, above and beyond the
details of any particualr episode. Rabbi Visotsky would probably dispute that
Avraham's spiritual stature was so much greater than ours. This is the where his
idol-busting approach leads, in any case: reducing the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to our
own present (and dubious) spiritual level. They were just like us, we're just like them.
We're basically schleppers, and so were they.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler, zt'l, in commenting on this very parsha of Lech Lecha, writes that
the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were, in fact, far above where we stand: they
"...were worthy to cling to G-d with all their minds, hearts and beings, without any
interruption whatsoever; all of their
existence was given over to Hashem..." These individuals were human beings with
faults and foibles, it's true; Rav Hirsch has taught us that. But even Hirsch approaches
them with a sensible measure of humility, realizing that their ambitions, their kavannahs,
were far loftier than ours. In a profound way, they were DIFFERENT than we are--more
pure of heart, more ready for self-sacrifice...closer to G-d. The same, I might add,
could generally be said of our great-grandparents, of our bubbies and zadies.
One doesn't have to accept Hirsch's explanation of Avraham's behavior;one can side with
Ramban, and respectfully take issue with Avraham's decisions. One should examine
where the Avos erred...remembering, though, that they were Avos.
It comes down to your basic approach to Torah. To take it off its pedestal so
far that you reduce it to the level of Harold Robbins (or even, l'havdil, to the great
Tolstoy!), to characterize Avraham, the great pillar of chesed in our faith as a...okay,
I'll say it...pimp.....Well, it might make for good journalism, or impress your professor,
but, in the final
analysis, it's just plain sophomoric.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah
Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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