The concept of “ma’asei avot, siman la’banim” (the experiences of the parents are an omen for the children), which runs throughout the Book of Genesis, is not limited to one or two generations; the great commentator Nahmanides notes continuous allusions to the events of subsequent Jewish history in the narratives of the Torah.
In the case of Abram and Sarai in Egypt, who left Israel for Egypt because of famine, one sacred text records, “the first Hebrew couple committed a sin, albeit inadvertently,” and that it is because of this sin that their descendants had to be enslaved in Egypt [cf. commentary of Nahmanides].
A careful reading of these verses will reveal an even deeper connection between the earlier experiences of Abram and Sarai in Egypt and the eventual Jewish enslavement by the Egyptians, with major lessons for us today.
For example, in Genesis, Pharaoh takes Sarai into his harem, where he intends to enslave her. In Exodus, Pharaoh takes the Jewish people into Egypt, where he enslaves them. To ensure the conclusion of Sarai’s enslavement before she is violated, God sends plagues (negaim gedolim) on the Egyptians. When God wants to put an end to the Israelite enslavement, he casts ten plagues upon Egypt. In Genesis, Pharaoh sends Abram away with gifts and material wealth; when Pharaoh finally releases the Israelites from Egypt, the former slaves carry oﬀ vessels of gold and silver.
Abram in Egypt certainly foreshadows the slavery of the Jews. If we are to find an ethical teaching in Abram’s Egyptian sojourn, then the Egyptian enslavement must provide not only ‘measure for measure’ punishment, but also a moral message for all subsequent generations.
We have already seen that Nahmanides views Abram’s leaving the land of Israel, even for reasons of famine, as an inadvertent transgression. In light of the events that took place in Egypt, it is clear that no matter how tantalizing life in exile may appear to be from an economic point of view, a descendant of Abraham and Sarah must never move away from God’s holy and promised Land of Israel. If it seems diﬃcult to survive in our own land, it will be much more diﬃcult to make it in a land in which we are strangers! This is a leitmotif that repeats itself throughout the Torah.
As far as Abram’s actions vis-a-vis Sarai are concerned, we may justify them by saying that had he said nothing, he would have been killed and Sarai would have ended up in Pharaoh’s harem in any case. However, we cannot possibly justify his inelegant language, in which he asks that Sarai claim to be his sister ‘so that they may be good to me for your sake.’
Apparently, Abram anticipates that Pharaoh will also give him gifts once the beautiful Sarai is harem-bound. Even if the profit he reaps was only a post facto dividend, his choice of words conveys the notion that Sarai is being used to further Abram’s ends. I believe the Torah is teaching us that here, too, Abram sinned inadvertently.
Our interpersonal relationships, especially between husband and wife, must be devoid of any of the subtle ways used in taking advantage of one another, even if done unintentionally. We tend to take advantage of people, or at least to take them for granted – especially those who are closest to us. We tend to forget that each person must be seen as his or her own ultimate reality, an end unto him/herself.
Using someone else as a means to our own ends, merely in order to fulfill our goals, is a subtle form of slavery. Slavery is made possible by dehumanizing a fellow human being, seeing him or her as an object for our purposes rather than a subject in his or or her own right. Thus, the parallelism between the Egyptian experience of Abram and Sarai in the Book of Genesis and the Egyptian experience of their descendants in the Book of Exodus conveys two crucial lessons.
First, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah must learn that no foreign country will ever provide a political and cultural homeland for the nation of the covenant. Joseph’s family settled in Egypt with great expectations of security and respectability, only to be enlisted in Pharaoh’s slave-based systematic design that ultimately robbed them of their elementary rights to freedom and life itself.
Second, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah must have seared into their consciousness the fundamental evil which is slavery in any and all of its forms, and to always be mindful of the humanity of every person. “You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” declares the Torah [Deut. 10:19].
Faithfulness to our homeland and respect for every human being as an end in and of him/herself are the principles upon which our nation was formed. Have we learned these lessons?
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.