What the story of Avraham and Sarah in Egypt teaches us about the ideal relationship between husband and wife
This week’s Torah portion begins with Gd’s call to Avraham to Lech Lecha (go forward your sake) from Charan (in northern Syria) to an unknown land due south.
Since the start of time, humans had confounded Gd with their ability to make the wrong choices. Gd had tried to reset the world, expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, wiping out the entire earth in a Flood during Noah’s life and mixing up languages of the generation of the Tower of Babel before dispersing them throughout the entire earth to keep them at bay.
But the problems persisted, so Gd looked around and found the best human alive, selecting Avraham to be Humanity 3.0. As Gd’s Chosen, Avraham was tasked with performing a literal Tikkun Olam, by living in the world according to the plan that Gd intended for it.
Avraham heeded Gd’s call and left Charan, taking with him his wife, Sarah, his nephew, Lot and all of the rechush (possessions) and the nefesh (followers or slaves) that they had accumulated. His journey brought him to Canaan, but when he found a famine there, Avraham decided to go down to Egypt in order to find food.
On the way to Egypt, Avraham realized that his wife’s beauty might pose a problem for him – the Egyptians would see Sarah, inquire about her availability and then kill Avraham so that they could take her for themselves in good conscience. So Avraham requested to Sarah:
אִמְרִי־נָא אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ לְמַעַן יִיטַב־לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ
Say, please, that you are my sister, so that they will do good to me for you, and my nefesh will live because of you.
Many commentators are troubled by Avraham’s actions: How could Avraham knowingly put Sarah in that position? How could humanity’s “great hope” actually cause Pharoah to commit adultery, one of the sins for which the world was destroyed? And, how could Avraham, at a time of such imminent danger, think about financial gain? Is this how Humanity 3.0 is supposed to act?
Avraham’s actions were definitely suspect. However, focusing on him alone can cause one to miss something of great significance that happened during this journey to Egypt, which transformed the relationship between Avraham and Sarah and achieved a Tikkun in the relationship between husband and wife.
When humans were originally created, Gd fashioned them in the likeness of gods, creating both male and female. Some say that the first human was actually male and female in one. Regardless, the order of creation and the ascription to tzelem elohim (image of Gd) seems to imply that Man and Woman were intended to be equal.
In the next chapter, though, the Torah presents a different story about the creation of humans. Man was formed from the ground but could not find an “ezer ke’negdo” from amongst all of the animals of Gd’s creation, so Gd took the rib of AdAm and formed Woman from it. Man named this new creation, “Isha because from man this was taken.” Here, Man came first chronologically, and in naming Isha, Man began to exert authority over Woman. This new, unequal dichotomy was further entrenched following the sin of the Etz HaDaat, when the Isha was told, “And to your Man you will cling, and he will control you.”
By the time Avraham and Sarah set out for Egypt, the relationship between Man and Woman (husband and wife) had deteriorated further. The term used in the first 11 chapters of Torah for “marrying,” derives from the root word לקח (to take), which implies that whatever was being taken was acted upon and lacked any form of autonomy. Indeed, just before the call to Lech Lecha, this same language is used to describe Avraham’s marriage to Sarah, and when Avraham heeded Gd’s call and set out due south, the Torah relates – וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ (and he took his wife).
So, as Avraham and Sarah headed toward Egypt, the status of their relationship was one of לקח (to take). Sarah was an object to be moved from one location to the next, to have her decisions made for her and lacking any agency herself. Indeed, Sarah never even spoke during this whole incident, even as she was taken to Pharaoh!
After the “A-Pharaoh”, though, when the couple left Egypt to return to Cana’an, the Torah does not use the term וַיִּקַּח – that Avraham took Sarah with him. Instead it says – וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Avraham and his wife went up from Egypt; He and his wife. Something had changed in their relationship wherein Sarah could no longer be acted upon without consent but had to go with Avraham of her own free will.
But when and how did Sarah achieve this status?
The answer lies in the request that Avraham made to her as they approached Egypt, Fearing for his life, Avraham asked Sarah to say that she is his sister so that the Egyptians would do good to him – וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ – and my nefesh will live because of you.
Most (all?) translations of the word nefesh in this case explain that it means soul/life – that Avraham was crediting Sarah with saving his life. However, just a few verses earlier in the story – when describing Avraham’s entourage that he took to Canaan – we are told that Avraham took Sarah and Lot, all their possessions – וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן (and the nefesh that they made in Charan). In that case, Biblical commentators explain that the word refers to the slaves or followers that Avraham had accrued in Charan, and not actual lives.
If we apply that translation of nefesh here, Avraham’s words shouldn’t be read as him explaining to Sarah why she had to lie (so that his soul will live) but instead should be read as Avraham making her an offer. In exchange for “playing along” to save him, Avraham offered Sarah full and equal ownership of his possessions (rechush) and followers (nefesh).
This agreement also entitled Sarah to an equal share in all that Avrahm would gain in the future, essentially transforming Avraham’s Lech Lecha (go for your sake) into a Lech Lechem (go for your sakes) for Avraham and Sarah.
As they left Egypt, Sarah had become a fully autonomous person with agency, and her relationship with Avraham had changed. She could no longer be taken by him but had to decide to go up with him.
As an equal partner, a part of Gd’s world was restored to its intended existence. It would be this Humanity 3.0 – Avraham and Sarah – that would set about repairing the rest of it.