Avraham and Sarah move to the Land of Canaan only to be met by famine. Avraham decides to move to Egypt, a country unaffected by rain or lack thereof. On the border, while waiting in line at passport control, Avraham looks at Sarah and notices her stunning beauty. Fearing that he will be killed by an Egyptian suitor, he tells her [Bereishit 12:12], “Please say [that] you are my sister, in order that it go well with me because of you and that my soul may live because of you”. This sounds kind of lurid. What does Avraham mean when he hopes that things “go well with me”? Rashi answers that Avraham was hoping that not only would the Egyptians spare his life, but that they would shower him with gifts. All this while the Pharaoh was ravishing his wife.
In some ways, Avraham’s actions reminded me of “Indecent Exposure”, a movie filmed nearly twenty-five years ago. Robert Redford, who still looked like Robert Redford, is a billionaire who falls for Demi Moore, who happens to be very happily married to Woody Harrelson. Redford offers Harrelson one million dollars in exchange for one night with his wife. After much discussion, Harrelson and Moore, who could really use the money, agree to Redford’s proposal. Redford picks up Moore in his car as the sun is setting and returns her to her husband the next morning, after which Moore’s marriage with Harrelson is destroyed. I would like to find a way to explain Avraham’s actions in a way that makes him look less like Woody Harrelson and more like Avraham Avinu.
A good place to start is with the commentary of the Ramban. The Ramban espouses a recurring hypothesis throughout the Book of Bereishit, and that is that everything that happened to our forefathers is a prelude to something that will eventually happen to their descendants. In the words of our Sages, “Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim” – “Actions of the fathers are signs for the sons”. Avraham’s exploits in Egypt are a classic example of this concept: Avraham moved to Egypt to wait out a famine. The Egyptians exploited Avraham and kidnapped his wife. Hashem punished the Egyptians with a horrible affliction and Pharaoh sent official personnel to escort Avraham and Sarah out of Egypt with great wealth. Two hundred years later, Avraham’s descendants moved to Egypt to wait out a famine, the Egyptians exploited them and took their wives, Hashem punished the Egyptians with ten plagues, and finally Pharaoh threw Am Yisrael out of Egypt along with all of Egypt’s liquid assets. The Ramban concludes that “there was nothing that happened to the father that did not happen to the sons”. The Ramban summarizes by quoting a Midrash in which Hashem commands Avraham to “pave the way” for his descendants.
Rav Shmuel Borenstein, the second Sochatchover Rebbe, writing in “Shem mi’Shmuel”, explains Avraham’s Indecent Proposal with the above explanation of the Ramban. The Shem mi’Shmuel suggests that the reason that Avraham was so insistent that the Egyptians give him money was because he knew that he was paving the way for his descendants. If he were to leave Egypt empty-handed, so would his descendants. He couldn’t let that happen, and so he lets the Pharaoh have his way with his wife.
Call me a heretic, but this still doesn’t sound good. In Brit Bein Ha’Betarim, the “Covenant of the Pieces”, Hashem tells Avraham that his children will be slaves in a strange land. They will endure slavery and duress for four hundred years. But when they leave, Hashem promises, they will do so [Bereishit 15:14] “with great wealth”. Most of the medieval commentators explain that this refers to gold and silver that Am Yisrael took from the Egyptians before their departure. Although this is generally the accepted explanation, it is not without its difficulties. Why didn’t Avraham appeal to Hashem to rescind his decree as he did when Hashem informed him of the impending destruction of Sodom? A Polish mother might ask “He can pray for strangers but for his own children he has nothing to say?” It must mean that Avraham understood that the slavery and suffering that his children would undergo was necessary; that the end would justify the means. But how can any sum of money compensate for what happened in Egypt? Babies were thrown into the Nile River and were mixed into cement to become parts of buildings. Am Yisrael were physically and spiritually reduced to the point that had they been reduced any further, they would have ceased to exist. Can anyone put a price tag on this?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, asserts that the “great wealth” that Am Yisrael received when they left Egypt was good “middot” (attributes). Like gold and silver in a forge, their suffering purified their souls. Taking this idea one step further, I suggest that the “great wealth” that Hashem promised Avraham’s descendants was the Torah. Receiving the Torah is the only gift that could justify what Am Yisrael endured in Egypt. Avraham understood that his descendants must first be forged into one nation with a common past and a common destiny. Only then could they receive their “great wealth” – Hashem’s Torah. Only after they had paid the ultimate price would they be able to receive the ultimate gift.
Let’s try to roll this explanation into “Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim”. Avraham’s Egyptian foray was a precursor to the Egyptian exile, and as such it was a microcosm of the future Egypt experience. In order for Am Yisrael to survive an exile for four-hundred years they would have to learn how to retain their identity under the greatest adversity. Otherwise, there would be nobody left to redeem. As slaves, they would be limited in the performance of ritual and that as a result their spirituality would suffer. But they had to be willing to do whatever they could do to be as Jewish as they could be, given the circumstances. How many stories have we heard about Jews in concentration camps who risked their lives just to eat a piece of matzo on Pesach or just to put on Tefillin? These were the people that enabled Judaism to survive the Holocaust. These people learnt this message from their ancestors in the Egyptian exile, and those people learnt it from Avraham Avinu.
Now let’s take a closer look at Avraham’s portfolio. After Avraham is thrown out of Egypt, he was extremely wealthy [Bereishit 12:16]: “He had flocks and cattle and he-donkeys and men servants and maid servants, and she-donkeys and camels”. A few verses later the Torah adds that Avraham also owned extensive amounts of [Bereishit 13:2] “cattle, silver, and gold”. Avraham was not the only person to accrue wealth in Egypt. His nephew Lot, who accompanied him to Egypt, also struck it rich [Bereishit 2:16]: “[Lot] had flocks and cattle and tents”. Notice that Lot’s portfolio was different than Avraham’s. Using modern terminology, we could say that Avraham’s portfolio was much more diversified than Lot’s. Now if we substitute the word “Torah” for the word “wealth”, something else becomes clear: Lot’s commitment under adversity was only a fraction of Avraham’s. He could pick and choose. Avraham was fully committed to Hashem, come what may. Lot’s commitment was conditional at best and deficient at worst. The two men cannot live together. Lot moves to Sodom and leaves Avraham and his god far behind.
When Avraham arrives in Egypt, he knows what awaits him. When he expresses his hope that “things go well for him”, he is asking Hashem to help him to maintain his commitment even while his beloved wife is ripped from his hands. Avraham was indeed “paving the way” for his descendants. For four thousand years Am Yisrael have been subjected to the worst kinds of adversity. But our existence today as a nation is a direct result of our power to remain close to Hashem even when He is a million miles away.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.
 See our shiur of Beshalach 5762.
 Hashem eventually shortened the exile to a mere two hundred and ten years.
 Lot was rewarded for not telling the Egyptians that Sarah and Avraham were actually husband and wife.