Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

“Say You Are My Sister” – A Deeper Look

Abraham –  Exemplar of Concern for Others

As we peruse the chapters in Sefer Bereshit showcasing the life of Avraham Avinu, we are struck time and again by his extraordinary and almost indiscriminate level of compassionate concern for others. G-D tells him lech lecha, journey to a land which I will show you and I will make of you a great nation. Naturally his wife Sarah is included in the directive. Not so his acquisitive nephew, Lot. But Lot is an orphan, and it is unthinkable of Abraham to leave him behind. Eventually, Lot’s avariciousness compels Abraham to part company from him, yet subsequently the patriarch unhesitatingly places himself in mortal danger to rescue his nephew from captivity. Triumphant in that act of rescue, Abraham refuses the spoils of war to which he is entitled but insists on his allies being rewarded.

Ten years after G-D’s promise to make him the founder of a great nation, Sarah is still childless. She has a maidservant, Hagar, and according to the convention of the times Abraham could have taken her as a co-wife even without Sarah’s consent. But he does not even so much as broach the matter. Sarah does!

This week’s sidra opens with Abraham ignoring his post-b’rit mila pain (he was ninety-nine at the time) and desperately seeking – and being granted – guests to whom he can show hospitality. No sooner do they leave than G-D tells him He is about to destroy wicked cities including Sodom where Lot resides. Abraham prays impassionedly not only for Lot but for the saving of the entire cities. Later in the parasha, after Abraham has at last sired Isaac his longed-for son by Sarah, his other much older son by Hagar, Ishmael, relentlessly bullies his young half-brother. Sarah wants Ishmael banished from the family home. Abraham complies but with a heart overflowing with compassion for his older son, notwithstanding his waywardness,

In all the incidents cited, not a hint of selfish concern is evident. Abraham is about as selfless an individual as it is possible to find.

Why does Abraham Leave the Promised Land for Egypt?

I would like to suggest that Abraham’s yerida, his surprising descent to Egypt soon after arriving in Erets Canaan (as it was then called), the “promised land” to which he had been Divinely directed, was also fuelled by selflessness and concern for others.

The Torah tells us that there was “a famine in the Land” and that it was kaveid, “severe” (Gen 12:10). If so, why does Lot not accompany Abraham and Sarah to Egypt? And what about “the souls (proselytes) they had made in Haran”(12:5)?  Weren’t they also affected by the famine?

The plot thickens. Abraham and Sarah were hardly in Egypt any time before returning to Canaan. Had the famine ended so quickly?

The subsequent episode may shed some light on this. The Torah tells us that “Lot …[also] had flocks, cattle and tents, and the Land could not support them dwelling together for their possessions were [too] abundant” (13:5-6). Presumably the Land was still struggling to produce adequate nourishment in the wake of the famine.

I venture to suggest that not very much had changed in that short timeThe “famine”, in objective terms, was probably no more than a food shortage. But in Abraham’s eyes it was “severe”. Lot as well as Abraham’s other disciples were not so bothered about competing with the local Canaanites, whose land it then was, for the meagre resources. However, it bothered Abraham greatly that he too would have to compete with the then-indigenous population – and it went against his selfless nature. Righteous, kind Abraham regarded as the lesser of the two evils ab initio journeying with Sarah to Egypt where there was plenty of food and where they would not be a drain on the society at a time of hunger.

“Please Say You Are My Sister!”

And so we arrive at the episode which constitutes the main thrust of this essay and which unsettles many whenever it is read, though it needn’t as I will try to show.

(At the outset, let me stress that the Torah never glosses over the mistakes and misjudgements of our great men and women. “There is not a tsadik on earth that only does good and never strays!” (Kohelet 7:20). Our classical commentators also do not shy away from criticism of the actions of our righteous ancestors when it is warranted. That said, among all the major commentators, only Ramban finds fault with Abraham’s behaviour in this episode.)

As they were about to enter Egypt, Abraham asks Sarah pleadingly – twice he uses the word na, “please” – for her permission to present her as his sister rather than his wife.  It is important to note that this is not a pretence. Sarah, alias Yisca (see Megila 14a), was Lot’s brother, hence Abraham’s niece.  Later, Abraham reminds Lot that “we are brothers” (13:8). As Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer remarks, “a brother’s son is like his own brother”. Today we use the word “cousin” intergenerationally. The terms “brother” and “sister” are similarly employed in Scripture. As Abraham later declares to Avimelech (20:12): “Indeed, she is my sister …and she became my wife!”. Even had Abraham been forced into falsehood due to the perceived danger to his life, it would have been justified. The fact is that Abraham tells Pharaoh no lie. He merely does not relate the whole story!

Why?  Let us explain it in Abraham’s own words with the elaboration of his thought-processes as understood by our Torah commentators: You are exceptionally beautiful!  When the Egyptians see you, if they think you are my wife ,they will kill me [as they will reason that will be the best way to procure you for the king] but you they will keep alive [for a fate worse than death, and I won’t be around to protect you or to entreat for you]. Please say you are my sister, so that it will be well with me for your sake (ba’avureich) and so that I can stay alive in your interest (biglaleich) (12:11-13)

Abraham acts totally in character. His concern is for Sarah. The Egyptians, xenophobic like most of the ancient nations, cannot abide seeing a beautiful woman married to a foreigner. Abraham is convinced they will kill him as a husband. As a brother, however, he believes they will negotiate. This will give the couple time to make their escape. As it turns out, he judges the Egyptians too kindly. Pharaoh’s henchmen abduct her unceremoniously and without warning. Ultimately Pharaoh, humiliated but unrepentant, makes it clear to Abraham and Sarah that they are no longer welcome in his country.

Help Yourself – Then Trust that G-D will Help!

So far we have examined the morality of Abraham’s conduct and have found it flawless. His concern was principally for Sarah’s welfare.

How about the wisdom of his conduct? Was Abraham wise to rely on his hunches about the inner workings of the Egyptian aristocratic minds? Ultimately, he was found to be wrong about the negotiating.

However, he was proven correct about the most important consideration, namely that he would not be killed and thus be there for Sarah. Hence he sees no reason not to employ the same strategy when he journeys to Gerar, bastion of the Philistine clans and their king, Avimelech.(20:2-3). His son Isaac will do likewise (26:7).

In so doing, both Abraham and Isaac act in accordance with a basic ideological principle in Torah, namely that there has to be the right balance between hishtadlut, human effort and bitachon, trust in G-D.

In his classic work Chovot HaLevovot, Rabenu Bachaya (c.1050-c.1120) teaches that we are required to act b’derech ha-teva, in a normal manner and not to rely solely on Divine intervention (ein somchim al ha-nes). But once we have done all we can, we must know the outcome is not in our hands and we are ultimately reliant upon G-D.

Abraham does all he can to protect himself and Sarah through hishtadlut. However when things do not go according to plan, Abraham is serene and calm. He trusts in Hashem (bitachon). And he is not disappointed. G-D brings severe afflictions on Pharaoh rendering him impotent. In Gerar, He appears to Avimelech in a dream warning him of Sarah’s true status. Sarah is not compromised in either scenario.

It is significant that 1,400 years later, Mordechai acts in exactly the same way. He attempts to hide Esther from the king’s emissaries. When despite all his efforts (hishtadlut), Esther is taken into the harem and eventually becomes Queen, Mordechai has absolute bitachon, trust, that it is part of the Divine plan. No doubt he takes his cue and his inspiration from the pioneering example of our first founding patriarch.

Ma’aseh avot siman le-banim. The deeds of our righteous ancestors are a signpost and a beacon of light for their descendants!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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