Akiva Gersh
Akiva Gersh

The biblical Sarah would also be saying #MeToo today

It’s pretty extraordinary to see how social media can impact the world sometimes. For all of the countless productive hours it rips away from our lives, every now and then it shines a light of purpose. Such is the #MeToo campaign, creating a space for women across the globe to share that, they too, have experienced pain, embarrassment and suffering at the hands of men who believed that their sexual desires were more important than the dignity and self-worth of women. It has emphasized just how many of the everyday people we know have been subject to such mistreatment. Just how many of our “friends” have walked around for years with memories of a man, or men, violating their sacred personal space. For me, it’s been overwhelming, shocking, and deeply eye-opening.

Where this campaign will go, and how many high-profile men will be exposed for their lewd, selfish and violent sexual behavior, only time will tell. But what we do know, unfortunately, is that this is not a new problem. That since time immemorial women have been subject to the sexual whims of power-wielding men and have often borne it silently in a world that doesn’t want to hear or, sadly, doesn’t really care.

Though most people remember this week’s Torah portion — ”Lech L’cha” — as the dramatic beginning of the story of the Jewish people and their intimate relationship with the land of Israel, it also contains in it the earliest record, in Jewish texts, of sexual harassment.

We learn that shortly after Avraham and Sarah arrived in the Land of Canaan, they experienced drought and needed to descend to Egypt to find food. On the way there, Avraham says to Sarah that once the Egyptians notice her beauty, if Avraham tells them that she is his wife, they will kill him and take her. So Avraham asks Sarah to tell a little white lie and say that she is his sister so that he shall live.

And that’s exactly what happens.

Before going on with the story, let’s just stop there and think about how crazy that is. Because of Sarah’s physical appearance, Avraham fears two things: that he will be killed and she will be taken, as we can assume, as a sex slave. What the???

But let’s continue…

Upon arriving in Egypt, ministers of Pharaoh see Sarah, extol her beauty to him and, as Avraham predicted, take her to his palace. We are told that Avraham is then showered with gifts, as if all of this is totally normal. As if they are demonstrating their kindness and humanity by showing their appreciation for having the opportunity to take Sarah against her will and bring her to the king. With all due respect to Avraham, there is no mention of him saying or doing anything. No words, no action, no protest.

Maybe that’s why in the very next verse, God the Almighty gets directly involved. And clears house.

We are told that God punishes Pharaoh with a skin affliction. From the simple meaning of the text, we might think it’s just a little rash on his arm, something a trip to the pharmacy would easily clear up. But God’s much better than that. The midrash (oral teachings) explains that the affliction was given to Pharaoh right where he deserved it- on his sexual organ. Yes, the punishment fits the crime.

This whole story takes only ten verses to tell and then the Torah quickly moves onto to Avraham and Sarah’s return to Canaan. It’s easy to read this story and think not much of it, if anything at all.

But that’s not how the Torah is meant to be read. It’s not a regular book to read on the couch at night before passing out. It’s a text that requires and demands contemplation if it is to be truly understood. We learn that each story of the Torah contains a timeless message for all of humanity. Sometimes these life lessons are imbedded in stories that take chapters to tell. And sometimes only ten verses are necessary.

So what’s the take-away here? I think it’s three-fold.

First is the acknowledgment and awareness of the sad and unfortunate reality that there have always been men who believe that women are but objects to be used and abused as their desires see fit. That the issues of sexual harassment, assault and abuse we see in our world today have deep roots that stretch back to ancient times and that if we want to fix and to heal, it will involve the careful and patient uprooting and transformation of deeply ingrained ideas and perceptions.

Avraham knew exactly how the Egyptians would act towards him and Sarah, though, as far as we know, he had never before been there. He knew of their cruel and insensitive ways with women, either because their reputation was known around the world, or because this is how all people in all lands acted back then. How intense and how sad.

Second take-away:

It always seemed strange to me that even before Avraham and Sarah had enough time to get to know their new home in Canaan, the land they were promised would be the homeland of their descendants, there was a famine that drove them from the land and caused them to go down to Egypt. But, in this context, it is starting to make more sense to me. Maybe, just maybe, God pulled the strings to make this happen so that they could visit their new neighbors and see what’s happening over the border. Before they could even take the first formative steps of nation building, God wanted to open their eyes to the cruelty and injustice that human beings are capable of so that they understand that starting a new religion or a new country is not for the sake of wave-flagging or anthem-singing, but rather to create a new reality for humankind, to set upon a new course and be an example for the world, a world that all too often forgets that all human beings, men and women alike, are made in the divine image.

Third take away:

The importance of not remaining silent. Avraham was. God wasn’t. God was Avraham’s spiritual guide, his teacher, and was using the power of personal example to show him how he wanted him to be in the world. How he needed to be. To teach him not to be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Though Avraham already had this strength in him in his fight against polytheism and the smashing of his father’s idols, he wasn’t fully there yet. He needed to speak out against any and all forms of ungodly injustice, to let it be known that morality was not relative, but rather universal.

God was teaching Avraham that no one is above the law. That in the world that he was being entrusted to create even the most powerful ruler on the planet had to live according to certain laws and values and would be held accountable for any and all actions that didn’t reflect these.

That’s what is so awesome about the #MeToo campaign. It is helping men and women alike to not remain silent. To acknowledge the misuse and abuse of power and position in our society and to hold accountable those who believe they could do whatever they want to whomever they whenever they want. In speaking out, a conversation is being had that could potentially fix a problem in our society that is thousands of years old.

3,500 years ago, our matriarch Sarah experience tragedy. Trauma. Harassment and abuse. And neither she nor her husband ever talked about it again. Today, I believe she would stand up and scream out “#MeToo!!” and join the movement, if not lead the movement, to give women a stronger voice and to help bring about a world in which women could fully be themselves in society without fear and without fright.

Kain y’hi ratzon. May it be soon in our days.

About the Author
Akiva Gersh is the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (www.becomingisraeli.com), a compilation of blogs and essays that speak of the inspiring and the sometimes wacky and crazy experience of making aliyah. Akiva himself made aliyah in 2004 with his wife Tamar and they live in Pardes Hanna with their four kids. He teaches Jewish history at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel in Hod HaSharon. He is also a musician and in 2010 formed Holy Land Spirit, an uplifting and spiritual musical experience for Christian groups visiting Israel.
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