Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Lekh Lekha 5764/ November 8, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Lekh Lekha 5764/ November 8, 2003

On Sarah's Say-So

Dr. Yair Barkai

Much has been written about the trials faced by the patriarch Abraham from the moment he was commanded to leave his country and homeland up to the moment he was commanded to sacrifice his son, but little has been written about the trials of our matriarch Sarah who was constantly at his side. Our sages, in their sensitivity both to the human condition and the linguistic aspect of the text, expose these hidden levels and fill the gaps in the biblical stories through their Midrash. This is so also in the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Gen. 12: 14-19).

In the description of Sarah being taken to Pharaoh's palace and the consequences of this act, we read: "But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram".

The expression "al devar -- on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram" can be explained in the generally accepted sense, as Ibn Ezra does: 'because of', or one can follow Rashi who, relying on the Midrash, defines it literally: "according to her word [G-d punished Pharaoh], she tells the angel 'strike' and he strikes". The Hezkuni offers a similar explanation: "By her word - she said, 'I am the wife of Abram'". Radak adds:

On account of - So that they will not say that it was happenstance. And the Midrash says: the angel who was striking the Egyptians kept saying "this is because of Sarai the wife of Abraham". And the Peshat or straightforward meaning is: Because Pharaoh was trying to understand what brought on the plagues and thought that perhaps she was a married woman. He asked Sarai to tell him the truth and she told him that she was indeed Abraham's wife, [this is what is meant by "the words of Sarai"] but that because of her fear lest they kill him because of her, she said: 'He is my brother'.

Because all the above commentators draw on different sections of the same midrash, we will bring it in its entirety:[1]

And the princes of Pharaoh saw her and praised her unto Pharaoh. When Abraham saw this, he began to weep and supplicate the Holy One Blessed Be He: "Master of the Universe, is this to be my reward for my abiding faith in You? For the sake of your loving-kindness, do not put my trust in You to shame". Sarah likewise cried out: "Master of the Universe, I knew nothing at all, but when he told me that You commanded him: Get thee out of thy country, I trusted in Your word. Now I have been separated from my father, my mother, and my husband, and this evil man will approach me and abuse me. Act for the sake of Your great name, and because of my trust in Your word."

The Holy One Blessed Be He replied: "You may be certain that no harm will befall you or your husband, as it is written: No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked are filled with evil. (Prov. 12:21).

Furthermore, said the Lord, I will make an example of Pharaoh and his household, as it is said: And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of the word of Sarai (Gen. 12:17). What is indicated by the phrase Because of the word of Sarai? An angel descended with a staff from heaven at that moment, and when Pharaoh approached Sarai to remove her shoe, the angel struck him upon the hand, and when he approached to touch her clothing, the angel struck him again. However, the angel consulted Sarah before administering each blow. How do we know that? Because it is written: On the word of Sarai. Scripture does not say "Because of" or "For the sake of" or "On account of her merit" but Because of the word of Sarai. If Sarah told the angel to strike him, he struck him and if she told him to desist momentarily, he desisted.

The first part of the midrash takes the words of Sarai to be her supplication before the Lord that she not be put to the test. The second part gives the words a dramatic interpretation which ties them to the previous phrase, "But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh". According to the midrash, neither Abraham nor Sarah accept the trial in the house of Pharoah without protest but both attempt to nullify the oppressive decree. The Genesis Rabba version states this even more sharply than does the Tanhuma and ascribes a very difficult question to Sarah: "Shall Abraham remain outside the boat and I am to stay inside?" Beyond the metaphor of the sinking boat, Sarah's claim is a cry against injustice. From here we may learn that standing up to a trial or test by G-d, according to the midrashim of the Sages, does not necessarily mean accepting the hardship or decree without protest; despite the person's pleas to cancel the trial, which in this case were crowned with success, the situation is considered one of "undergoing the trial".[2]

[1] This aggadah appears in Gen. Rabba 40 (41) 2; we offer the version in Tanhuma Lekh Lekha 5.
[2] It should be noted that the expression " al devar - Because of the word of" occurs also in the story of Amnon and Tamar (II Sam. 13:22): "...but Absalom hated Amnon because (al devar) he had violated his sister Tamar." Both stories deal with a similar subject - a case of causing suffering to a woman. Although there is no similarity between the stories in the matter of the punishment of the abuser or the rescue of the woman, there is a similarity in the textual hint about Tamar's pleas that went unheeded by Amnon. We may venture an interpretation, based on the Midrash which we cited above, that the words al devar hint to the fact that Amnon remained deaf to her pleadings, painfully detailed in verses 12-14, 16. Because he turned a deaf ear to her before and after he violated her, he was put to death by Absalom.