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Behind Every Great Man...

Behind Every Great Man...

"In Sarah's Merit"

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According to Forbes, the number of women occupying leadership roles in American society is remarkably low: 3% of CEOs are women; 14% of leadership positions in the federal government are held by women; and 5% of Hollywood films are directed by women.

Looking at these statistic brings to mind the old adage, “Behind every great man there’s an even greater woman.” It is an expression that could easily have originated from close observation of the relationship of our first patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah.

The story begins with Abraham and Sarah (at that time still known as Abram and Sarai) leaving Canaan due to a severe famine. As they approach the Egyptian border, there’s a very perplexing exchange between Abraham and his wife.

Let’s look at the text:

The number of women occupying leadership roles in American society is remarkably low

“And there was a famine in the land and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there for the famine was severe in the land.

“And it came to pass when he came near to enter to Egypt that he said to Sarai, his wife, ‘Behold, I know that you are a pretty woman, It shall come to pass when the Egyptians shall see you that they shall say ‘“his is his wife,” they will desire you because of your beauty and they will kill me but you they will keep alive. Therefore please say that you are my sister so that they will benefit me because of you, and my life shall be spared because of you.’”

Abraham is telling Sarah to say that she is his sister, not his wife, because the Egyptians will want to marry her. If she is his wife, they will kill Abraham and take her. If she is his sister, he will be spared from danger.

The obvious question is, what about Sarah and the risk posed by her beauty? Why wasn’t Abraham concerned with her safety at least as much as he was about his own? And at such a time, how could he possibly consider benefiting from her suffering?

Our wonder at Abraham’s behavior only grows as the story continues and we see that that the danger to Sarah is in fact realized:

“And it came to pass that when Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. The princes of Pharaoh also saw her and praised her for Pharaoh, and the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s palace. And he treated Abram well for her sake, and he had sheep and oxen and male donkeys and menservants and maidservants and female donkeys and camels.”

Sarah has followed Abraham’s advice and said she was his sister, only to be abducted and taken into the king’s palace! Not only that, while Sarah is held hostage and at risk of being defiled or worse, Abraham is being treated handsomely with all kinds of gifts, which he accepts!

Let’s continue in the verses and see what happens to Sarah in Pharaoh’s palace:

“And G‑d plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. And Pharaoh called Abram and said, ‘What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife. Why did you say, “she is my sister?’’ So that I might have taken her for my wife, now therefore she is your wife, take her and go your way. And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him and they sent him away and his wife and all that he had.”

If we were worried for Sarah before, we can now be assured that things end okay for her. G‑d intervenes and plagues Pharaoh and his household, and Sarah is saved. The great commentator, Rashi, says on these verses:

G‑d intervenes and plagues Pharaoh and his household

And G‑d plagued Pharaoh—With a plague of impotence.

And all his household—All the men of his household.

Because of the word of Sarai—Through Sarai’s word. She said to the angel ‘strike him’ and he struck him.”

In other words, every time Pharaoh or any member of his household wanted to approach Sarah with immoral intentions, she would instruct an angel to strike him and she would be saved.

Yet, in spite of the fact that all ends well for Sarah, the whole story is still perplexing. We’re talking about Abraham, a great and righteous individual who was known for his kindness--a kindness that extended even to strangers. We would expect that he would also be a great husband who treats his wife well. If he knew that the Egyptians were so spiritually depraved that they might desire his wife, and wouldn’t be beneath kidnapping her, why didn’t he take better precautions?

As is often the case, we need to look a little closer at the words of the text to determine exactly what is happening here.

On the words cited earlier, And when Abram came to Egypt,” Rashi asks: “When Abram came? Was it only Abram who was coming? What about Sara? Shouldn’t it say ‘when they came’?”

Rashi explains:

“The verse should have said when ‘they’ reached Egypt. However, this teaches us that Abram hid her in a box and when they, the custom officials, collected taxes they opened it and saw her.”

So, as the biblical commentator’s tell the behind-the-scenes story, Abraham was indeed concerned about his wife and planned a two-phased strategy to keep her safe:

Stage 1: He hid Sarah in a chest. Let’s see how the Midrash Rabba explains what happened:

Where was Sarah? Abram initially hid her in a chest and locked it. When he reached the Egyptian customs station, the official asked him to pay duties for the chest. Abram replied, “I am prepared to pay duties.” The official told him, “You have dishes in there.” Abram answered that he would pay duties for dishes. They said, “No you are carrying gold in there.” He answered, “I will pay the duties for gold.” Then they said, “No, You are carrying expensive silver.” He said, “I will pay the duties for expensive silver.” They said, “No, you are carrying precious stones.” He answered, “I will pay the duties for precious stones.” They said, “This is not feasible, you will have to open it and show us what is inside.”

[The official became suspicious as it occurred to him that the foreigner who was so possessive of his belongings might be hiding something potentially harmful to his country.] As soon as he opened it, the whole land of Egypt radiated from her countenance.

R’ Azariah and R’ Yochanana son of Chagai in the name of R’ Yitzchak said, “The beauty of Chava [Eve] was given over to the great women leaders of each generation who shared her beauty.”

The officers of Pharaoh saw her and each bid money to take her to Pharaoh. One said, “I will pay 100 dinar to take her. “ Another said, “I will pay 200 dinar to take her.”

Stage 2: If that failed, Abraham asked Sarah to say that she was his sister, intending to set a price too high for any individual to be able to marry her. This is how the Malbim explains it:

Abram told Sarai, “Say that you are my sister, that they may benefit me because of you.” That is toAn orphaned sister belonged to the legal domain of her brother say, tell everyone that you wish to marry, but only one who acknowledges that you are my sister and therefore that he must obtain my legal and personal consent. Announce that the man who wishes to marry you must compensate me with as many gifts as I deem proper. The accepted rule was that an orphaned sister belonged to the legal domain of her brother, it was the custom to offer silver and gold to the girl’s father or brother in exchange for her hand in marriage. Thus Abram would set a price so high that no man wishing to marry her would be able to pay it. It did not occur to him however that the king himself would want her.

But is that really a satisfying reading of these verses? After all, we’re not talking about a situation that might be uncomfortable for Sarah; we’re talking about a serious risk to Sara’s life and honor. And if indeed there was such potential harm, why didn’t Abraham think of more surefire plan, or not bring her down to Egypt to begin with, or do anything rather than risk her safety?

Most disturbing, and not explained by the readings given above, the verses don’t indicate that Sarah’s abduction in any way worries Abraham. Instead, he calmly accepts Pharaoh’s gifts?!

Let’s look to the holy and mystical book of Zohar, which not only broadens our. understanding of Abraham’s behavior, but even more importantly, gives us tremendous insights into Sarah’s powers.

Here’s what the Zohar says about this story:

Rabbi Elazar says, “Say please you are my sister.”

This is a very difficult passage. Abram who had awe of G‑d and who was beloved by G‑d would he say this about his wife so that he would acquire material benefit?

However, [the explanation is that] Abraham, even though he was G‑d fearing, did not rely on his own merit, but on the merit of his wife, that he will inherit because of her. A person only receives wealth in the merit of his wife, as it says (Prov 19:14), “a house and a fortune is an inheritance from parents, and from G‑d isHe calmly accepts Pharaoh’s gifts?! an intelligent woman [who will guide her husband to use it well].” Someone who merits an intelligent wife, he inherits it all. As it also says (ibid 31:11) “the heart of her husband relies on her and he lacks no bounty.”

Abraham went in her merit to receive the bounty of the other nations. He relied on her merit that they would not be able to harm her or abuse her. Therefore he was not afraid to say, “She is my sister.”

Moreover, he saw an angel accompanying her who told him not to be afraid for her, for G‑d had sent him [the angel] to extract wealth from other nations and to guard her [Sarah] from everything. That is why Abraham was not afraid for her, only for himself, because he did not see an angel accompanying him—only her!

The Zohar’s backstory makes it abundantly clear why Abraham decided to go down to Egypt with Sarah, and why he seemed to be worried about protecting himself, but not about protecting her. Sarah, the Zohar teaches, had incredible G‑dly powers.

Abraham recognized these powers. He realized that not only would his wife not be hurt at all, but that it would be in her merit alone that the two of them would accomplish exactly what they were meant to accomplish in Egypt. (What exactly that was, we will explore in the next essay.)

Abraham was great enough to realize that it was not his merits or his close connection to G‑d that would protect them on this journey. It was Sarah who had an angel at her side ready to do her bidding. It was Sarah who had an intimate relationship with G‑d. And it was Sarah who would achieve for both of them exactly what they needed to achieve on this segment of their ongoing spiritual journey.

Let’s review:

On their way down to Egypt, Abraham tells Sarah, “Say you are my sister so that they will benefit me because of you and my life will be spared because of you.”

From the words, “And when Abram came to Egypt,” Rashi learns that Avraham hid Sarah in a box so that she wouldn’t be seen.

If she would be discovered, Sarah would say that she was his sister and, as her brother, he intended to set a price too high for anyone to afford to take her in marriage.

Sarah is brought to Pharaoh who gives Abraham many presents for her.

In the palace, G‑d plagued Pharaoh because of the word of Sarai—as Rashi explains Sarah said to the angel to strike Pharaoh every time he approached her.

The Zohar explains that Avraham was willing to ask Sarah to say she was his sister so that he would be spared and benefit from Pharaoh’s gifts because of her since he realized that their entire sojourn in Egypt would be in Sara’s merit. He knew he could not rely on his own merit but only through her would their mission in Egypt be accomplished.


Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of five popular books.
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Pete WA October 31, 2016

"You are my sister" Sisters are prohibited. All Abraham was saying is that Sarah is prohibited. And this is why it went well for Abraham, and why Pharaoh's house was severly punished.

He warned the house of Pharaoh. And they did not heed his warning. Reply

Anonymous rwp June 26, 2014

I liked it Reply

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