Wendy Shalit, in her book A Return to Modesty, marks the demise of male courtesy. Crude talk and self-centered behavior has largely replaced chivalry. “The need,” she writes, “is for a good dose of sexist upbringing, how to relate as a man to a woman.” She calls for a revolution of modesty, where “young rebels with self-esteem” feel confident enough to reclaim their feminine power and individuality.

The Torah speaks this message very clearly. In the book of Genesis our biblical heroines are powerful in a modest and discreet way; their husbands in turn are respectful and protective. Women are cherished and honored. Such has also been the Jewish tradition ever since the days of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

Which makes one story in Genesis really stand out.

“He relied on her merit that he would not be hurt and that she would not be touched . . .”In an intimate glimpse into their relationship, we read about Abraham and Sarah, who at the respective ages of 75 and 65 travel south towards Egypt. As they travel, Abraham tells Sarah how beautiful she is, and expresses his concern that her allure would entice the Egyptians to murder Abraham in order to make her available for the king’s harem.

Abraham makes the following suggestion to his wife: “Please say you are my sister, in order that it go well with me because of you, and that my soul may live because of you” (Genesis 12:13).

Abraham’s plan would effectively remove himself from Pharaoh’s hit list . . . and make Sarah available for Pharaoh’s hedonistic abuse! What’s more, Abraham mentions that it would actually be of benefit to him too if Sarah would be taken: “that it go well with me because of you”! As the biblical commentaries explain these words, if Abraham was thought to be her brother, he could expect to be flattered with gifts of money and cattle.

Talk about a lack of chivalry! Is this Abraham, the first Jewish husband and the ultimate mentch? The man whose selfless generosity had him hinge four doors to his tent, making it accessible to wayfarers from all directions?

Nearly two thousand years ago, the author of the Zohar asked this same question (a question echoed by almost every other biblical commentator):

Rabbi Eliezer asked: Would Abraham, who feared G‑d and was loved by G‑d, say that about his wife for his own benefit?

Rabbi Eliezer explained: Even though Abraham feared G‑d, he did not rely on his own merit. He did not ask G‑d to save [Sarah] in his own merit, but rather in hers. He [also] knew that it was through her merit that he would accumulate wealth from the other nations, since a man acquires money in the merit of his wife. . . . He relied on her merit that he would not be hurt and that she would not be touched, and because of this he was not afraid to say, “She is my sister.”

Based on the Zohar, Abraham’s reasoning was twofold:

  • Abraham was not confident that he was worthy of being saved from death, but he was fully confident that G‑d would never allow his holy wife to be violated. She faced no danger.
  • Abraham also knew the divine rule that a man’s wealth is earned through his wife’s merit. In this case, a lucrative opportunity was presenting itself—one that would come about directly through Sarah. Her abduction would bring them wealth.

And this is in fact what happened. Sarah was taken, but a few hours later she walked away untouched. And Pharaoh showered Abraham with an abundance of wealth.

While chivalry is the sense that a man should be courteous and defend his wife’s honor and safety, at times a man is asked to stand back and trust that she will be able to protect herself. In fact, she may be able to gain more without his involvement. In King Solomon’s famous poem A Woman of Valor, he describes Abraham’s strategy when he writes: “The heart of her husband trusts in her; he lacks no profit.”

But a smart man knows that his wife is quite safe . . .The Zohar compares the union of Abraham and Sarah with the union of the soul and the body. This provides us with a fascinating parallel between the story of Abraham and Sarah’s journey to Egypt and our journey through life.

The soul descends to earth and partners with a body, as the soul looks out to protect her body from harm. But the body has a job to do, one that is riskier than the soul’s. As a material being, the body is best equipped to cultivate the material world. Its job is to plow, plant, shop and cook—all the while bringing awareness of G‑d into the material world.

The soul’s instinct may be to shield the body from coarse materialism, but it is forced to let go. The profits gained from the body’s work will be of awesome benefit to the soul as well.

Abraham, the ultimate husband, and Sarah, the quintessential Jewess, expose an important paradigm shift. Womankind is often heavily involved in materialistic pursuits. Like the body, we construct, create, organize, strategize and delve into the practical and physical. Like Sarah, we can appear to be abducted into Pharaoh's palace, where materialism rules supreme and what looks good is worshipped.

But a smart man knows that his wife is quite safe. Women have a gift: the ability to see materialism as a means to a greater end, to a G‑dly end. With this focus she brings the consciousness of the Creator into every facet of existence.

Based on a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likkutei Sichot, volume 20).