Living in the 21st century, we have cause to celebrate the great advances that have been made in the past 100 years in granting women rights and freedoms—freedoms that are unprecedented in all of recorded history.

And yet, despite the real advances in women’s rights, when I view the image of womanhood as it is portrayed in today’s media, I can’t help but cringe. What message is being sent about femininity in a society where a woman’s physical attributes are emphasized as being of prime (or sole) importance?

To me, feminism means that, along with certain freedoms, a woman is treated as more than a physical being. It means that she is seen as a We have cause to celebrate the great advances that have been made in the past 100 yearsmultidimensional individual who has spiritual, intellectual and emotional strengths (and needs) which are recognized, developed and expressed.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “All human beings, men and women, were created for the same purpose—to fuse body and soul in order to make themselves and their world a better and holier place. The difference lies only in the different tools each has been given to fulfill their common goal.”

According to this definition of feminism—as a wholesome perspective on the totality of a person—we could perhaps see Abraham as the first feminist, fighting to educate the world about the rights of women.

Let’s look at Abraham and Sarah’s story.

A famine in the land of Canaan causes Abraham and Sarah to go down to Egypt. Sarah is seen by Pharaoh’s officers and, because of her beauty, she is forcibly taken into Pharaoh's palace. Only G‑d’s miraculous intervention saves her. She and Abraham prepare to leave the country laden with wealth (bestowed by Pharaoh), having successfully accomplished their physical and spiritual mission in the land.

Let’s take a closer look at the wording of the text:

As Abraham and Sarah are ready to leave Egypt, the verse tells us, “Abram went up from Egypt” (Genesis 13:1).

It makes sense for the verse to describe this journey as an ascent upwards, because they would need to travel northward to reach their destination in the land of Canaan.

However, a metaphorical reading of the verse indicates that Abraham also rose to new heights after his experience in Egypt. His sojourn in Egypt enriched him materially, but also personally. He returned to Canaan as a bolder, stronger leader, even more ready to enlighten the world with his message. His experience in Egypt showed him how diametrically opposed his vision was to the rest of civilized society, and how much work he had ahead of him.

At this time, Egypt was becoming the most highly developed center of the ancient world. The Egyptians were master astronomers and mathematicians, and even today we are awed by their engineering feats in constructing the pyramids. However, basic principles of morality were foreign to this civilization, as we will see from the text.

When Abraham originally set out for Canaan, the verse refers to Sarah by her name: “Abram took Sarai, his wife . . . and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:5). Egypt was becoming the most highly developed center of the ancient worldLikewise, when G‑d refers to Sarah, it is by her name: “Your wife, Sarai” (Genesis 17:15). And when they are approaching Egypt, the verse reads, “And it came to pass when he came near to enter Egypt that he said to Sarai, his wife” (Genesis 12:11).

But then, two verses later, the text reads, “When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw the woman” (Genesis 12:14)—an anonymous woman. Similarly, as Sarah is forcibly taken into the king’s palace, we are told, “The princes of Pharaoh also saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house” (Genesis 12:15).

Likewise, when Abraham and Sarah prepare to leave Egypt, Sarah’s name is not mentioned: “Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife” (Genesis 13:1).

As soon as Abraham and Sarah enter Egypt, Sarah becomes a nameless “woman.” The only time Sarah’s name is mentioned in Egypt is when G‑d intervenes to protect her every time Pharaoh approaches her. We are told that Pharaoh and his house are smitten with plagues al devar Sarai eishet Avram—“because of the matter of Sarai, the wife of Abram.”

To understand this, let’s look at Sarah’s names—actually, at Sarah’s two names. Her original name was Yiskah, which is from the root sochah, meaning “gazes.”

The name Yiskah alluded to Sarah’s gift of divine inspiration, which allowed her to gaze into the future. It also alluded to her beauty, which was so powerful that it drew gazes. Rashi explains: “Yiskah is Sarah, since she gazes with divine spirit, and everyone gazes at her beauty.” (Alternatively, Yiskah is from the root nesichut, “princedom,” referring to her authority, and paralleling her other name, Sarah.)

Sarai, on the other hand, was (according to the Malbim) the name given to her by her husband, Abraham, and means “my princess and superior.” Abraham called her Sarai in deference to her superior spiritual characteristics, attributes that in many ways surpassed even his own spiritual Abraham called her Sarai in deference to her superior spiritual characteristicsgreatness.

But Sarah is seen this way only as long as they were in Canaan. From the moment they cross the border into the morally depraved Egypt, Sarah is no longer recognized for her leadership qualities, her talents or her keen prophetic capabilities. She is merely “the woman.”

In the Egyptian civilization at the time, women were seen from one perspective only: whether they were physically attractive. That’s why the verses say that the Egyptians were punished al devar Sarai, “because of the matter of Sarai”—because of the way they degraded her by seeing her not as Sarai, but as some kind of anonymous woman whose only significance was her physical form.

That was the difference between the community of Abraham and the Egyptian community. Abraham regarded his wife as Sarai, “my ruler,” seeing the true beauty of her nature. His only reference to her outer beauty came as they were about to enter Egypt, when it posed a threat to their lives.

Abraham did not treat Sarah like just an anonymous pretty face—the way that a purely physical perspective of women led the Egyptians to treat Sarah. On the contrary, with her prophetic abilities and in her intimate communication with G‑d, she was Abraham’s guide and teacher. She was his ruler and superior. And it was only together, Abraham saw, that they could achieve their mission of reaching out and educating the world with their united spiritual ideals.

Even in modern times, when we have reached unprecedented advances in the treatment of women, the story of Abraham and Sarah challenges our value system. What do you see when you look at a woman? And, how do you view another human being? Do you see only their outward physical attributes, or What do you see when you look at a woman?do you look deeper to see the whole individual, including the beauty—and enormous depth—of their G‑dly soul?

Let’s review:

  • Yiskah means “gaze.” Sarah was originally called this name for two reasons: 1) She had the ability to gaze with divine inspiration; 2) People gazed and stared at her extraordinary beauty.
  • Abraham gave Sarah the name Sarai, which means “princess” or “superior.” He was alluding to her spiritual abilities, which were superior to his own. In naming her so, he was teaching those around him to look at her as an entire being, with superior spiritual capabilities.
  • When Abraham was in Canaan, Sarah is referred to by her name Sarai.
  • But then in Egypt, Sarah’s name is omitted. She becomes an anonymous woman, because to the Egyptians she is seen for her external beauty only, and not as a real person with enormous spiritual capabilities.
  • When G‑d comes to save Sarah from Pharaoh, the verse refers to G‑d punishing the Egyptian on account of devar Sarai, the matter of taking Sarah, this superior spiritual being, and reducing her to a mere pretty face.

What do you see when you look at another human being? An external body? Or do you see beyond externalities to a soul?

Based on the chapter “Partnerships Fulfilled and Frayed” in Abraham’s Journey, by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.