Lech l’cha. This parasha has so much in it, it’s hard to pick a focus. But, thanks to my sister, Rabbi Jan Salzman, in Burlington VT, she has made it easier. Rabbi Jan leads “Ruach HaMaqom”, a wonderful, warm and innovative community in Burlington. If you’re near there, or know someone who is, check it out, and say hi for me.
Anyway, the scene is Abram and Sarai (their names have not been changed yet by God) who have journeyed to Canaan. God has given Abram the promise to give the land to his descendents (of which he has none, by the way, but that comes later), and they’re facing a famine. So, off to Egypt, as so many will do subsequently.
Abram is afraid that he will be killed so that Pharaoh can have Sarai as his wife, because she’s very beautiful. So, he asks Sarai to pretend she’s his sister, and sure enough, Pharaoh takes Sarai into his palace. Abram gets a lot of riches from this: sheep, cattle, asses, slaves, and camels. Pharaoh is shocked (shocked!) to find out Sarai is Abram’s wife, and in a panic that stems from plagues that afflict his household, he says, “What have you done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say that she was your sister, so that I took her as a wife for myself?” (Gen 12:18-19) That’s a lot of verbiage for Torah, so we must pay attention.
As my sister continues:
“In light of our increasing outrage at the danger women experience around the world, about which most any woman can describe, this story holds many images for us today: of a woman being asked to hide her beauty so that she won’t be a target and, more fully, to protect her husband’s life. If we break down the previous sentence, we see 1) that we have to hide our beauty in order to do an end-run around sexual objectification; 2) that being beautiful, whatever that might mean, makes women targets; 3) that we must hide our beauty in order to protect the men around us. In a nutshell, this is the core of the #metoo social network movement.”
“Avram models for us behavior both laudable and repulsive. Wrestling with this part of the story during this time of our lives, calls forth from us the questions about motive, objectification, the sacrificing of our women in order to protect our families, and so forth.”
There was always a part of me that thought Abram was pimping out his wife to Pharaoh so he could get more riches. The Women’s Commentary on Torah says Sarai is a “co-trickster” (p59) in deceiving Pharaoh, saving his life and adding to the family coffers. This is a far more positive spin than I would have presented.
Women are not shocked by the number of stories coming out. What’s surprising is how many women are telling finally their stories, because there have been so many obstacles. No one would believe them, there would be no consequences for the assaulter, but plenty for the women, and the men were too powerful, controlling careers and hard-won successes.
What happens next for women in industries across the country is to be seen. But we know a few things from here. We have to involve men who will stand up against other men behaving badly. There are plenty of good, kind, decent men out there. But they’ve been too silent. Speak up, guys. And women, we need to not just alert younger women to what’s happening, but go with them to HR. We will not go willingly into Pharaoh’s palace any more. And yes, me too.
As usual, Torah gives us an opportunity to take ancient words and find contemporary wisdom. And as usual, I learn from my sister. Thanks, Jan.