Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Once again, Abraham comes into another king’s territory and passes his wife Sarah off as his sister, and once again, the king takes Sarah into his court, and once again, the king freaks out about it and returns Sarah to Abraham, along with lots of money and animals.
Back in Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai went down to Egypt. Abram was afraid for his life because Sarai was so beautiful, and he thought Pharaoh would kill him for her. So he came up with an idea to say his wife was his sister. Sure enough, Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s palace, but soon Pharaoh and his court were afflicted with plagues. Pharaoh brought Abram in front of him and yelled at him for the deception. Avram and Sarai were sent away….with a whole lot more wealth from Pharaoh.
Fast forward to Genesis 20, parasha Vayera, and this week. Abraham and Sarah came into Abimelech’s territory. Once again, Abraham said Sarah was his sister, and she was brought (commentary says “kidnapped”) into Abimelech’s court. This time it’s God who comes to the King in a dream and lets him know that Sarah is married, and if he doesn’t do something about it, he will die. Abimelech talks back to God, saying he is blameless and deceived.
Next morning, Abimelech brought his court together, told them the truth about Sarah and they brought Abraham in, with Abimelech saying, “What have you done to this? What wrong have I done you that you should bring so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom?” (Gen 20:9)
This time, Abraham tries to explain his way out of it by saying, yes, he and Sarah really are sister and brother, but with different mothers, so it was ok. The couple gets sent away, with more wealth…again.
There’s another important difference between the stories. In this week’s story, the King says, “He [Abraham] said to me ‘She is my sister’, and she also said, ‘He is my brother’” (Gen 20:5) The first time, Sarai was silent, here she actively took part in the scheme. Why? Was it just to get her and Abraham more money? Did she feel trapped between her conniving husband and a powerful King?
This story really jumped out at me this week. For the last few weeks, we’ve been hearing about men in power taking advantage of women who had no power. Sexual harassment is more and more out in the open, more and more women are speaking up and saying no to being used and abused. Powerful men are being brought low. And it’s about time. More attention is being paid to the issue of how our men are being raised; raising our sons to be the kind of men who will speak out when they witness mistreatment of women and not just stay silent.
We can only hope that we’ve reached a real change in the culture. We don’t know how Sarah felt about being used to deceive, but frankly, I can’t think of any woman relishing that job. I don’t think Abraham intentionally was abusing Sarah, or that Abimelech and Pharaoh were abusing Sarah. But she was being used in a scheme to (theoretically) save a man’s life, because he felt afraid, and either Sarah felt she couldn’t speak out, or when she did, it was to continue the deceit. We can’t change the Torah stories. But we can find meaning and relevance in them for today’s world. Sarah’s story, like so many others in the Torah, is a cautionary tale. For all the great and good Sarah and Abraham and God did elsewhere in this parashah, this event brings into relief what NOT to do.