Parshas Lech Lecha: What Was Avraham Thinking?

In this week’s parsha our forefather does a seemingly unthinkable thing. Upon arriving in Egypt due to famine in his own land, Avraham tells his wife to tell the powers that be there that she is, in fact, his sister — and not his wife. As such, they will take her captive, but at the very least, they will let him live. Indeed, it could very well be that Avraham figured there were only two possible ways that the scenario could play out:

  • They take Sarah and kill him.
  • They take Sarah and let him live (and he would even end up turning a profit from the whole thing).

Given the options, surely the latter one is superior. (For all we know, it might even have been Sarah herself that proposed the idea. We don’t exactly have an accounting of the conversations along their journey. Unlikely, perhaps. But Possible.) Radak (in his commentary to Bereishis 12:11-13) even assumes that Avraham was totally unaware of just how terrible the danger in Egypt was, and only became aware of it upon arrival there. What did you want Avraham to do, asks Radak?! Had he know, perhaps he never would have journeyed there in the first place. But once he was there, he had no choice but to make the best of a very bad situation.

Indeed, it seemed to be something that repeated itself as well, as Avraham himself pulls the same trick again, as does his son. Turning a profit by risking your wife must have run in the family.

And now, when you phrase it that way, it really doesn’t sound all too good. The whole thing is uncouth to say the very least. And from Avraham Avinu? Radak could very well be correct, of course. Perhaps Avraham really did not know just how bad it was going to be in Egypt. Perhaps he simply made the best decision as he saw fit. After all, one should never rely upon a miracle, and so Avraham should not have just assumed that God would step in and rescue him and his wife.

But still, there is more than just a little something distasteful about the whole thing. Risking his wife in such a way just so that he might live and make some money off the whole thing? Putting his wife in certain danger, as opposed to remaining in only possible/probable danger? It really does not sound too good.

Now, there is a persistent notion amongst the more cynical that “the Rabbis” (although it’s never quite clear what they mean when the say that) whitewash all the stories of the major Biblical characters. Our forefathers, and great leaders in Tanach, can do no wrong in the eyes of “the Rabbis”. As such, they will bend over backwards whenever possible to explain away seeming misdoings as either not really so bad at all, or as having actually been a positive thing. But “the Rabbis” will never admit, as it were, that our great leaders ever did anything wrong.

Asides from this accusation being more than a little disrespectful, it is wildly inaccurate, and patently false. True, there are many instances of Chazal (if that is who these cynics mean by “the Rabbis”, anyway) essentially “whitewashing” a story (although that unnecessarily makes it sound worse than it is), and telling us that, despite the explicit, or implicit, words in the text, a particular person really did not do something as bad as we might think. (The story of Dovid HaMelech comes to mind.) But there are just as many times in which major scholars will absolutely call out the great Biblical personalities as having erred tremendously — sometimes even when such a thing is not 100% clear from the text. The great sages of Judaism have never, historically, been scared to point out the sins of those greater than them. Such has always been a wonderfully unique thing about Judaism. Indeed, the very fact that they do so proves that when they do not — but instead, tone something down and make it seem not as bad — it is for a very good reason (whatever it might be in each situation). But the point must be made vividly clear: The great Torah commentators (of old, at least) had absolutely no problem pointing out the sins of those in Tanach.

A prime example of this is to be found in no less an authority than Ramban in his commentary to Bereishis (12:11-13) in reference to the trick that Avraham pulled with his wife. Ramban categorically rejects the position of Radak, and states much to the contrary:

Understand that Avraham sinned greatly if unwittingly here, drawing his saintly wife into the path of grievous sin because of cowardice in the face of death. He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife… Furthermore, his abandonment of the land he is commanded to inherit was sinful.

Ramban concludes by stating that it is because of these sins that Avraham’s children would be condemned to slavery years later.

Harsh words if I’ve ever heard any.

Ramban clearly states that Avraham should have trusted in God to protect him (why is for another time). But more importantly, Ramban points out that Avraham absolutely made a critical error here. With the harshest words possible he condemns his actions.

How could Avraham have done such a thing, you ask? How could our great forefather put his wife in such great danger? Was it not a terrible error of the highest caliber? Doesn’t it just seem wrong?

Yes. Yes it does, says Ramban. There’s your answer.

And of course, the lessons to be drawn from Judaism’s absolute comfort with confronting the failures of its greatest should be clear to all. Perfection is not expected of us. If our greatest could never achieve it, certainly neither can we. No one can. It is thus clear that God’s wish is not to have an army of perfect humans. It is, rather, the efforts of humans in their pursuit of (an albeit unattainable) perfection that matter most.

But more on that another day…

Thoughts On “Not In God’s Name”, The Latest Book From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Parshas Bereishis: ‘He Shall Rule Over You’