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Dvar November 8 and 9

Lech L’echa

Friday, November 8, 2019

This week’s parsha is lech lecha. We begin a new chapter with new characters. It has been 20 generations since the flood and we are introduced to our newest characters of Avram and Sarai, Mesopotamians scholars believe lived during the Middle Bronze Age between the 20th and 19th centuries BCE (Naomi Rosenblatt- Wresting with Angels). 

These parshiot in Genesis are powerful. Many still relate to situations we experience today and provide messages as to how we may address them. Why are they so powerful? Because our parshiot in Genesis present different types of leadership and probably more relatable, provides us with stories of family drama. 

This Shabbat I want to focus on two interesting sub-stories within our parsha which pertain to women. As a woman rabbi, coming to a parsha which is rich in women characters and women’s issues, issues which are still present today, it would be an affront to my gender and my work in advancing kavod for women rabbis, not to lead us in a discussion centered on women tonight. 

Tonight’s dvar will highlight the story of Avram and Sarai, tomorrow’s dvar will highlight Sarai and Hagar. The common denominator, the character of Sarai.

At the beginning of our parsha, Avram and Sarai are told to go to Egypt because of a great famine in the land of Caanan. Before they enter Egypt, Avram tells Sarai: “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” (Genesis 12: 11-13)

Here we have, Avram instructing Sarai to say that she is his sister, not his wife. Why might he say this? 

Because Pharoah is so powerful that he takes what he wants, he covets. But there does exist a line, if one is married, a wife cannot be taken unless the husband no longers lives, therefore the husband is killed so that the woman can be taken. Therefore, Avram instructs Sarai to say he is her brother so that he may live.

What is your initial response to this?

Many people, especially women, have taken offense to this whole situation for a number of reasons, two being:

1: Sarai has no voice and no input. She literally does not say a word. And through the narrative, we read of her going along with the plan.

2: Avram is not concerned about Sarai’s wellbeing but only his own. In order to save himself, he sacrifices his wife to Pharoah and potential sexual victimization in order to save his own life. 

Taken together, these two issues are unthinkable to many women. Feminists argue that these two injustices are the historical and very present issues that have belittled, taken away authority and agency, and been used to abuse women for all time. 

As a woman, I take issue with this story because of these injustices. I do believe that women are struggling to assert themselves in our society because of the deeply ingrained assumptions that women cannot speak for themselves, their input is not valued, and that a man’s needs supersede a woman’s. I won’t shy away but will be honest and say these situations come up all the time being a woman and even more so as a woman rabbi.

Our tradition provides us with “explanations” for Avram’s actions and while also providing critique.

An explanation: we gather from Genesis 20:12 (a few parshiot away) that Sarai is indeed Avram’s sister. In Genesis 20:12 Avram and Sarai are again in a situation of a person of power wanting to take Sarai into his court, the King. During this occasion Avram stands up to the King and recounts the story of Sarai and Pharoah and he gives the reason as to why he encouraged Sarai to say she was his sister: “I thought, said Abraham, surely there is no fear of G-d in this place (Egypt), and they will kill me because of my wife. And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s; and she became my wife.” So as we see, they are indeed brother and sister, half siblings. 

A critique: our tradition also teaches of Avram’s actions as a great injustice that Avram. Ramban states “And you should know that our father Avraham committed a great sin unintentionally, in which he brought his righteous wife to stumble into transgression because of his fear of getting killed, and he should have trusted the Name to have saved him, his wife and all that was his, because Elohim has power to help and to save. Also his going out from the land – of which he had been commanded at the beginning – due to famine was a transgression that he committed, because Elohim would have saved him from dying (even) in a famine. And because of this deed it was decreed that his seed would be in exile in Egypt under the hand of Pharaoh.” (Ramban on Genesis 12;10) In other words, Avram committed a great sin, so great that because of this sin the Israelites would receive the punishment of exile in Egypt.

Thus, not only currently but historically we have been upset by Avram’s act. Whether there is a valid reason or not to Avram’s act, what we do learn and what is emphasized in this story is that we must allow voices of women to contribute to the conversation, that men cannot assume what women feel or need, and most importantly that women and men must be treated the same. I feel that we must preserve our parshiot, they should be read but not blindly. We must read this parsha and see it’s injustices and use it as evidence as to how our forefathers missed the mark and that we can do better.

Saturday: November 9, 2019

This week’s parsha is lech lecha. We begin a new chapter with new characters. It has been 20 generations since the flood and we are introduced to our newest characters of Avram and Sarai, Mesopotamians scholars believe lived during the Middle Bronze Age between the 20th and 19th centuries BCE (Naomi Rosenblatt- Wresting with Angels). 

These parshiot in Genesis are powerful. Many still relate to situations we experience today and provide messages as to how we may address them. Why are they so powerful? Because our parshiot in Genesis present different types of leadership and probably more relatable, provides us with stories of family drama. 

This Shabbat I want to focus on two interesting sub-stories within our parsha which pertain to women. As a woman rabbi, coming to a parsha which is rich in women characters and women’s issues, issues which are still present today, it would be an affront to my gender and my work in advancing kavod for women rabbis, not to lead us in a discussion centered on women tonight. 

Last night we spoke about how Avram sent Sarai into Pharoah’s court, to save his own life, by saying that she was his sister. Sarai was voiceless in this story. Today in our story, Sarai has a voice, and it’s a voice we wouldn’t assume to hear when she begins to speak.

Sarai and Avram grow to old age. They remain childless. Although G-d tells Avram multiple times that he will be the father of a great and prosperous nation, with their old age, Avram and Sarai begin to doubt that this nation will biologically be connected to them. Sarai tells Avram to take Hagar as a concubine so that he may have children. She says, and these are her very first words in Torah, “Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.” (Genesis 16:2)

Hagar conceives. When Sarai discovers this she is “lowered in her esteem.” (Genesis 16:5)  She begins to treat Hagar harshly and it results in Hagar running away from the tribe. An angel appears to Hagar and tells her to return to the harsh treatment, but that her offspring will also be grand and multiple and that she will bear a son named Ishmael. 

Similar to the story of Avram, Sarai, and Pharoah, many, mostly women, take issue with this story and Sarai’s behavior. I take issue with both stories, but in a way this story, hurts me more than the other. This story hurts me more is because it is a story of a woman hurting another woman. A woman, because of societal pressures, absorbs these pressures and ends up turning on the only other person who may most identify with her feelings and experiences, another woman. 

I will say that Sarai is at fault here. Women have no excuse to abuse other women because they have more than us, they are more successful than us, they have what we have always wanted. We must develop ourselves as strong women to identify when we feel jealousy but not let it infringe so much so that we abuse another woman. We all know we experience this enough in society, we cannot do this to each other.

But why does Sarai act this way? It comes from the words “lowered in her esteem.” 

Let’s look historically: in biblical times a woman’s worth was her dowry and more importantly her ability to give her husband children. This was important for a number of reasons: more people to help with daily life, frequent child mortality, to continue the familial line, and theologically to honor the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Perhaps not for the same reasons or for exactly those same reasons, the belief still holds that if a woman cannot give her husband or in a larger sense society, children, there must be something wrong with her. She is broken or defiant or most harshly not even a woman. Fortunately, although we are finally beginning to talk about infertility and fighting it’s stigma, unfortunately, we are only just on the cusp of having the conversation why women may choose not to have children. But in the case of Sarai, she very much wants to have children and for whatever reason she is unable so she “does her womanly duty” and insures that her husband has children so that his line may continue. 

But what must have been going on in her head, in her heart? Disappointment and grief that she could not bear children, both for herself and her husband. Failure as a wife to do what her society tells her she must do. Fear that she will be considered broken, or less than. Resentment that she is pushed to give her maidservant even if she doesn’t want to. The list goes on and on. So all of these emotions and thoughts are behind one short statement of: “consort with my maid.”

So when Hagar conceives more feelings or perhaps the same feelings rush back up to the surface. And because of the pressure so great within herself and through society she lashes out to treat Hagar harshly. She will punish the person who causes her feelings to be triggered, every time she thinks about or sees her. Hagar becomes a representation of all her feelings and in order to fight the feelings, she must hurt Hagar. 

In essence, the reason Sarai treats her harshly is that “her esteem is lowered.” Both within herself and within her society. And there is nothing more painful than losing your self-esteem. 

And this situation happens all the time with women. Because of social pressure, because of our internalization of this pressure, because of our own pressure, we lash out at other women because they become the scapegoat for all the pain within us. But as I began to say earlier, we have to fight against this as women because no one will relate to our feelings and experiences or even come close other than another woman. And if we stop lashing out at one another we gird ourselves and support ourselves in larger society where women still fight for high-level positions, for equal pay, for respect within the workplace, for ownership over our bodies, for equal and respectful relationships, for teaching our daughters that their worth is not because of their beauty or their feminity but because of who they are.