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#MeToo — Our Failures and the Failures of Avraham

November 8, 2017

Good Shabbos. There is a classical and ongoing debate among the Jewish people. Is it appropriate to criticize the אבות (patriarchs)?  Must we justify their behavior even when it seems to be wrong, or is it okay to point out their mistakes?

One of the more provocative applications/discussions of this important issue takes place at the end of our Parsha. The parsha concludes with the story of the Akedah. As troubling as the story is, there is almost universal recognition that it marks the capstone of Avraham’s career; it is the final test that he passes with flying colors.

And yet, there is a school of thought that offers the opposite interpretation: The Akedah marks a test that Avraham failed! Avraham should have refused to follow God’s instructions. After all, how could he go to bat for the wicked people of Sodom but remain silent when it comes to his own flesh and blood.

While I could spend the rest of this Drasha speaking about this idea, I mention it here only because it helped me to realize that the Akedah may not be the only test that Avraham failed.   Perhaps there are other tests that he failed as well. My understanding of Avraham’s other failed test(s) is informed by events of the past few weeks – the allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against Harvey Weinstein and so many more. The most powerful response was the #MeToo campaign in which women who have been sexually abused and harassed went public with their experiences. .

The words of NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow resonated very strongly with me:
With the recent rash of high-profile accusations of sexual harassment and assault… I found myself feeling shocked at the pervasiveness of this sort of behavior, and embarrassed that I was shocked. After all, I know all the data. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/opinion/checking-my-male-privilege.html)

According to a recent survey, more than half of U.S. women have experienced unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances from men ;3in 10 have put up with unwanted advances from male co-workers…

But hearing these statistics in the abstract is very different from being able to connect them with faces that we know.

What does any of this have to do with Avraham?

In our parsha we read that Avraham and Sarah travel to Gerar.

Breishit 20:1-2

וַיִּסַּ֨ע מִשָּׁ֤ם אַבְרָהָם֙ אַ֣רְצָה הַנֶּ֔גֶב וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בֵּין־קָדֵ֖שׁ וּבֵ֣ין שׁ֑וּר וַיָּ֖גָר בִּגְרָֽר׃ וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־שָׂרָ֥ה אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ אֲחֹ֣תִי הִ֑וא וַיִּשְׁלַ֗ח אֲבִימֶ֙לֶךְ֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ גְּרָ֔ר וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־שָׂרָֽה׃

Abraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negeb and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he was sojourning in Gerar, Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him.

This is an exact repeat of what took place in last week’s parsha when Avram and Sarai (before the name changes) go to Egypt to escape famine.

 

Breishit 12:10-13

(י) וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֙יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ׃ (יא) וַיְהִ֕י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִקְרִ֖יב לָב֣וֹא מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ הִנֵּה־נָ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֛י אִשָּׁ֥ה יְפַת־מַרְאֶ֖ה אָֽתְּ׃ (יב) וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי־יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ׃ (יג) אִמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ׃

10) There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. (11) As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. (12) If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. (13) 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.”

Let us fully understand what is happening here. Twice Avraham and Sarah go to a new society where the expectation is that the king and those in power will forcibly take a woman and force her into marriage/sexual servitude. Avraham takes this as a given. He doesn’t even show any signs of regret. He accepts that this is the reality.

The Radak tries to justify Avraham’s actions by saying he was forced to make a choice between the lesser of two evils: If he discloses the truth he will be killed, and his wife, beautiful and unprotected in an alien society of low morality, will assuredly be condemned to a life of shame and abuse.  If, however, he resorts to subterfuge, she may be violated by some Egyptian, but at last husband and wife would both survive. 

While there may be some truth to Avraham’s dilemma as explained by Radak, I am not convinced. Remember, we are talking about the same Avraham who argues with Hashem over the fate of the people of Sodom. He is recognized and challenged by Hashem to be a beacon of צדקה ומשפט – righteousness and justice.

Breishit 18:17-19

וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃ וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ׃ כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃

Now the LORD had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”

We are talking about the same Avraham who is described as העברי (a Hebrew/Ivri). Recall on Yom Kippur we discussed the significance of this term:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח
רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד

R. Yehudah – all the world was on one side and he stood alone on the other.

Avraham’s entire identity was of someone who stands in opposition to the culture around him. He defies authority.

The Ramban (Breishit 12:10) therefore introduces Avraham’s descent into Egypt by saying:

ודע כי אברהם אבינו חטא חטא גדול בשגגה שהביא אשתו הצדקת במכשול עון מפני פחדו פן יהרגוהו והיה לו לבטוח בשם שיציל אותו ואת אשתו ואת כל אשר לו

Know that our father Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin by placing his virtuous wife in a compromising situation because of his fear of being killed.  He should have trusted in God to save him, his wife and all he had, for God has the power to help and to save

The case against Avraham’s actions is even stronger. The great biblical scholar, Nahum Sarna in the JPS Commentary on Breishit introduces the episode with Avimelech in our parsha with the following observation:

“The story is strongly reminiscent of the couple’s earlier encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt. Here it serves to complete a literary framework. The first kidnapping of Sarah occurred after receiving the divine promise of posterity. The second takes place after the last such promise.”

Why would the kidnapping (and abuse) of Sarah be preceded by a promise of becoming a גוי גדול a great nation?

The conventional understanding is that the promise that Avraham will become a great nation is made to silence anyone who would claim that the child born to Sarah was really Avimelech’s or Pharaoh’s.

But in light of the ongoing current events, the promise of posterity from Hashem should have given Avraham the wherewithal to protest against the taking of Sara and the rampant sexism that existed in the two societies of Egypt and Gerar.  It’s as if with the promise of posterity, Hashem is telling Avraham, “It’s okay to protest against the taking of your wife and the abuse of power I have your back.”  It might be an invitation to Avraham, much as the introduction of Hashem’s telling him of the destruction of Sodom is an invitation to Avraham to protest.

Unfortunately, Avraham does not answer the call.
And this, I would suggest is another failure on his part.

As the latest revelations of rampant sexual abuse has shown, we too have failed as a society and as a community. I know that there are women in our shul who have been sexually abused and harassed and who might be listening to my speech thinking, “how can you only see this message from the Torah NOW? Where have you been all these years?” I don’t have a good answer.

We are once again being given the same test that Avraham Avinu was given twice in his lifetime. The test of what to do when living in a society that accepts as normal the abuse, harassment, and objectification of women. It is a test that Avraham failed, and it is a test that up to this point we have failed. Let this be the time that we ensure that we do not repeat his mistake again.

 

 

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From → Parsha

One Comment
  1. Mindy Dickler permalink

    Well said! Thanks for sharing this!! Your closing remarks are quite moving. You’re right. The time has come to take action!

    ~~ Mindy/אמא

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