Parashat Lech Lecha
Friday/Saturday, October 27-28, 2017
Cantor Penny M. Kessler
Thank you to Rabbi Tiwy for giving me the opportunity to offer some words of Torah tonight and tomorrow morning.
“Hashtag me, too” is the rallying cry giving voice to millions of women who have been used and abused sexually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually for decades. From the lofty heights of show business to secretaries and janitors, women are finding their voices and declaring that their stories of abuse need to be told. Some have never told their stories, while some have come forward in the past, only to be told to shut up and show up lest their livelihoods – and in some cases lives – be threatened.
I have friends and rabbi and cantor colleagues who are telling their stories for the first time, some in decades, some who experienced abuse and harassment during their seminary experiences. And – personal disclaimer – while I am grateful that I have never been physically abused, there are men and some women who used my gender to demean and humiliate me.
Let me add that I am a REFORM cantor because when I researched the various seminaries, I learned that while I could learn and be ordained at the Conservative seminary, I would not be granted membership in the Conservative cantor’s organization, which meant that I would not be hired in any Conservative synagogue. That has now changed.
I need to tell you that I was not going to focus on this particular episode in our portion Lech Lecha. You see, this is too enormous a topic in our current lives; and I wanted people to really hear me. I was concerned about being pigeonholed as “the woman clergy person who talks about social justice stuff.” Think that doesn’t happen? Let me assure you that I’ve heard this applied to me and other colleagues.
That said, from Harvey Weinstein to the President of the United States, I really don’t understand why people are shocked that some powerful people shamefully use and abuse women or use their sexuality to harm others. And if you’re a Jew who’s even remotely familiar with some of the stories in the TaNaKh, you shouldn’t be shocked, either. What might surprise you, however, is how our Torah and our tradition respond to those abuses.
In this week’s parashah, we read a damning example of a “Hashtag me, too” scenario. Abram obeys Adonai’s command to pick himself up and move “from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram takes “his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran” and they eventually land in Canaan, Adonai’s promised land.
Pretty soon, though, there’s a famine in Canaan – an event we will hear about at least once more in the Book of Genesis – and “va-yeired Avram mitzraimah lagur sham,” “and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.”
So far, so good, but that’s not the end of the story.
As they get near Egypt, Abram worries that the Egyptians will notice Sarai’s beauty, abduct her, and kill him if they know she’s his wife. So Abram says to Sarai, “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.” We have no idea what Sarai thinks about this; all we read is that “When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was. Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace. And because of her, it went well with Abram: he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.”
Let’s recap: Abram pimps his wife out to the Egyptians, makes a bundle of money, becomes even richer than he was when he got to Egypt, and – oh, yes – Sarai winds up “in Pharaoh’s palace,” a lovely euphemism for “Pharaoh’s bed.”
Yes, friends, this is the same Abram whom we extol as the first monotheist, the man who will righteously argue to save the lives of people in Sodom and Gomorrah even though he doesn’t know them.
Our Abram, the first patriarch of the Israelites, is a coward who sells his wife to save his own skin.
And yet the Torah is silent about Sarah’s voice.
“Hashtag me, too.”
But wait – there’s more. Adonai, who observed all this, “afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram.” Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall during that holy confrontation? “Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, ‘What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she is your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister” so that I took her as my wife?’” And Pharaoh not only throws Abram and his retinue, including Lot and Sarai and “all that he possessed” out of Egypt, but he has his guards accompany them to the border make sure they get out of the country.
What are we supposed to make of this? And wait for it: next week – NEXT WEEK!! – Abram, now “Avraham,” his name changed because of his relationship with God, will pull the same exact thing, this time passing Sarah (formerly Sarai) off as his sister with Abimelech, the king of Gerar, this time without even bothering to ask her.
This time, Adonai jumps in before Abimelech can get it on with Sarah, and Abraham offers what, in my limited understanding of law, the lamest of excuses: “Well, since you don’t really do religion – AKA Adonai – here, I figured you’d kill me. And anyway, she is sort of my sister (yes, we read about this earlier), my father’s daughter though not my mother’s; and she became my wife. So when God made me wander from my father’s house, I said to her, “Let this be the kindness that you shall do me: whatever place we come, say there of me: He is my brother.”
“Hashtag what a guy.”
It takes Divine intervention to protest on behalf of and protect Sarah. God intervenes with Pharaoh, criticizing him roundly. God preempts Abimelech’s behavior, criticizing him roundly. It’s logical that we’d assume that Pharaoh and Abimelech are the perpetrators here. Perhaps rightly, Abraham assumes the worst about his hosts in Egypt and Gerar. These are not Adonai-fearing people, and sexual amorality is just one of their reputed vices.
And yet, on second glance, hasn’t Abraham taken advantage of their amoral values? He knows what they’re like, and even so, he sends his wife into their clutches to save himself. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV, but without Abraham’s actions, none of this would have been necessary, and didn’t I see something about this in a Law and Order episode?
So why doesn’t God chastise Abraham the way God treats Pharaoh and Abimelech?
We don’t know. The Torah is silent about this.
All we do know is that Abram/Abraham leaves both Egypt and Gerar wealthier than he was before. What is it with all the riches and financial rewards? Are Pharaoh and Abimelech offering him blood money to buy him off so he’ll intervene with God on their behalves? Was this a setup by Abraham to eventually extort money and precious animals from them? Or is this a Scripture version of a television personality who behaves like a monster, gets fired, and eventually winds up with job offers galore? This is worthy of a huge shudder.
If we’re meant to identify with Abraham as a righteous man and denounce Pharaoh and Abimelech, this is an utter values failure for a modern reader.
Some midrashim praise Abraham for forgiving Abimelech. Abraham is extolled for his gracious generosity of spirit. How sweet. The guy sets Sarah’s violation into motion, and he gets the credit?
When he gets tossed out of Egypt, “V’Avram kaveid m’od ba-mikneh, ba-kesef, u-va-zahav,” “Avram was very rich with cattle, silver, and gold.” According to the Conservative Torah commentary, Eitz Hayim, “The Hebrew word translated as ‘rich’ literally means ‘heavy, burdened.’ This has prompted the comment that, for a righteous person, great wealth can sometimes be a burden, a challenge to use it wisely and responsibly.” 
That’s very telling because all the money, riches, cattle, and jewels that Abraham receives can’t make up for the deterioration of his soul. In other words, as Ira Gershwin put it,
“The folks wid plenty o’ plenty
Got a lock on de door
‘Fraid somebody’s a-goin’ to rob ‘em
While dey’s out makin’ more.
What for?” 
Pirkei Avot asks, “Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot.” Clearly that’s not Abraham here.
Abraham saves his own life, gets rewarded richly, somehow has his reputation rescued, and yet loses his soul by sending his own wife into harm’s way. To mix religious metaphors, the Book of Mark in the Christian Bible asks, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
And we still hear nothing from Sarah herself. “Hashtag me too.”
By the way, in an uncomfortable case of “like father, like son,” Isaac is going to do the same thing with Rebekah, passing her off as his sister to the men of Gerar. But this time God doesn’t get involved.
Rebekah’s response? “Hashtag me too.”
It’s clear that God is the hero in the two Abraham/Sarah stories. Yet since God doesn’t criticize or chastise Abraham, are we supposed to think that God approved of his tactics? Or perhaps we’re supposed to see them as a Divine device to make sure that Abraham and Sarah stay alive long enough to get their branch of the family tree started.
What is important is this: Rabbi Dan Judson notes that there are some commentators who do not defend Abraham and Isaac’s actions. Rabbi Judson teaches that “Nachmanides says directly that the patriarchs simply erred: ‘Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life. He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings for God surely has the power to help and to save. His leaving the Land, concerning which he had been commanded from the beginning, on account of the famine, was also a sin he committed, for in famine God would redeem him from death. It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.’” 
What do we need to learn from Abraham and Isaac?
One thing is obvious: our scriptures do not shy away from our ancestors’ very real and sometimes tragic flaws. They are not saints to be glorified; they are humans just like us. It’s comforting to know that sometimes family is not all it’s cracked up to be. We all make huge mistakes. Sometimes we’re called out on them, sometimes not, and our job is to emulate what is good and avoid what is bad.
We learn that even the most apparently evil people among us, the ones with the worst reputations, can, if they wish to accept responsibility for their vile behavior, be redeemed. We see it in Pharaoh and Abimelech. Once they are aware, they both acknowledge their misdeeds, going out of their way to remove the temptation from their midst, sometimes paying through the nose to do so.
We learn that when we set up a nasty situation, even inadvertently, we have to accept our culpability in the conspiracy.
And finally, we realize that even though our matriarchs’ voices are silent in our ur text, at least there’s a record of how they were abused. No one can say that the Jews didn’t record the worst attributes of our ancestors, even if there were people then and now who would still pass off our patriarchs’ responses as, “a man gotta do what a man gotta do” and “boys will be boys” and “if she hadn’t been so beautiful (or … fill in the blank).”
Even though their voices are only heard as “Hashtag me too,” I think that a modern understanding of Torah leads us to find fault with Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) behavior, the sad use of women for someone’s financial and personal gain, and God’s own responses (at least to Pharaoh and Abimelech) as serious cautionary tales about the way women are being treated even today, thousands of years later. Rather than rationalize Abraham, Isaac’s, Pharaoh’s, and Abimelech’s maltreatment of Sarah and Rebekah, we can be urged to recognize that the women – not Abraham or Isaac or Pharaoh or Abimelech – were the victims of abusive behavior. And if that leads us to recognize that when anyone uses or abuses a woman (or frankly anyone) for someone else’s pleasure or power trip, it is not incumbent upon the victim to defend herself, it is incumbent upon society to say, “This is wrong. As wrong as it was for Abraham and Isaac, it is equally – if not more so because we know too much – wrong.”
My prayer is that at some point, we will no longer be shocked when a Harvey Weinstein or a President of the United States or a beloved comedian shamefully use and abuse any human being. We will simply no longer accept that it’s ok because “boys will be boys” and “the victim deserved it.” And maybe at that point, we can finally retire “Hashtag me too” because the victims’ voices will be heard and believed.
Kein y’hi ratzon.
 All Torah citations: “Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary;” Rabbinical Assembly; United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
 “Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary;” The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.