Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Learning the Hard Way

 

You know that brief, glorious and incredibly annoying phase in a young child’s life when they keep asking “why?” drilling down past parental layers of knowledge, guesswork, and ignorance until they reach the rock bottom of “Because!”

Jews love questions. It is part of our persnickety DNA. We like to question everything. One could even suggest that we create anti-semitism in part because we instinctively doubt whoever is in charge. But even Jews rarely go as far as I am about to….

I’d like to try the “WHY?” game with the Torah, for a simple reason: if we refuse to accept “because” as the answer, a lot of interesting things can be discovered.

So here goes… Famous Jewish Question: Why do we have a Passover Seder?

Famous Answer… our forefathers were slaves to Pharaoh, and G-d took us out with a mighty hand…. just as it appears in the Haggadah.

But why were we slaves in Egypt?

Answer: Um… because Pharaoh enslaved us.

But why did G-d allow it?

Answer: He told Avraham that we were going to be slaves to a foreign power.

Why would G-d do such a thing like that?

A: Well… let’s see… we know from the war of the Five Kings and the Four Kings (Genesis 14) that G-d provided a miracle by making Avram victorious, and …. nobody noticed. Soon after, G-d promised a much more dramatic miracle, something that the rest of the nations could not pretend they did not see – the Exodus. So maybe that explains why we had to be a slave people whose deity overpowered the most advanced and powerful nation in the world at that time.

But why did the Jewish people have to go through this experience? Why were we enslaved? Why did we have to wonder if G-d had abandoned us?

Here is an answer that surprised me: Avraham had been promised that we would be servants to a foreign land, so it means that G-d decided on our slavery generations beforehand! What did Avraham do so that his descendants had to be slaves?

I think the Torah tells us what Avram did, in Genesis 12: 10-20

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”

Whoa.

Is the Torah telling us that Avram tried to pass off his wife as his sister? Yes, it is. And it gets worse.

14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

Can you imagine your husband pretending he is not married to you, and then accepting payment for you from another man without a peep of complaint? (Mind you, this is the Avram who refused to take even a shoelace from another man as spoils of war.)

It sounds crazy. It is crazy.

But think through the logic, because it is actually much worse than this: Avram knew the Egyptians would take her. Which means that Avram SOLD HIS WIFE OFF. For food during a famine. For his own survival. He just cut her loose.

Can you imagine how Sarai must have felt at that moment? She would have felt totally abandoned, and alone. The future looked dark indeed – was she really supposed to end up as nothing more than a harem-slave to a foreign king?

This, I think, is why G-d wanted us to feel the same thing when we were in Egypt, alone, oppressed, and seemingly abandoned by our G-d – the same way that Sarai must have felt about her husband, and perhaps even about G-d as well.

If this is right, then we were enslaved in Egypt so that we would learn how NOT to treat people – that we should feel the same way Sarai did. The Torah is full of commandments that explain themselves “because you were slaves in Egypt.” The experience of being in Egypt taught us the very same thing Sarai was feeling: understanding what sheer terror and despair feel like.

What happened next? G-d sent plagues against the Egyptian king in both cases –for Avram and Sarai, as well as for the Jewish people in Exodus. In both cases, Sarai and the Jewish people left Egypt, aided by those plagues, much enriched in material wealth, but profoundly emotionally bruised by the experience.

17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

But there is a key, huge difference between the parallel exodus stories: When Sarai and Avram leave Egypt, they never look back. They don’t commemorate the day G-d saved Sarai from the Egyptians. They don’t even (at least in the text) say, “Thank you,” to G-d.

So perhaps, going back to our very first question:

Why do we have a Passover Seder?

And we have a different answer: Every year we remember the exodus from Egypt because Avram and Sarai did not recognize theirs. We must commemorate and show appreciation because otherwise the event is lost and forgotten.

Note, of course, that Avram’s motivation for lying about Sarai’s relationship was entirely unfounded: Pharaoh did not kill Avram to keep her. On the contrary, Avram and Sarai were sent out with increased wealth, basically an apology. So if G-d was prepared to extract Sarai from a harem, why would he not have been willing to keep them both alive, and free, in any case? This was the G-d who had delivered Avram in a miraculous battle, after all.

Yet Avram did not learn from his exodus from Egypt – he tries to pass his wife off as his sister another time (with Avimelech). Which means not commemorating the first exodus led to Avram not learning from the experience – he failed to understand that his wife should not be sold as chattel, to understand that G-d cares about what happens to both sexes.

So perhaps this is the reason we have a seder, why we were in Egypt, why we were enslaved and gave up hope. Without the benefit of experiencing these things, we lacked the perspective to understand how much people suffer and need kindness and love and respect. Avram did not understand it the easy way, so we, as a people, had to learn it the hard way.

The entire arc of Jewish history may have been determined by the way one man treated his wife, coupled with G-d’s determination to make sure we never do it again.

[Another iWe and @susanquinn production]

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There are 12 comments.

  1. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Cogent and Chewy.

    • #1
    • November 11, 2019, at 7:03 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  2. Jim Beck Member

    Morning IWe,

    Could you tell us how the audience for Genesis would have thought of Avram. Would they think that a man has a right to do with his wife what he wants? Would they think that a man who gives up his wife is weak? Would the audience think less of Avram because he acts in such a self interested way and because he exhibits such a confused relationship with God, trusting at some times and acting as a non-believer at other times.

    Thanks for the wonderful analysis.

    • #2
    • November 12, 2019, at 8:17 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  3. cdor Member

    Wait, I thought it was Moses, not Abraham, who led the enslaved Jewish people out of Egypt. It was Moses who, through God, dropped the 10 plagues on Egypt Land and told Pharoah, “Let my people go!” I never heard this story about Abraham and Sarah.

     

    • #3
    • November 12, 2019, at 8:30 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor

    cdor (View Comment):

    Wait, I thought it was Moses, not Abraham, who led the enslaved Jewish people out of Egypt. It was Moses who, through God, dropped the 10 plagues on Egypt Land and told Pharoah, “Let my people go!” I never heard this story about Abraham and Sarah.

     

    The “big” Exodus was Moses, @cdor. @iwe is telling the story of an early famine that Abram (whose name G-d later changed to Abraham) and Sarai were experiencing, and went to Egypt for food. That’s the first time Abram “gave away” his wife. He later asked her again to say she was his sister with King Avimelech (Genesis, Ch. 20). The man just didn’t know how to treat a woman!

    • #4
    • November 12, 2019, at 8:39 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  5. GrannyDude Member

    Chewy indeed!

    On the other hand…if there was a famine, wouldn’t Sarai be better off in Pharoah’s harem than anywhere else? That is, could this have been the best Avram could do for his wife, or thought he could do?

    • #5
    • November 12, 2019, at 8:44 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    There are many parallels in stories as one goes through the Bible where it is like a spiral staircase. The same things happen, but each time it is on a higher level.

    • #6
    • November 12, 2019, at 8:46 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  7. WillowSpring Member

    iWe: You know that brief, glorious and incredibly annoying phase in a young child’s life when they keep asking “why?” drilling down past parental layers of knowledge, guesswork, and ignorance until they reach the rock bottom of “Because!”

    I may have been like this when I was very young (our 2 sons certainly were), but when I was older – and thought I knew how things worked, my father (with his PhD in Physics) turned the table on me. He would sometimes leaven the “whys” with a “how” until we would end up at the molecular or cosmic level as appropriate. I would go off and try to learn more.

    On a more relevant level, I really appreciate these posts (lessons?). They are indeed “chewy”.

    • #7
    • November 12, 2019, at 10:21 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor

    GrannyDude (View Comment):

    Chewy indeed!

    On the other hand…if there was a famine, wouldn’t Sarai be better off in Pharoah’s harem than anywhere else? That is, could this have been the best Avram could do for his wife, or thought he could do?

    I speak only for myself, but I’m not sure what “better off” would be. One of several wives? I doubt very much that Avram was willing to lose her, which makes his action all the more perplexing. I’m convinced that Avram was hardly looking out for his wife in his treating her like a whore. From the little we hear about his temperament, I don’t see the possibility of his action being benevolent. Finally, there was no reason to think he couldn’t keep them in food, once they were in Egypt. @iwe may have a different tack.

    • #8
    • November 12, 2019, at 10:29 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. Manny Member

    Fascinating read! I guess it never dawned on me what Abraham actually did with his wife in Egypt. And tying it to the Exodus is brilliant. Yes, I think you are spot on. Very enlightening and well written too.

    • #9
    • November 12, 2019, at 10:29 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  10. iWe Reagan
    iWe Post author

    Jim Beck (View Comment):

    Morning IWe,

    Could you tell us how the audience for Genesis would have thought of Avram.

    We are the audience. But Avram’s contemporaries would not have been surprised. Women were generally treated as chattel.

    Would they think that a man has a right to do with his wife what he wants? Would they think that a man who gives up his wife is weak?

    Absolutely. The Torah describes it as realpolitik. But Avram says he cannot defend Sarai from a violent threat.

    Would the audience think less of Avram because he acts in such a self interested way and because he exhibits such a confused relationship with God, trusting at some times and acting as a non-believer at other times.

    We learn about the growing relationship between man and G-d, both sides figuring things out as time goes by.

    Thanks for the wonderful analysis.

    You are most welcome!

    • #10
    • November 12, 2019, at 11:11 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  11. GrannyDude Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    GrannyDude (View Comment):

    Chewy indeed!

    On the other hand…if there was a famine, wouldn’t Sarai be better off in Pharoah’s harem than anywhere else? That is, could this have been the best Avram could do for his wife, or thought he could do?

    I speak only for myself, but I’m not sure what “better off” would be. One of several wives? I doubt very much that Avram was willing to lose her, which makes his action all the more perplexing. I’m convinced that Avram was hardly looking out for his wife in his treating her like a whore. From the little we hear about his temperament, I don’t see the possibility of his action being benevolent. Finally, there was no reason to think he couldn’t keep them in food, once they were in Egypt. @iwe may have a different tack.

    Or maybe all of the above? The stories in scripture are marvelously multifaceted…

    I wrote an admittedly provocative paper in seminary arguing that Sarai was trading up—that in terms of evolutionary psychology (and/or ordinary human psychology) a beautiful woman (however old!) could do better and “should” do better. Given the choices at the time, she was better off as one of the women in a very rich man’s harem than the sole wife of Avram. After all, she doesn’t put up an argument, and she wasn’t a woman to withhold objections when she felt them.

    My other theory was that Sarai’s sojourn in Pharoah’s harem was proof (later confirmed by the handmaid Hagar) that the couple’s fertility problem lay with the woman and not the man. In other words, Pharoah=Hagar for purposes of fertility testing. 

     

     

    • #11
    • November 13, 2019, at 5:34 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  12. Boss Mongo Member

    Outstanding. Thank you.

    • #12
    • November 16, 2019, at 4:34 AM PST
    • Like