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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, and A Sexual Reboot.
We were introduced to human sexuality in B’reishit. Ten generations later, in Noah, we are confronted with a wholesale perversion of that sexuality, and observe G-d hit the sexual reset button with the flood. Ten generations pass. Now the world is presented with the first Jew (whatever that meant then), and the first couple to reintroduce monotheism and morality into the world – Abram and Sarai. As G-d later says of Abraham (after adding the “ha” to his name): “For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice.” Genesis, 18:19. No similar mission statement can be ascribed to any other individual until this time.
So one might expect Abram and Sarai’s sex life to closely resemble a return to Eden, a return to the divine ecstasy with which human sexuality is imbued, and the passionate merging of male and female into one. What we find, however, is something quite different.
The Torah does not tell us how Abram and Sarai met; whether they fell in love; of their first moments of intimacy. Instead, at the end of Parshat Noah, we are briefly told that Abram took Sarai as his wife, and that she was barren. Midrashic commentaries tell us that, in fact, Sarai was Abram’s niece – the daughter of his deceased brother Haran.
The very first recorded conversation between Abram and Sarai occurs as they are about to enter Egypt, after a famine makes the Land of Canaan too inhospitable. And it’s an odd one.
Now it came to pass when he drew near to come to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “Behold now I know that you are a woman of fair appearance. And it will come to pass when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife,’ and they will slay me and let you live. Please say [that] you are my sister, in order that it go well with me because of you, and that my soul may live because of you.” Genesis, 12:11-13.
The commentaries puzzle over this one. Why is Abram only now noticing his wife’s beauty? The Midrash offers one explanation: “Until now, he did not recognize her [beauty] because of the modesty of both of them, but now he recognized her beauty through an incident.” Rashi mentions a second explanation: “It is customary that through the hardship of travel, a person becomes unattractive, but she remained with her beauty.” Rashi ultimately acknowledges that neither of these are faithful to the simplest most literal interpretation of Abram’s statement, which he explains is simply: “Behold, now the time has arrived when we must be concerned about your beauty. I have known already for a long time that you are of fair appearance, but now we are coming among wretched people, the brothers of the Cushites, and they are not accustomed to a beautiful woman.”
So what are the non-literal interpretations really saying? According to the Midrash, is it conceivable that Abram had actually never noticed Sarai’s beauty before? Where would such an extreme level of modesty have come from? Such an approach to feminine beauty seems as though it would be far more suited to the Victorian era of prudery than to Biblical times. And we don’t find such traits among any of our other patriarchs, either: not in the most reticent of them – Isaac – who “took Rebecca, and she was to him as a wife, and he loved her, and he was comforted for the death of his mother” (Genesis 25:67), and who “cavorted with Rebecca, his wife,” in front of an open window in the Land of Philistines (Genesis, 26:8); and certainly not in Jacob, who sees his future wife Rachel for the first time as she is shepherding her father’s flock of sheep, and introduces himself to her by kissing her. Genesis, 29:11. In fact, a few verses later, the Torah makes a point of stating that Rachel was beautiful, immediately following this statement with “And Jacob loved Rachel.” Genesis, 29:17-18. The juxtaposition of these verses strongly suggests that Jacob was aware of Rachel’s beauty. So if extreme modesty was not a value in those days, where would Abram have picked it up from?
Ironically, the other non-literal interpretation suggests the exact opposite. It posits that Abram was very much aware of his wife’s beauty – which he was clearly a fan of – and was marveling that not even a lengthy and dusty journey could mar her beauty. This is a man who is highly sensitive to his wife’s beauty; not oblivious to it.
Others challenge the Midrashic interpretation from a halachic point of you. One is not even permitted to marry a woman without having first seen her – so how could Abram have missed Sarai’s looks? The Midrash is therefore explained as follows: Clearly, Abram knew what Sarai looked like. In fact, everyone knew what Sarai looked like, as her face was fully exposed. She did not wear a burka. However, the Midrash points out a universally important principle: when one sees something frequently and repeatedly, it becomes overly familiar, and can no longer elicit the same attraction and reaction as it did when it was new. Having seen Sarai daily since their marriage, Abram had grown accustomed – and therefore immune to – her beauty.
Until the mysterious “incident,” referenced in the Midrash. What was the incident that reminded Abram of Sarai’s attractiveness?