She’s My Beautiful Sister

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Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

On their way to Egypt, Abram and Sarai came to a shallow river which they needed to cross. Abram watched as Sarai lifted her skirts to enter the water. That vision, that spectacle, seeing Sarai’s bare thighs exposed in that unfamiliar context – and likely in full view of any others in the vicinity – peeled away the numbing layers of over-familiarity, and allowed Abram to view Sarai with fresh eyes. “Behold now I know that you are a woman of fair appearance.

Every committed relationship breeds familiarity. No matter how attractive one’s spouse is, constant exposure to his or her charms is bound to reduce the effect that those charms have on us. But the Midrash teaches that sometimes seeing our spouse in a new context, in a different and novel setting, provides us with a precious opportunity to experience those charms all over again.


Abram instructs Sarai to refer to herself as his sister, saying that “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.”

Abram is clearly concerned that the Egyptians would see Sarai’s husband as a disposable obstacle on the path to Sarai. He envisions that she will be desired by the Egyptians – or perhaps even by the Egyptian king – and will be taken against both their wills. However, he sees the Egyptians has having the barest modicum of morality: they won’t molest a married woman. But that’s a problem easily remedied. Kill the husband, and she is no longer a married woman. Accordingly, Abram insists that Sarai pretend that he is not her husband, but rather her brother. This way, when they take Sarai – as surely they will – Abram will not be an impediment that needs to be removed. Oh – and they might actually reward Abram for allowing them to avail themselves of his “sister’s” hotness.

Huh? So Abram had no problem with the actual possibility of Sarai being taken? Even if she was his sister, this cool planning for Sarai’s abduction would be difficult to stomach. But she was his wife! How could he plan for her infidelity? In fact, isn’t announcing that she was an unmarried sister basically an invitation for her to be taken? Could Abram’s ruse actually have increased the likelihood that Sarai would be abducted?

Ironically, the Talmud Bavli (Bava Metzia, 59a) concludes from these verses that a man should be scrupulous in his respect for his wife. Why? Because the blessing to one’s house comes in the wife’s merit, as we see that Abram was rewarded on account of Sarai.

What was Abram thinking?

Ramban decides that this was a significant sin on Abram’s part, to place his wife in harm’s way out of fear for his own life, and that he should have placed his faith in G-d that they would both be protected. Indeed, Ramban concludes that it is because of this sin that Abram’s descendants were condemned to hundreds of years of slavery!

The Or Hachayim offers a different and far more novel explanation.

Abram, he says, took a daring gamble, based on his prescient knowledge of the commandments that G-d would some day give to his descendants. He knew that, as G-d would later commanded with respect to the Sotah – the woman accused of adultery by her jealous husband in Numbers (5:12-31) – a married woman who is found enclosed with a man other than her husband, who is initially suspected of adultery, but who is ultimately proven innocent, is blessed with children, as a form of compensation for her ordeal. More on that when we get to Naso. Abram understood there to be a nexus between a married woman being in a morally precarious situation, her resistance and ultimate innocence, and the consequential blessing of fertility. Recognizing Sarai’s barrenness, he sought to orchestrate a scenario in which Sarai would be able to receive this blessing. He thus deliberately planned for Sarai to be taken, relying upon Sarai’s own merit and strength of character to protect her from sin, hoping that their emergence from the ordeal would elicit the blessing of children.

Of course, in order for his plan to work, he needed to be alive, and the Egyptians needed to feel comfortable taking Sarai. Abram saw to this by pretending that Sarai was his sister, and not his wife.

Abram’s plan did not work the first time, in Egypt, but it did after the second time, after Sarah was abducted by Abimelech, king of the Philistines. She became pregnant with Isaac shortly afterwards. Perhaps it was the cumulative merit of both incidents (which might explain why Abraham tried the same ruse again), as the Midrash states: “It says, ‘If the woman had not become defiled and she is clean, she shall be exempted and bear seed.’ Numbers, 5:28. And this [Sarah] who entered into Pharaoh’s house and Abimelech’s house and emerged pure, should she not certainly be remembered [for children]?”

And here’s the final kicker:

Is there any chance that Abram’s recognition of Sarai’s beauty may be related to his plan to endow her with fertility? Is there any possibility that, by observing Sarai’s exposure at the river, and recognizing the effect that it had upon himself, Abram was then of a mindframe that allowed him to perceive the benefit that can sometimes be realized from sexually novel (and perhaps even risky) situations?

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