A Random Walk With Rashi: Days of Our Wives

This is a guest post by Phil Goldman, a former stand-up, current attorney, and closet Torah scholar. Stay tuned for a new post in the A Random Walk with Rashi series every Thursday morning.* Miss last week’s piece? Read it here.

Yeah, that's the ticket!

OK, so we back up yet again. Trust me, its not that easy to jump into the middle of Genesis 20:14, without collecting our thoughts just a bit as to where and why Abraham has gotten himself into the pickle he currently finds himself. Lets go way, way back – two verses, to Genesis 20:12.

To set the scene, the chapter Va’Yera begins with three angels approaching Abraham, who confirm for him that Sarah would indeed bear him a son, and would do so within the upcoming year – causing her to laugh at the thought of a 90 year old woman, with her “withered innerds”, being able to still bear a child.

Within relatively few verses, the scene then shifts to Abraham bargaining with G-d to save Sodom (“give me ten, ten, ten righteous people, give me five, give me five, give me five, five, five ….). Quickly the scene shifts yet again into Sodom itself, where in a flurry of events, two of the angels are greeted by Lot, hustled through the city to his home, and while there, they beat back the incestuous crowd, and finally hightail it out of town just before the city is destroyed.

Its hard trying to summarize a scene that we feel we know so much more about – but still – its got to be done.

Abraham and his folks have just left the vicinity of Sodom, presumably knowing it was destroyed, but apparently not knowing the fate of his nephew Lot, or family. The scene shifts to Gerar, where Abraham arrives and immediately tries to pass Sarah off as his sister, rather than wife, to join the harem of local king Abimelech – as he did once before, in Egypt, with the Pharoah. Yet again, Abraham’s scheme is quickly revealed – notably before Sarah and Abimelech can consummate their relationship. We are now at the point where Abimelech has implored Abraham to tell him why he would do such a thing, and Abraham is trying his best to respond.

Lets try fully two verses – if you are still with me, I’ll see you on the other end. I’ll repeat the Rashi for only the first verse, since those paying attention will recall that we took a run at his comments for verse 13 last week.

Genesis 20:12-13 [Abraham speaking to Abimelech, having just been confronted about Abraham’s trying to pass Sarah off as his sister, rather than wife]

“Moreover, she is indeed my sister, my father’s daughter, though not my mother’s daughter; and she became my wife.”

“And so it was, when G-d caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her [i.e., Sarah], ‘Let this be your kindness which you shall do for me – to whatever place we come, say of me: He is my brother.’ “

And the daughter of one’s father from a different mother is permitted to a son of Noah, i.e., a non-Jew, for there is no halachic relationship through paternity for non-Jews. In order to bear out his words he answered him thus. And if you will say by way of objection, is it not true that she was the daughter of his brother, and not his father? The answer is that the children of children are like one’s own children, and [Sarah] is thus considered the daughter of Terah, Abraham’s father, for she was the daughter of Haran, another son of Terah. Similarly [Abraham] says to Lot, “for we are men who are brothers”.

Haran was from a different mother than Abraham was.

So is Sarah his sister or his wife? Or maybe both? At first blush, Abraham’s stammering seems more reminiscent of a Groucho Marx movie than our G-d-given Torah. Then it dawned on me – it is not from Groucho at all – but instead from Saturday Night Live – the pathological liar skit played by Jon Lovitz. If you don’t know the skit, or voice, check it out on You Tube – this has to be read in character.

(Lovitz as Abraham):
“She’s my sister, no, she’s my wife … no, wait – she’s my sister and my wife, yeah that’s the ticket! And my other wife is Morgan Fairchild, and I’ve seen her naked …. more than once! In fact, I’ve seen them both naked. Yeah, that’s the ticket!  And you know what? I’m the leader of these people, in fact I’m going to be the father of multitudes of them – in fact, I’ll start a whole religion, all by myself, yeah that’s it! We can call them the Abrahamsons, no wait, we’ll call them the Hebrews! Yeah, that’s the ticket!

Clearly, over these past several verses, it has been hard to hold Abraham in very high regard, as the husband of Sarah, let alone as the father of Ishmael and eventual father of Isaac. His relationships have all the makings of a Schwarzenegger family tree. With another arrival of Father’s Day this past summer, we can only imagine the cards his sons must have written, if they had only been preserved, and we could read Aramaic:

Dear Mr. Abraham
Thanks for being a great dad, and for letting me become a great nation. I could have done without the circumcision part (ha, ha) – 13 is a little old for that sort of thing. I sure wish you and Mom would have hit it off, but that’s OK, we found water in the desert and we’re getting by fine.
XOXO, Ishy

[Isaac] Pops,
Oh sure, you almost killed me, but hey, that’s life – you gotta do what you gotta do (LOL)
We can move on now, and I can’t wait to start finding those old wells of yours.
Signed, Izzy

So we begin again, with what is bothering Rashi about these verses?

Along with Rashi, we spent the better part of our session trying to unravel the familial ties and relationships as between Abraham and Sarah, in terms of who begat whom, and the various rules that might have applied at the time, in order to get Abraham to the point where Sarah quite likely would have been considered both sister and wife. If I could have followed along I would try to repeat it all for you here. It was arduous. But suffice it to say, we learned that Sarah was also referred to by the nickname Isca, which becomes just one small – but important – part of the logic (or tortured reasoning, depending on your perspective) that you need to make all the parts fit.

Actually, part of what bothers Rashi is probably the same thing that bothered us about verse 13 – what does it mean for Abraham to say that G-d caused him to wander all this time – is that really what G-d did?

We read back to the moment itself, in Lech lecha (Genesis 12:1), where G-d tells Abraham ….“Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” This doesn’t sound like he was expecting to wander at all.

Then again, if G-d is somehow ‘showing’ Abraham where to go, he is doing a very good job at obfuscating the directions. From leaving the drought in Israel, to being booted out of Egypt, traipsing around to save Lot, then seeming to lose his negotiation with G-d, leading to the destruction of Sodom and hightailing it to Gerar – if this is showing Abraham the way, we’d hate to see where Abraham would be if he needed to fend for himself. But typical forefather, far be it from him to ask directions.

The word “wander” certainly made me wonder. And not in the usual “I wonder as I wander out under the sky” sort of sense, which leads us in an entirely different direction. According to Strong’s concordance, the Hebrew word that Abraham used to describe his wandering does not have very good connotations. More often than not (in fact, routinely it would seem) the word is used for actions that we would think do not pertain to Abraham, or in turn, actions that we would think he does not use to describe himself – unless he is somehow just that frustrated, and at his wit’s end. These include “cause to go astray, deceive, dissemble, make to err, seduce, and vacillate”.

So what is bothering us? Plenty.

What kind of a person is Abraham? Or for that matter, Sarah? Why would he conceive, and she agree, to telling a lie? Even if it’s a little white lie. Was it acceptable then, or necessary, to save his neck, or his fortune, or his marriage? Especially since he has now tried it twice, and both times he’s been seen through. If Sarah Palin were there at the time, she may well have asked “so, how’s that sister thing working for ya?”.

And just how did Abraham know that he would ‘wander’ in the midst of wicked people, or that their little white lie would work to keep him safe. Strangely, there seems to be something fundamental and reassuring about the fact that even the most wicked still have some principles – they might take a man’s sister as their own, but not his wife. Far better to kill the man, and mess with his widow. (Google King David and Uriah).

We hope you can join us next week, as we plan to cover 3 new verses, no wait, 5 new verses, yeah that’s the ticket! And even a tractate – no four tractates – of Talmud. And better yet, we’ll be joined by Morgan Fairchild, and you might be able to see her naked … maybe more than once. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

(Photo: bobistraveling)

*On occasion, our group will take a break from our weekly meeting whether for Jewish holidays or those pesky life cycle events.  On those in-between weeks we may improvise a bit for this column.  Stay tuned.