A Random Walk With Rashi: What the Hell?

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.

Tina Fey & Sarah Palin side-by-side on SNL

This past week was another two-fer – covering both verses 14 and 15 of Genesis chapter 20. You people don’t know how lucky you are.

We need to recall the backdrop before diving into our verses for the week, let alone try to figure out Rashi. Having just left behind Sodom, Abraham and his clan have arrived in nearby Gerar, where he immediately attempts to pass Sarah off as his sister, rather than wife, permitting (forcing? encouraging?) her to join the harem of local king Abimelech. Strangely, this is the second time he has tried such a thing, the first time being way back in Egypt, when he also offered Sarah, that time to the Pharaoh. Both events may simply have been the necessary or customary thing to do at the time, but this time it seems all the more notable, and curious, since Abraham has just learned that Sarah would indeed bear him a son, and within the year no less. Fine time to be wife – or sister – swapping. Then again, for reasons we could spend months or years figuring out – Abraham (we assume) did beget a son after both events – Ishmael (with Hagar) post Egypt, and Isaac (with Sarah) coming up soon.

Both times his schemes seem to have been thwarted (or perhaps not – this may have been his plan all along) when the ruler suddenly became aware of the scam, and sent both Sarah and Abraham packing, surprisingly (to us at least), laden with gifts. In Egypt, Rashi concludes that the Pharaoh was beset by a skin disease that prevented him from getting near Sarah (not hard to believe – most of us can remember from our teenage years how even a single pimple used to work), while in Gerar, Abimelech was visited by G-d in a dream, who not only told him of the ploy, but informed him that Abraham was a prophet, who would bless Abimelech. On balance, I’d take the dream.

We just left the verse where Abraham attempted to explain himself to Abimelech (which he never did in Egypt) and now rejoin the scene at the moment where Abimelech is about to give Abraham the royal heave ho – though not nearly as abruptly as Pharoah had done.

Genesis 20:14-15
So Abimelech took flocks and cattle and servants and maidservants and gave them to Abraham; and he returned his wife Sarah to him.

And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; settle wherever you see fit”.

So that he should be appeased and pray for him.

But Pharoah said to him, “Here is your wife. Take [her] and go.” For [Pharoah] was afraid to let Abraham and Sarah remain in his land, because the Egyptians are steeped in licentiousness”.

The first Rashi commentary seems relatively matter of fact. Rashi appears to be wondering, as do we, why Abimelech would see fit to reward Abraham with gifts, after having nearly been duped. To many commentators, the gifts provided by Pharoah or Abimelech could serve one or more of a variety of purposes – as a bribe, or payment, or perhaps simply as a publicly visible face-saver for all involved. The answer in Gerar, it seems, is even clearer – Abimelech still wanted the blessing that G-d had promised Abraham would provide. Abimelech needed to walk a fine line, between confronting or chastising Abraham, on the one hand, and receiving that blessing, on the other. Apparently, you don’t bite the hand that blesses you, so to speak.

But something else seems to be bothering Rashi about these verses – as shown in his second commentary. Remember, there are some recurring themes we might look for in trying to understand Rashi’s mindset, for instance, he tends to pick up on illogical words, or information in a verse that seems superfluous, or at times, even an apparent lack of symmetry between scenes or language. In other words, nothing is inadvertent, or a typo to him, but rather is there to teach us something.

In this case, the aspect that Rashi picks up on seems to be that old lack of symmetry again – the fact that Pharoah had booted Abraham out of Egypt, while Abimelech offers Abraham his choice of land on which to stay. In spite of the many similarities between these scenes, what are we to take, or learn from the difference between these two outcomes?

Rashi’s approach at times like this reminds me of those side by side drawings we used to get as kids, where we had to stare at them both long enough to find the 10 differences between one and the other.

Or, closer to home, the four questions on Passover, when we learn the meaning of the Seder through the youngest child asking essentially – “why on this night do we do this, while on all other nights we do that?”

It seems that must be how we Jews learn.
Some folks see things as they are, and ask “why?”
Others see things as they could be, and ask “why not?”
We Jews tend to look for the differences between things, and wonder “what the hell?”

Though far more profound, in his own “what the hell?” sort of way, Rashi tells us that the Pharoah did not trust his own people enough to ensure Abraham’s safety – were he to have remained in Egypt. Not exactly a resounding vote of confidence in his own people, but it does seem to redeem the Pharaoh a bit (which may come in handy down the road, in understanding and reconciling Pharoah’s role in the story of Joseph).

As our group came to a close we focused briefly on the Hebrew word for ‘return’ in this verse, which seems jam packed with meaning – providing considerably more nuance than a mere handing over or giving back. Sarah may have been ‘returned’ in that she was renewed in several ways, including now having the fertility she would need to bear a son.

As if two verses last week wasn’t fast enough for you, we are about to set a rapid pace over the next couple weeks – getting us through both chapters 20 through 21 – in order to reach Chapter 22 by Rosh Hashanah. Chapter 22 (the binding of Isaac) being the Torah portion that is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah – actually along with Chapter 21 for those who still celebrate Rosh Hashanah over two days. Like a rare lunar eclipse, we are going to try and align our Rashi verse with the same chapter and verse being read on Rosh Hashanah.

Buckle your biblical seat belts.

(Photo: TaraLivesOn)