This d’var Torah mentions mistreatment of women, including sexual assault. If this is likely to be triggering for you, please exercise self-care.
This week’s Torah portion is rich and deep. It begins with God’s command to Avram לך–לך / lech-lecha, go you forth — or, some say, go into yourself. It contains God blessing Avram. It contains, too, the birth of Ishmael to Avram through Hagar, which we just read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
But reading it this year, I was struck by a passage I’ve always glossed over: the part where Avram and Sarai go into Egypt, and Avram says to her, “You’re beautiful, and if they think you’re my wife they’ll kill me and take you — so pretend to be my sister instead.” And Pharaoh takes Sarai as a wife.
Avram benefits greatly from this deception: he acquires “sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.” Meanwhile, Pharaoh is punished for sleeping with Sarai. God brings plagues on him and his household, until he comes to Avram and says, “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?! Take her back!”
Perhaps predictably, the text says nothing about what all of this was like for Sarai. She has been asked to lie about her identity to protect her husband. Also to protect her husband, she allows herself to be taken into Pharaoh’s court. She gives Pharaoh access to her body. Torah tells us nothing about how she felt, but I think I can imagine.
I don’t want this to be in our Torah — our Torah that I cherish and teach and love. But on the matter of women’s rights and women’s bodies and women’s integrity, our Torah here is painfully silent. It may not explicitly approve women being treated as property, but neither does it explicitly disapprove.
Or: neither does it explicitly disapprove here. As we move from right to left through our scroll, Torah changes. Genesis contains this story, and the story of Dinah, raped by Shechem, who then seeks to wed her. Like Sarai in this passage, Dinah has no voice and no apparent agency.
But by the time we get to Numbers, Torah gives us the daughters of Tzelophechad, a surprisingly feminist narrative that gives women both voice and power. We can understand this dissonance from a historical-critical perspective as the weaving together of texts from different time periods. From a spiritual perspective, we can see this as the Torah herself evolving.
Torah reflects a trajectory of growth and progress: on humanity’s part, and arguably even on God’s part. But this moment in our ancestral story is distressingly patriarchal. It reminds me that the word “patriarchal” comes to us from our relationship with these very forefathers, who weren’t always ethical in the ways we may want them to have been.
This year I read these verses juxtaposed against the #MeToo movement that unfolded in recent weeks on social media: woman after woman after woman saying, harassment and misogyny and sexual assault and sexual abuse and rape are all part of a whole, and I too have been a victim of these proprietary and predatory behaviors.
Maybe Sarai chose to pretend for Avram’s sake. We don’t know; Torah doesn’t say. Maybe she was willing to allow herself to be raped to protect her husband. I can imagine situations in which I would allow myself to be violated to protect someone whom I love. But that is not a choice any woman should ever have to make.
I read recently about an exercise that Jackson Katz did in a mixed-gender classroom. He asked the men, what do you do to protect yourselves from being raped? And there was silence, and uncomfortable laughter, and eventually one of the men said, I don’t do anything; I’ve never really thought about it.
And then they asked the women, and the women generated a long list without even trying. I don’t walk alone. I don’t go out at night. I don’t park in dark places. I make sure I keep my drink in sight so no one can slip a roofie into it. I carry mace. I don’t wear certain clothes. I don’t make eye contact with men…
Most of us don’t even think about these things: not the men, who have the privilege of not having to worry about being treated as property, and not the women, who do these things almost unconsciously. Sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women are the water we swim in, the air we breathe.
Reading this story in Torah makes my heart hurt. I don’t want Avraham Avinu, our patriarch, to have behaved this way toward Sarai. But he did, and in the context of the time it was unremarkable. Notice how everyone assumed Sarai was going to get raped no matter what. That’s the assumption when women’s bodies are property.
Guess what: it’s still unremarkable. This is what patriarchy is, what patriarchy does: it allows men’s need to have sex, or to feel powerful, to trump the needs of women to have bodily integrity or to be whole human beings. Patriarchy is still real, and it is still damaging us. All of us. Of every gender.
Here are some things we can do to be better than this:
Listen to women. (Here’s a good essay about how exactly to do that.) Sarai doesn’t have a voice in this story: don’t replicate that today by not listening to women. Listen to us and believe us. When a woman says she was assaulted or violated, believe her.
Don’t say “but men get raped too.” Yes, they do, and that is terrible, and don’t derail the conversation to make it about men right now. Patriarchy is a system that centers the needs and perspectives of men over the needs and perspectives of women, in every way. Make the radical choice not to perpetuate that.
If you’re sexually active, keep active consent as your guiding light, and teach your children the importance of active consent too. If someone’s not enthusiastic, stop. If someone says no — or “not right now” — even if they say it through body language instead of words — then don’t do it. Whatever it is. Because no one ever is entitled to someone else’s body.
Understand that men feeling entitled to women’s bodies takes a million different forms: from harassment, to the way men talk to women or talk about women, to the way men look at women (and the way women are depicted in media), to the way men touch women. Understand that all of these things are part of a whole that we need to change.
If you are a man, you may be thinking, “but I don’t do those things!” I hear you. And: sexual violence is insidious. It’s in the media we consume, the scripture we study, the air we breathe. It’s shaped the way I think about my own body, and there’s a lot that I’m working to unlearn. Inevitably these dynamics have shaped you too. But here’s the good news: you can become aware of it and change it. And you can call out sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, and rape culture in ways that I can’t.
I wish this story weren’t in our Torah. But Torah holds up a mirror to human life. What I really wish is that this weren’t such a familiar story, then and now. We are all Avram: God calls all of us to go forth from our roots, from our comfort zone, into the future that God will show us. We need to go forth and build a world that is better than the one Avram knew.
That trajectory — seeking to build a better world than the one we inherited — is itself encoded in Torah, and in the prophets, and in the whole Jewish idea of striving toward a world redeemed. This week’s Torah portion comes to us from a very early time in our human story. The familiarity we feel, upon reading this troubling text, reminds us how far we still have to go.
Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.