Perhaps you are like me – stumbling through my days in a perpetual state of exhaustion. It could be for many reasons: long hours of work, the weight from our personal lives due to matters we are facing individually, and, perhaps even weightier, issues our loved ones are facing, which we can’t help but carry with us. We are exhausted from the human and natural disasters in our immediate communities, in our nation, and lands across oceans; the tentacles of these tragedies reach as close as the smart phones in our pockets, and the news alerts literally flashing before our eyes, even as we close them in sleep.
It’s probably time for a very long nap.
Unfortunately, sleeping through life is not an option. One of my strategies for gathering energy is to heed our tradition’s call to Torah. Often, I experience the text as a source of sustenance and strength. This week’s portion, Vayera, is a rich collection of legend and lesson, but it does contain a pericope that threatened to deplete my already low reserves, as it is both distasteful and shockingly relevant: the second episode when Abraham passes off Sarah as his sister in return for his safety and for profit. In and of itself, this episode is highly disturbing. But here we are, tackling it for a second week in a row. Facing it again is an exhausting task, especially knowing that we will only have a week of relief before encountering it for yet a third time, when we turn to Toldot and confront Abraham’s son, Isaac, committing the same atrocity against his wife, Rebecca.
There are plenty of objectionable texts scattered throughout our sacred literature, but somehow this motif has always felt particularly offensive to me. Maybe those of you with Biblical names share with me a sense of personal investment in your namesake; Sarah’s narratives tug at me with an almost familiar grip. It could also be that, unlike other troubling texts, this one comes at us again and again and again. This thudding repetition is a searing reminder of the ugly misogyny embedded in our tradition. This year, it carries a more deeply resounding echo, coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, amid the scores of declarations surging forth. The description of Abraham’s growing accumulation of wealth and his continuing rise in stature, emerging from the exploitation of Sarah’s body, palpably repulses me. I hear in Abraham’s weak protestation that he felt endangered, in his deflection claiming the people of Gerar don’t fear Adonai, in his irrelevant explanation that Sarah actually is his sister (sort of), echoes of Weinstein’s nauseating attempt at an apology: he is suffering from an illness, he is a product of a different normative reality, he really does respect women and support women.
I recognize that this text was written in ancient times, with different social mores and gender roles. But this is not a justification. The bulk of the Torah, including passages buttressing this incident, completely upend norms, voicing calls for radical theological and moral change. The Torah is a force for good.
It may feel wrong for me to compare Harvey Weinstein to Avraham Avinu. I was sickened thinking this, and questioned whether I should articulate it. But we can’t avoid discomfort any longer. The fact is, this text makes me feel marginalized and injured by our tradition. And if a desire to protect what we love and who we are dissuades me from sharing this truth, or prevents others from hearing it, we are not going to get anywhere in tackling the issues that our community – Abraham and Sarah’s very descendants – are living in this moment. If we can’t struggle with the reporting of Abraham’s offense, how can we find the courage to face what has been said about Elie Weisel, what has been admitted by Leon Weiseltier? And if we can’t open ourselves to recognizing the misdeeds of our heroes, our teachers, how will we be able to in any way tolerate dealing with violations committed by our colleagues and friends? How will we be able to be honest in facing our own acts of silence and complicity?
The Talmud teaches, “ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim – the actions of the fathers are signals to the sons.” Isaac is evidence that no matter what the historical or cultural context, turning away from what is ugly and hiding what is unjust and immoral, will reinforce instead of resist offensive behavior.
Commentators grapple with this sister/wife motif, but fall short of expressing outrage at Abraham’s behavior. However, the greatest authoritative voice in Jewish tradition has expressed the horror of this episode: the voice of the Torah itself. That this story finds itself in the text not once, not twice, but three times, is a call to attention. What felt to me incessant I now realize is insistent.
Only in facing the distaste I felt for this passage, and in overcoming my fear of publicly addressing it, did I recognize what now seems so obvious. The power and wisdom of our text is that it provokes us to face the worst of who we are with the purpose of instigating us to become the best of who we are.
The retelling of this story – a story still continuing until today – is a reminder that as much as we might be embarrassed or shamed or hurt by a part of our collective history, or even an episode in the personal narrative of our lives, such reportings must not be ignored or pushed into the shadows. We must give voice to them and face their implications.
Charles Blow wrote a column in the New York Times about male privilege saying “Constant outrage is exhausting. . . . There is no magical solution here for the infinite and permanent expansion of empathy and awareness. It is work: hard work.”
I know we come to this moment tired. But we cannot perpetually sleepwalk through the minefields of our lives. We may encounter the words inked onto our scrolls, and the actions etched into our days, feeling defensive, guarded, exhausted. But we carry with us silos of strength and energy. We are bolstered by the resonant voice of our Torah that incessantly and insistently pushes us towards better, urging us to do the work – the hard work – that is our sacred task.
Rabbi Sarah Reines serves as the interim associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel in NY.