“Say You Are My Sister…”

As Shabbat approaches, there are a series of news stories weighing heavily on my soul. There are reports on the recovery of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl who was shot in the head by Taliban members for publicly speaking out about her right to an education. There is the arrest of Anat Hoffman, for wearing a tallit and reciting the Shema at the Western Wall. There is the pre-election circus over policies–and ideologies–that negatively affect women right here at home.

And then there is this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, in which Abram is chosen to be  the first leader of the Jewish people. It is admirable that he should leave his ancestral home and set out for a land unknown to him. But what is the first decision he makes as a leader?

When they had almost reached Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “Look, now–I know what a beautiful woman you are! So when the Egyptians see you, and say: ‘This is his wife,’ they may kill me; but you they shall keep alive. Please say then that you are my sister, so that on your account it may go well for me, and that my life may be spared because of you” (Genesis 12: 11-3).

Abram’s strategy works, and he and Sarai leave Egypt richer than when they had arrived. In the interim, Sarai is brought to Pharaoh and “taken to wife,” an arrangement that can only be ended by divine intervention. Midrash tells us that Abram smuggled Sarai into Egypt as if she were a precious commodity (Gen. Rabbah 10:5), but that the Egyptians discovered her anyway.

I picture Abram explaining his logic to Sarai, “Listen, either way, you are going to be violated. I can’t do anything about that. This way, at least I will be safe. Make this sacrifice for the greater good.” With that, Abram essentially throws his beloved wife under the bus.

How is it that, thousands of years later, we are still reliving this story?

When we let a man tell a woman that she cannot participate in prayer or study because of her beauty, we are reliving this story. Religious fundamentalists still attempt to soothe women with flattery, assuring women that it is only because of their great beauty that they must be oppressed, reminding women that it is “their fault” when their beauty leads to violence, instead of doing everything in their power to protect women they claim to treasure from harm.

When we let politicians tell a woman that she cannot decide for herself when to engage in sexual activity and how to protect herself against pregnancy and STIs, or that she does not have the intellectual capacity to decide when rape has taken place, and that she must bear a child, no matter the circumstances of her life or the conception (because this is God’s will) we are reliving this story.

But the oppression of women is NOT God’s will, and that, too, is evident in this story. Although Abram does nothing to protect his wife’s body or her honor, God strikes Pharaoh’s household with a plague, and Pharaoh, realizing his transgression, ends his relationship with Sarai and sends the couple, quickly, on their way.

In Bereishit Rabbah, we finally hear Sarai’s voice, crying out for justice from Pharaoh’s palace: And the whole of that night Sarah lay prostrate on her face, crying, ‘ Sovereign of the Universe! Abraham went forth [from his land] on Your assurance, and I went forth with faith; Abraham is without this prison while I am within!’ Said the Holy One, blessed be God, to her: ‘Whatever I do, I do for thy sake, and all will say, “It is BECAUSE OF SARAI ABRAM’S WIFE.’” (Gen. Rabbah 41:2).

We hear Sarai’s voice in our own day: in Malala Yousafzai’s blog posts about the challenges she faces as a Pakistani girl trying to receive an education, in Anat Hoffman’s recitation of the Shema, and in her tireless work to empower Israeli women to demand their right to full religious expression. But it isn’t enough.

We, too, need to speak out on behalf of the Sarai’s in our world. Because as long as there are those who would treat women’s opinions as inferior, their bodies as property, and their autonomy as something to be sacrificed, even for the “greater good,” we will continue to relive this story.

Leah Rachel Berkowitz is the associate rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation, in Durham, NC. Click here for her firsthand account of Anat Hoffman’s arrest in July 2010.

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