Our patriarchs and matriarchs were not perfect people. Among the stories in this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, one of them shows Abraham, and another shows Sarah, not at their best.
The parasha begins with God telling Abraham to leave his homeland and go to a land which God will show him, that will be an inheritance for his descendants. But even after Abraham and his family arrive in Canaan (later the Land of Israel), they don’t settle down; a famine is in the land, and they continue on to Egypt where food is expected to be more available.
But Abraham is worried; he knows that Sarah is considered to be a beautiful woman, and he is a concerned that, if the Egyptians know they are husband and wife, they will kill him in order to take possession of Sarah so that she can become a consort to the Pharaoh. So instead, he tells Sarah that they should represent themselves as brother and sister; Pharaoh may still take her, but Abraham’s life will be spared.
This is all very well for Abraham; but it puts Sarah in a rather difficult position, to say the least. In the end, God intervenes and informs Pharaoh that Sarah and Abraham are married, and Pharaoh, acting more righteously than Abraham (!), returns Sarah to Abraham, and expels them from Egypt.
Abraham does the same thing again when they go to the land of Gerar! Despite the fact that Abraham and Sarah really are half-siblings (see Gen. 20:12) as well as husband and wife, commentators have always been bothered both by Abraham’s dishonesty and lack of faith that he shows in these stories, and in his endangering of Sarah. Although elsewhere he is called righteous, here he doesn’t seem so righteous to us.
Sarah is never described as righteous, but she is our umpty-great grand-mother, and we would like to think well of her. But in chapter 16, part of this week’s portion, she, too, does not come out looking very good.
We are told when we are first introduced to Sarah, back at the end of Chapter 11, that she has no children. She and Abraham are now past normal child-bearing age, and still have no children, even though God keeps promising them many descendants. So, in what appears to be an accepted practice at the time, she tells Abraham he should take her maid Hagar as a surrogate mother, and Hagar promptly becomes pregnant.
The maid, succeeding at something that her mistress has never been able to do, starts ‘taking an attitude’ toward Sarah; and although Sarah was the one who suggested to Abraham that he impregnate Hagar, Sarah says her troubles are all his fault!
Sarah in turn makes life miserable for Hagar, to the point that Hagar runs away. An angel tells Hagar she should return, and that her son will be the father of a great nation, and she goes back to Sarah.
In a later Torah portion, Sarah forces Abraham to throw Hagar and her then-adolescent son Ishmael, out of the camp, and Abraham again does what Sarah asks. With regard to Hagar, neither one of our spiritual ancestors looks terribly righteous!
Despite these flaws, we still see Abraham and Sarah as out spiritual ancestors, not because they are flawed but because they are human! Those of us who have grown up on cowboy movies (white hats vs. black hats) or war movies (American good guys vs. anyone with an accent as bad guy) have been made accustomed to expect clear delineations between good and evil; but, when we actually stop to think about it, we know the world is not black and white, but is made up of many shades of gray.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it in his most recent book Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, “It is this honest confrontation with complexity that makes Genesis so profound a religious text. It refuses to simplify the human condition.”
How much easier it would be if everything were clearly marked as good or bad, right or wrong. Having lived in the world, we know better. And having the Torah as our foundational text, with its realistic views of human nature, is a great blessing to us. We are asked to learn from and emulate Abraham and Sarah and our other spiritual forebears, not because they were perfect, but because the were trying to understand a complex world, and how to live in it according to God’s teachings.
From that we can definitely learn much!