In Lech Lecha we read about Avraham descending to Egypt, shortly after arriving in the land of Canaan, due to a famine. This episode has always bothered me.
We know from later on in the parsha that Avraham was no pushover. He and Eliezer single-handedly battled the powerful four kings with their multitudinous armies, and prevailed. You might expect that just as Avraham wiped out the four kings and millions of their soldiers, he could similarly have annihilated Pharaoh and his entire army. When Pharaoh took Sarah captive, Avraham could have thrown sand at him that turned into arrows, just as in his war with the four kings, and that would have been the end of that.
However, instead of Avraham donning his “superman cape” and praying to Hashem for help, he defers all responsibility to his wife, Sarah. Avraham seems powerless and totally dependent on Sarah for their salvation. “Please, say you are my sister and not my wife,” he entreats her, “so that they won’t kill me on your account.” Is this the kind of behavior you expect from a husband? A superhero husband at that! Basic decency requires that the husband protect his wife from harm. Why must Sarah tell them she is his “sister?” Why is it not Avraham shielding Sarah behind him and leading the way and telling the white lie? Why lie at all? What did Avraham fear so much that he had to defer all responsibility to Sarah?
We discover the answer in this week’s parsha and it is a mind-blowing revelation.
Lech Lecha details Eliezer’s quest to find a wife for Yitzchak, at his master Avraham’s behest. After the lengthy and repetitious episode of encountering Rivka at the well and her giving not only Eliezer to drink but his camels as well, Eliezer finally returns home with Rivka. The closing verse of this episode says, “And Yitzchak brought her [Rivka] into his mother [Sarah’s] tent and he took Rivka to be his wife and he loved her and was consoled after the death of his mother” (Bereishit 24:67).
Rashi, quoting the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba) on this verse gives us a rare peek inside the home (tent) of Avraham and Sarah. There was a candle that miraculously remained lit the entire week, from erev Shabbat to erev Shabbat. There was a blessing in the dough – one dough miraculously multiplied, providing bread for the entire week. A cloud permanently enveloped the tent. When Sarah died, these three miracles ceased but they resumed once more when Yitzchak brought Rivka into the tent.
Our Sages tell us that Sarah’s (and all the Imahot’s) tent was the equivalent of a Mishkan/Mikdash. (It was actually both Sarah’s and Avraham’s tent, but the Midrash attributes it to Sarah, emphasizing that these miracles were in Sarah’s merit and ceased when she died.) The candle/Menorah was permanently lit, the dough/Lechem Hapanim was blessed, and the cloud/Shechina was permanently fixed over the tent/Mikdash. The Sages Chazal tell us that the command to build a Mishkan/Mikdash in the first place was to restore the environment that existed in the tents of our forefathers and mothers.
Although the Torah goes into elaborate detail regarding the Imahot, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, the focus of the book of Bereishit is undoubtedly on the forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov and, at face value, it seems that the Imahot played a secondary role to theirs. This verse and the Midrash above reveal an amazing, counter-intuitive insight. In the book of Bereishit, the leading actors were in fact the mothers rather than the fathers. It was due to the mothers that the fathers received their raison d’etre.
The Sages tell us that Sarah was greater in prophecy than Avraham. When Avraham questions Sarah’s demand to banish Hagar and Yishmael, Hashem tells him to listen to his wife. All the blessings Avraham received, which enabled him to perform his role as the forefather of Am Yisrael, were in Sarah’s merit.
We see this in the above episode in Egypt. Avraham openly admits that power lies not with him but with Sarah and that he is totally reliant on her. A few verses later, the Torah says it explicitly: “And Avram prospered because of her!” (Bereishit 12:16).
Although outwardly in the book of Bereishit it appears that the forefathers had the leading role, the strong, powerful figures were really the mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. It was in their merit that their husbands lived in a Beit Mikdash and enjoyed all the blessings that this entailed. The Imahot were the wellspring and driving force behind the life’s work and mission of the forefathers.
This was not incidental but by design. It was reparations for the sin of Chava, who, instead of empowering and enabling her husband, brought destruction upon her household (Meir Panim, pp. 162-163). Today we are all still active participants in these reparations, which will eventually bring about the Redemption. Husbands, therefore, need to treat their wives with the appropriate respect and the recognition that it is through them our homes merit Divine blessing.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: What were the words of Avraham’s eulogy to his wife Sarah?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: The three angels who visited Avraham were dressed in three different “disguises.” What were these disguises and why were they dressed so? The Yalkut Shimoni (Bereishit 18) says that one was dressed as a baker, one as a ship’s captain, and the third as a Bedouin nomad, reflecting the three parts of our world – that which is settled (baker), the sea (captain) and the desert (nomad).