R. Jonathan Sacks casts new light on an incident in this week’s portion with his explanation of the choice of the list of prohibited sexual relationships as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon (in the Koren Sacks Yom Kippur Machzor). In his view, sexual ethics are a practical lesson of monotheism, of a belief in the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Without a God, the contemporary Western idea of consenting adults doing whatever does not harm anyone makes perfect sense; part of what the Jewish people learned from our Patriarchs and Matriarchs was a broader perspective, which taught us to discipline our sexuality.
I find his idea powerful, not least because it draws our attention to how Avraham and Yitzchak slowly taught this lesson to the pagans around them. When the then-Avram went to Egypt early in Parashat Lech Lecha, Par’oh took Sarai (as she was known), only to be struck with terrible plagues. He somehow connects his troubles to what he’s done, returns her to Avram (clearly annoyed at having been tricked), and sends them out of Egypt.
After the destruction of Sodom, Avraham goes to Gerar, where the king takes Sarah, with very different results. Hashem appears to Avimelech to warn him of his impending doom. Avimelech protests his innocence, and Hashem partially agrees. The next day, Avimelech relates the events to his servants, who are greatly frightened, suggesting they already can relate to the possibility of a God Who intervenes in morally corrupt situations.
When he calls Avraham in to talk, he seems honestly offended at Avraham’s having thought so ill of him, having put him in danger of committing a great sin. Too, he invites Avraham to live wherever in the area he wants, instead of expelling him.
Which brings us to Toledot, where there is again a famine, where the verse draws our attention to its being a repeat of a drama Avraham underwent. While commentators struggled with why the verse would point out this famine was aside from the one in the time of Avraham, I suggest it’s to draw our attention to the changes in the pattern.
Yitzchak also goes to Plishtim, to Gerar, and no one takes Rivkah, although they do immediately ask whether they are husband and wife (as Rashi had understood Avraham to have said to Avimelech, that’s a sign of a lack of yirat Elokim, fear of God, part of what led Avraham to misrepresent his connection to Sarah everywhere he traveled).
After they’re there a long time (the verse tells us), Avimelech catches them together in a way which made clear they were husband and wife. He calls Yitzchak in, incensed, says someone (he says “one of the people,” which Rashi thinks the most elevated of the people, himself) almost took Rivkah for his own. He then announces the death penalty for whoever
bothers Yitzchak or Rivkah, putting the full weight of the throne’s power behind his guarantee of their safety.
They’re not saints yet, for sure. They still are on the lookout for women who come to their city, plausibly might kill a husband to get to his wife, and might forcibly take an unattached woman. On the other hand, the progression from Avraham’s first encounter with Par’oh is also clear. In both of Avraham’s cases, Sarah is in fact taken, where with Yitzchak she was only almost taken. Avimelech of Avraham’s time is better than Par’oh both in meriting a dream from God to make clear to him what he was doing wrong, in making a defensible claim of innocence, and in having enough rule of law to invite Avraham to stay.
All those metrics favor the Avimelech of Yitzchak’s time more, who is already offended at the idea of being set up to take a man’s wife, and puts himself on the line to protect Yitzchak and Rivkah once he knows their actual relationship.
R. Sacks helps us see the Avot and Imahot were spreading more than a theoretical belief in God, and more than acts of kindness. They were spreading also ways in which the recognition of God teaches us to act differently than our intuition and/or reason might say. In a world with no God, or multiple gods, morality and especially sexual morality are fluid, more susceptible to whatever people decide is right.
In a world with one God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, humans have specific roles to play, including a deep respect for the sanctity of marriage, a strict discipline away from taking other people’s wives. A proposition which might seem obvious to us, centuries later, but was a lesson our Avot and Imahot had to teach slowly, gradually, and painstakingly.