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October issue preview: Abraham provides a lesson in modesty
September 12th, 2012
Abraham, directed by G-d to leave Charan, arrives in the Holy Land to find it under siege and suffering a famine (Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 12:6, and Genesis 12:10). He and his wife Sara take refuge in Egypt.
However, the Egyptians were known for unbridled hedonism. So, as Abraham and Sara approach the border, he turns to her and says: “Behold, now I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance” (12:11).
Indeed, Sara was a legendary beauty. The Talmud lists her as one of the four most beautiful women of history (the other three being Rachav, Abigail, and Esther; Tractate Megillah 15b). The “Midrash Tanchuma”asserts, “All [other] women were to Sara as an ape is to a human being.”
So, it is with surprise that we read medieval French commentator Rashi’sobservation on the verse: “Until now, he had not recognized [it] in her because of the great modesty between them, and now he recognized [it] in her because of an action.”
The Talmud tells us, “It is forbidden that a man marry a woman until he sees her” (Tractate Kiddushin41a). It is a well-established principle that, before the formal giving of the Torah to Israel, “Abraham kept the entire Torah” (Talmud TractateYuma 28b). How, then, could this halacha evade his attention?
Rabbi Yissachar Baer Eilenberg (17th century Poland), in his book “Tzeida la-Derech,” asks our question. He answers by quoting his rebbe, the great Rabbi Mordechai Joffe (c. 1530-1612),“that it is forbidden to marry a woman until he sees that there is no blemish/defect (mum) in her about which she might be ashamed, and this Abraham did; he certainly perceived before he married her that there was no mum in her, but he did not pay attention to contemplate her great beauty until now.” The term mum, of course, refers as much to spiritual or character flaws as to physical defects.
Yet if Sara was the singular beauty implied by the Talmud and Midrash citations above, then surely she had a reputation of which Abraham had to be aware. Our question returns: How was it that he was unaware of her beauty until this particular moment?