Home / Community / Torah PortionRSS Feed
Abraham provides a lesson in modesty
September 30th, 2012
Abraham, having been 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” (Genesis 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?
Eilenberg in the “Tzeida la-Derech” notes that Rashidoes not say that Abraham in his great modesty had never looked at his wife. Rather, he says, “he did not recognize” her beauty for what it was until now, as the result of an overt action.
Abraham, Eilenberg suggests, had had no need to examine Sara to determine that she had no mum, at least in the physical sense. As the Talmud and midrashic passages testify, Sara was already known as a great beauty. Abraham could take it for given on the basis of what others said.
But if this was so, then Abraham did know beforehand that Sara was beautiful in appearance, and had not “just now” come to the realization of it. Once again, it seems we have a difficulty with Rashi.
The implication of what Rashiwrites, concerning the “great modesty” between Abraham and his wife, is not that he never looked at her. Rather, I think Rashimeans that Abraham did not look at any other women.
Sara was a beauty, but he had no basis to assume that she was at all unusual in that respect. Perhaps every other woman was just as beautiful; his exemplary modesty prevented him from verifying the matter.
Until now. Abraham was facing the Egyptian reputation for hedonism and licentiousness and the casual brutality that these entailed. Therefore, as he was about to enter their country, Abraham for the first time felt compelled to look about him (the overt action to which Rashialludes) in order to see how likely a threat to their safety might be.
Then he saw that “all women were to her as an ape to a human being,” and for the first time appreciated how exceptionally beautiful she was. This is also implicit in Abraham’s words to Sara.
The alert reader with a sense of Hebrew will note that in Genesis 12:11, I have translated the verb yada‘ti in line with Rashi’scomment, in the present tense, though many people would read that sentence as though it were in the past, “I knew” or “I have known.”
This verse is a lesson in why the proper designation of this grammatical form is “perfective” rather than “past.” Were we to translate it, “I have known that you are a woman of beautiful appearance,” Rashi’scomment would make no sense.
What Abraham told Sara was, “I now know with certitude that you are a woman of beautiful appearance” (the stress on appearance indicting that her inner beauty had been plain to him for a long time), because only now he had reason to make the comparison, and therefore actedto make it.
The extraordinary level of modesty indicated by our passage, even between a married couple, thus serves as an example to be striven for.
Milwaukeean Rabbi Avner Zarmi is vice president of the Midwest region of Agudath Israel of America.