Image: “Sarai is taken to the court of Pharaoh” by James Tissot. Public Domain.
This week’s portion is Lech Lecha, and it is the beginning of Abraham’s story in the Tanakh. It tells us many things about Abram, soon to be Abraham, some very impressive, some less admirable. The same man who bargained with God for the lives of people he didn’t even know, who was willing to go on a great adventure with God, was also the man who handed his wife Sarai over to be the concubine of Pharaoh because he was afraid.
We are none of us flawless, even Father Abraham. Each of us can recall things we’ve done that we hope no one ever finds out.
We don’t know what Abram said when Pharaoh rebuked him for lying about Sarai’s status; it isn’t recorded in the text. We don’t know how Sarai felt about this, or what if anything she said to Abram. We don’t know how Abram answered her, if she confronted him. All the text says is that Pharaoh assigned guards to march Abram and his household out of Egypt, and that they went north to the Negev.
While there are more famous stories in the text, I think this narrative is most evocative of our present moment. Women accuse famous, powerful men of treating women like property. One comes forward; she is ignored and reviled. More come forward – and if some of them are white and almost as famous as the man, perhaps we pay attention. Perhaps the press takes note. Perhaps (but rarely) law enforcement takes note. Then the famous man lashes back in a whine: Why are these terrible women after me? And in the end, while there may have been some intermediate consequences, he goes on being powerful and famous and the women disappear from the news.
Another example: there is apparently nothing more horrible anyone can do to a white American than to say that their behavior was racist. “What? Who me? I did nothing! You are playing the race card! You are the racist!” Defensiveness rises like a fog, and people take their usual sides in the matter. Nothing really happens.
We can change this conversation. We can change it by handling it differently when someone says to us, “That behavior was sexist” or “That behavior was racist.” Instead of defensiveness, a better reply would be “Tell me more, please.” If the behavior was a mistake, fix it: apologize and learn better. If it was deliberate, we can apologize and take our medicine.
I am white. I grew up in the United States in the 1950’s and 60’s. I was taught racist ideas and behavior and I will spend the rest of my life learning better. There is no shame in it, unless I refuse to learn better. I can, I must, listen to what people of color have to say to me. Racism in America will only get better when white people like me close our mouths and listen.
I am a woman. I was born in the United States in the 1950’s and I’m still around in the 2010’s. I live in a sexist environment, whatever other advantages I may have. I can give sexist people the benefit of the doubt, assume that they were taught that behavior, but I do not have to put up with it. I can complain, and they should listen to what I have to say. Not talk. Not defend. Not argue. Listen.
We don’t know what went on as Abram and Sarai left Egypt. Here is my fantasy, because we are talking about Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, here:
Sarai: Abram, how could you use me that way? Are you my husband or my pimp?
Abram: Sarai, Pharaoh might have killed us!
Sarai: (Glares silently at him)
Abram: Sarai, I was scared.
Sarai: How do you think I felt?
Abram: (Sighs. Swallows.) Why don’t you tell me how you felt?
And then he listened.