Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
Lech Lecha 5771: Shame, come back
In a nod to the classic Western starring Alan Ladd & Jack Palance, the campy, kitschy, silly 1960’s era Batman produced a cowboy clad villain named Shame. The end of the episode had a young boy mimicking the end of Shane, calling out “Come back Shame!”
This week’s Torah portion also is of Hollywood screenwriting quality. An academy award winning screenwriter couldn’t have crafted it better. Forced to flee to Egypt in a famine, Abraham asks Sarah to lie to protect his life. She agrees and claims to be his sister, According to some commentaries this is only after Abraham unsuccessfully hides her in a box which is searched by a crack team of Egyptian customs and border control agents. But in any event, Sarah is taken to the palace and delivered to the king. That evening, in a prequel to the ten plagues, we see that in this week’s parsha, Pharaoh is stricken with some physical ailment.
The next morning, surmising that G-d had afflicted him and his court, and why, Pharaoh sees Abraham off. He orders them escorted off the palace grounds and back to the border. Escorted partly for their own protection but there’s no mistaking the tone of Pharaoh’s farewell: Here is your wife. Take her and leave. These were no Rockwellian escorts upholding truth, Justice & the American way – Abraham & Sarah were banished.
Fast forward a bit to a later parsha, and we see Abraham makes the same decision again. Now they have traveled to Gerar and again, Sarah hidden, found and taken to the king, this time, Avimelech. That night, in a dream, G-d appears and warns him to keep clear of Sarah because she’s a married woman.
Confronting Abraham the morning after, Avimelech demands to know, what is it you saw here? Abraham responds it was the lack of fear of G-d and a fear that men would find ways to legally do what they wish – even he suggests killing him so that Sarah would no longer be married. Teddy Roosevelt suggested much the same regarding education – an uneducated bandit can rob a train; an educated one can steal the railroad. Sadly, Abraham’s descendants would see time and again proof that their grandfather was right. Across centuries and continents, Jews would see the law used to persecute and prosecute them. Less than a century ago, in the heart of enlightened, modern Europe, Nazi intellectuals, attorneys and jurists came together at Nuremberg to draft laws that ultimately gave the Third Reich legal sanction for genocide.
But it is Avimelech in contrast to Pharaoh that raises the most curious point. While he had similarly grabbed Sarah for himself, Avimelech doesn’t just send them on their way when the truth outs. He gives gifts, and he signs a treaty. That’s a kingly admission of fault. This isn’t a one-time save face, public relations stunt either. Later on, Avimelech and his military Chief of Staff visit with Abraham, and they attend a party in Isaac’s honor. As well, the method of Divine intervention starkly differs. Pharaoh is stricken sick, so that he is unable to violate Sarah. Avimelech receives a prophecy – from G-d himself. G-d thought more of him than he did Pharaoh. And it looks like G-d had him pegged right. Because most unusual of all, the morning after, Avimelech calls a cabinet meeting to announce to his royal court that he almost violated the law (and Sarah).
Imagine if every elected official and candidate today would be so chagrined by an inadvertent and any “almost happened” moral or legal error. Imagine if all of us were.
What Avimelech had that Pharaoh was missing was shame. Shame in excess. He may have lacked fear of G-d, and Abraham may have well been right to stoop to trickery to save himself; perhaps all the more so after surviving the encounter with an angry Pharaoh. But we’d still like to see shame take its proper place. One can learn to fear G-d. We’re not as sure that shame is teachable.
Shame, come back.
Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.