A tense dynamic haunts the relationship of Abraham and Sarah. They have a deep emotional struggle over Sarah’s inability to bear children, the birth of Ishmael by Sarah’s handmaid Hagar, and the status of Isaac vis-à-vis Ishmael once Isaac is born. But the first moment when we sense something is up comes early on in their story:

And it came to pass that when they approached Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “Now I know that you are a beautiful woman. And when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will slay me and let you live. Please, say you are my sister, so that good will come to me on your account, and I may live because of you.” (Gen. 12:11-13)

One reading of this passage is that Abraham simply fails to stick up for his wife. He allows Sarah to be taken into Pharaoh’s house, just as he will allow her to be taken by Avimelech in next week’s parasha. While he is right to be worried about the possibility of his own death at the hands of the Egyptians, his request to Sarah is of dubious moral standing. No wonder she has complex feelings about Hagar (the Egyptian, whom it seems may have come to their household only after this sojourn in Egypt), and a challenging relationship with her husband!

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, offers a few readings of this passage. “Until now,” he says, “Abraham did not recognize her, out of her modesty. But now the situation led him to recognize her.” In this, Rashi’s first reading, something fundamentally changes in the relationship of Abraham and Sarah at this moment: for the first time, Abraham sees Sarah as physically beautiful. The danger of the situation, for his own life and for hers, leads Abraham to a new realization about his wife. His perspective is changed, and he sees the world differently.

Rashi goes on to quote a second reading of the Midrash, which understands the passage to mean that, whereas most people look disheveled after a long journey, Sarah retained her beauty. Here the emphasis is not on transformation, but rather continuity: Sarah was unchanged. She was the same person entering Egypt as she had been all along the journey. “Now I know,” the linchpin of the possible interpretations here, is understood as Ramban understands it: “I know now, just as I have always known” (see Ramban on this passage).

What’s so wonderful is that the Midrash, and Rashi, bring both of these interpretive possibilities. The relationship of Abraham and Sarah, like all marriages, is a complex one, not easily understood by anyone outside, and often a mystery to the participants themselves. What can seem obvious and enduring one moment—“You have always been beautiful”—can become a revelation in the next: “I can see your beauty now, which I have never seen before.”

And of course this paradox of knowledge, understanding and recognition, extends beyond marriages or relationships. It informs our entire life. Plato said that education is the process of uncovering what one’s soul already knows to be true. Learning is simply an act of memory. And yet we also know that learning is discovery, the thrill of insight, the excitement of knowing what we never knew before.

The journey of Abraham and Sarah, a journey to the land of Israel and to the idea of Israel, is marked by this paradox, of discovering what is bold and new, and of recovering what is radically old. Their journey is our journey as well.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

 

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