8.1 Abraham in Gerar
(1) And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the land of the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar.
The Torah emphasizes that Abraham “journeyed from thence.” He does not have a specific destination. He wants to leave Hebron and distance himself from Sodom and Lot.
Lot’s departure from Sodom became the beginning of a descent into the world of the Messiah’s soul—so why does Abraham leave rather than continue his contact with the spark of sanctity which was conceived in Lot’s family? Could it be that Abraham did not feel that something historic, even providential, was occurring here?
The answer apparently is that it was not yet time to integrate this spark into the Jewish people. There are some things which require extensive cleansing before they can unite with the sacred. Acting before the right time could lead to losing the thing itself in addition to the sacredness. And so, at that moment, Abraham had to pull away from Lot’s family.
We have already discussed that the reason for Abraham’s departure from Hebron was the destruction of Sodom.
The Midrash explains that after the destruction of Sodom and the fading of its influence, travelers stopped passing through Hebron (geographically, Sodom is located on the southern border of the Dead Sea and is connected to Gerar through the southwestern route that passes through the Hebron region.) Therefore Abraham no longer wanted to stay there.
But we can also look at this from another perspective: Hebron, which would become the capital of the future Judea, represents malkhut, the category of kingship. This is the category that Abraham cannot yet acquire. Sodom, located east of Hebron, was the original and potential source of kingship, but which implemented it in the wrong way, whereas Gerar, located west of Hebron, was the opposite of Sodom: it was an advanced Philistine trading kingdom located on the seashore in the midst of civilization and culture (the sea was the primary connecting route between different nations). Abraham goes to this kingdom to settle there and thereby advance towards the category of malkhut.
8.2 Abraham again calls Sarah his Sister
(2) And Abraham said of Sarah his wife: ‘She is my sister.’ And Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.
The story which occurred in Egypt recurs here—it is as if Abraham is returning to a point he had passed long ago. Why does he act this way?
The simple answer is that, much as he had in Egypt, Abraham is afraid Gerar will attack him in order to take Sarah away. But is Abraham so defenseless if he only recently had an entire army with which he defeated several kings? The answer, seemingly, could be that Abraham once again left all of his students and left for Gerar with only his family. At one time he had brought his Babylonian students to Israel, settled them in Shechem and then left them there to continue to Egypt on his own. From Egypt, Abraham again came out with slave-students, settled in Hebron, fought, and advanced, but now, having left them in Hebron, only he and his family went to the Philistine lands. Thus, Shechem and Hebron remained the settlements of Babylonian and Egyptian “representatives” within the Land of Israel.
Thus, Abraham is left by himself, and again faces the problematic situation regarding Sarah. But this time Abraham can exercise gevura. It is difficult and challenging for him, but he slowly learns this category, learns greater rigidity.
But there is one more facet to Abraham calling Sarah his sister. That is, subconsciously, Abraham does not yet fully feel Sarah to be his wife, the potential mother of his children. For now, she is more of a “comrade-in-arms” in the mission of spreading monotheism to the people around them. Abraham does not yet have a deep sense that Sarah’s destiny is not to help him train his students, but to produce a nation from him, and so it is easy for him to call her his sister. And here, Abraham learns a valuable lesson: that it is no longer appropriate to treat Sarah as a sister.
In this episode with Abimelech, Abraham was supposed to definitively understand that Sarah is his wife, and only after this realization could Isaac be born.
8.3 The Guilt of Abimelech
(3) But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him: ‘Behold, thou shalt die, because of the woman whom thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife.’ (4) Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said: ‘L-rd, wilt Thou slay even a righteous nation? (5) Said he not himself unto me: She is my sister? and she, even she herself said: He is my brother. In the simplicity of my heart and the innocency of my hands have I done this.’
Abimelech emphasizes that strictly speaking he is in the right. On the face of it, he did not do anything wrong and did not try to steal anyone’s wife. Our Sages teach us that he deserved death, not for transgressing the prohibition of adultery, but for breaking universal moral norms. This is the general principle: the nations of the world are punished for breaking those obligations which they took upon themselves.
From Abraham’s response further on (20:11) we see he called Sarah his sister in self-defense. He comes to a city where he doesn’t know anyone and is questioned about the woman with whom he came: it is only natural that Abraham feels in danger (the style of questioning in Gerar is described in detail further on in the Torah, in an analogous story featuring Isaac, in 26:7). The sin perpetrated in such inquiries is the sin of breaking universal moral norms. As king, Abimelech was responsible for the atmosphere of danger in his city, which compelled Abraham to lie.
And God said unto him in the dream: “Yea, I know that in the simplicity of thy heart thou hast done this, and I also withheld thee from sinning against Me. Therefore suffered I thee not to touch her”. (20:6)
God recognizes that Abimelech did this “in the simplicity of his heart” but not “with the innocency of his hands.” God protected Abimelech from committing even a worse crime, but he is still responsible for the atmosphere in Gerar and therefore cannot be considered blameless.
8.4 The Essential Connection between Prophecy and Prayer
(7) Now therefore restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live; and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.’
The words “prophet” and “pray” appear in the Torah for the first time in this verse. Subsequently, whenever the Tanakh refers to prayer, it is often in connection with prophets. In ancient times, there was an irrevocable connection between prayer and prophecy. One of the tasks of a prophet was prayer.
Such an approach is strange to us, since today everyone can pray. However, in the past, people did not consider themselves worthy of directly addressing God. People felt an abyss between men and God, a chasm so wide that people did not understand how they could possibly overcome it.
Within the framework of religious discussion, it is customary to say that prayer is an entirely natural act; it goes without saying that man is capable of addressing God directly. But we see that in the Tanakh the mindset is entirely different.
The Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) said:
He who is praying must understand in the depths of his heart the sense of the words produced by his mouth. He must imagine that Shekhinah (God’s presence) is before him. He must banish all thoughts which may distract him, so that the sense with which he imbues his words will be worthy of prayer. After all, if he were talking to a king of flesh and blood, then he would arrange his words and imbue them with sense, so as not to make a mistake. Even more so must one behave before the King of Kings, who senses all thoughts. In the olden days, good men did so: they withdrew and focused on the meaning of the prayers to such an extent that they achieved freedom from materialism, and so approached the level of prophecy.
The Shulkhan Arukh explains that in order to pray, man must come close to the level of prophecy.
In the olden days, it was thought that only prophets could pray because to earn the right to address God, He must first address you. Until this happens, you have no such right.
The reasoning behind such an approach is that when addressing God, it is important not only to recognize with Whom you are about to have a dialog, but also to find the right words and form of address. One of the biggest problems of prayer is that in a certain sense, it lies on the border of magic. Indeed, does not God Himself know what we need? Do we really need to inform Him of what we lack? And besides, how can a human being even attempt to influence the Almighty?
In order to prevent prayer and magic from mixing, it is necessary for a prophet to pray because he, unlike the common people, understands the relationship between the Divine and the human.
In the Book of Samuel (1:12), there is an episode in which the prophet Samuel tries to admonish the people and calls out to the Almighty. It begins raining in the middle of the summer (rain in the middle of the harvest season is dangerous because it can destroy all of the crops). The people turned to Samuel, asking him to pray to God to stop the rain. Samuel responded, “Do not worry, God loves you, and I will not stop praying for you.” He prays, and the rain stops. However not a single person comes up with the idea of praying on his own; everyone asks the prophet to do so.
(Another example which is also interesting in this respect is Hannah’s famous prayer, the mother of Samuel the prophet. Jewish tradition considers Hannah to be one of the prophetesses and her prayer is in itself an example of prophecy (I Samuel, chapter 2). Nonetheless, the High Priest Eli, who sees Hannah entering the Temple and whispering something to herself (1:13), thinks that she is drunk because he cannot fathom that a common person could be praying).
When it comes to our modern-day prayers, they were established by the Men of the Great Assembly in an era when prophecy still existed. The last of the prophets felt that prophecy would soon come to an end and that humanity was in great danger of losing a feeling of a direct connection with God. For this reason the Men of the Great Assembly wrote down and established the order of prayers: they created a text which combined the entire world of prophetic experience. The very act of formulating prayer is a reduction of the distance between man and God, something that can be done only by a prophet.
Only after the last prophets composed the text of the prayers, could prayer become accessible to all. There are various instructions which help those that are praying enter into a state of mind that brings them closest to a prophetic level.
8.5 Prayer and Sacrifice—Compare and Contrast. The Third Temple
It is important to note that prayer is an entirely different religious act than sacrifice. The nature of prayer is even opposite to that of sacrifice. Sacrifice is intended to preserve the given order of the world; it is an expression of gratitude to God for what already exists. Prayer, on the other hand, is needed to transform the world. A person prays because he wants to improve the world: he wants the sick to become healthy, the poor to be granted help, and the destroyed Jerusalem to be rebuilt…
When the Temple stood, there were two forms of service: prayer and sacrifice. Even after prayer became universally accepted toward the end of the Second Temple era, these two forms of service remained distinct.
Only after the destruction of the Second Temple, prayer took upon itself the additional function that used to be played by sacrifices. In some sense it turned into sacrifice and began fulfilling both roles. This transition was achieved by establishing a strict order and times for prayer (in accordance with the order of the Temple services).
It is also important to note that the Third Temple, as said by the prophets, “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). The onset of the Messianic time does not, by any means, imply that at the End of Days everything will be ideal and there will be nothing to ask of God or to be changed in the world. Quite the opposite: if there is nothing left to change, it is death and not life. Thus, the Messianic period is an era in the future when the world will be actively corrected brought closer to God, and this process is never-ending.
8.6 Mutual Accusations of Abraham and Abimelech
(8) And Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears; and the men were sore afraid. (9) Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him: ‘What hast thou done unto us? and wherein have I sinned against thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done.’ (10) And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‘What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?’ (11) And Abraham said: ‘Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake.
At first, Abraham does not respond to Abimelech. Seemingly, he feels uncomfortable in the given situation, and therefore Abimelech asks him again in verse 10. Later, Abraham begins answering, and explains to Abimelech that the general atmosphere in his kingdom compels deception. Here, Abraham is no longer justifying his actions, but practically blaming Abimelech for improper behavior. In this way, Abraham begins, although in a small way, to implement the category of judgment–and this is very important for the birth of Isaac.
8.7 Familial Relations of Abraham and Sarah
And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. (13) And it came to pass, when G-d caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said unto her: This is thy kindness which thou shalt show unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me: He is my brother.’
We can see that Abraham really did relate to Sarah as a sister, that is, he did not perceive her enough as a wife. After reasoning with Abimelech, Abraham can no longer relate to Sarah this way, and this is also an important step in his advancement to the level necessary for Isaac to be born.
Abraham also clarifies an important aspect of his relationship with Sarah which we did not know earlier. It turns out that Abraham’s father Terah had two wives. One wife bore Abraham and Nahor, and the other, Haran, whose children were Lot, Milka (Nahor’s wife) and Iska, née Sarah, Abraham’s wife. (That is, Abraham and Nahor both married their own nieces, but they were not full nieces as they came from different wives of Terah).
Seemingly there is a certain “gene” that Terah’s second wife carries– Abraham does not carry it but Sarah and Lot do. Subsequently, this “gene” is transferred through Ammon and Moab to Ruth and the House of David. This is the “redhead gene,” an aspect which is very important for David (see I Samuel 16:12 and the relevant commentaries). Isaac’s wife Rivka also carries it (she is a descendent of Nahor from his wife Milka), and this “redheadness” will be displayed in her son Esau who is called Edom, the red one. Redheadness, or redness is a category of judgment in the aspect of power, violence and severity. This is the gevura which for Abraham is realized through Sarah.
It is possible that it is this characteristic that Sarah possesses (but Abraham does not) that separated him from her. And so, having departed on a journey with Sarah, he asks her to say he is her brother. On the one hand, this declaration was supposed to protect him from danger, but on the other hand, it subconsciously allowed for the possibility for Abraham to find another wife who would be the continuer of his nation. In other words, when God commanded Abraham to create the Jewish people, Abraham did not initially think that this would be realized through Sarah.
Sarah cannot bear a son for Abraham until he stops perceiving her as a sister. (Meaning, the blame for Sarah’s inability to bear a child lies with Abraham). In Egypt and in Gerar, God teaches Abraham to stop relating to Sarah as a sister. When Abimelech rebukes Abraham, this is essentially a rebuke from God (incidentally, in life we must learn to hear Divine messages and rebukes in the words of strangers). Abraham truly felt in danger and therefore he had reasons to call Sarah his sister and these reasons were justified—however, the situation required him to revise his position. Abraham alters his approach, and it is thanks to this that Isaac can be born.
8.8 Abraham again attains a High Status
(14) And Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and men-servants, and women-servants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife. (15) And Abimelech said: ‘Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee.’ (16) And unto Sarah he said: ‘Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is for thee a covering of the eyes, to all that are with thee; and before all men thou art righted.’
Presenting Abraham with gifts of great value emphasizes Abimelech’s high esteem for Sarah, and in the social system of relationships in those times, this was a sign of an apology.
Sarah is acquitted “before all men,” not only in the sense that she has received a confession from Abimelech, but also in the sense that Abraham understands to the fullest extent her importance to him as a wife. Earlier she had to constantly fight for her place. She tried to set her family life right by giving Hagar to Abraham, then kicking her out, and then fighting with Abraham—but now, at last, she is cleared, her status is recognized, and the family can develop further. And this is the most important progress in Sarah and Abraham’s relationship which occurs as a result of the story with Abimelech.
For the third time (after Haran and Egypt) Abraham obtains a huge fortune and a multitude of slaves. Abraham’s status is so high and his renown so great that he can no longer live as a private person. He must find a new, suitable place for himself in the system of social relations. And this is why we will later see that Abraham moves to Beer Sheba, the city on the edge of the desert.
8.9 Abraham’s Prayer
(17) And Abraham prayed unto G-d: and G-d healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid-servants; and they bore children. (18) For HaShem had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham’s wife.
The text emphasizes that a society which raises its hand against Abraham becomes barren. Only if Abraham prays for it does it regain its ability to bear children.