Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sarah the Punisher

Sarah was taken twice - once by Pharaoh and once by Avimelech. Both times the bad guys were punished, but the punishments differ. Pharaoh and his people got hit with "severe plagues" (12:17) [a skin desease which made intimate relations painful - Rashi ad loc.] while Avimelech and his people got "sealed wombs" (20:18). Why the difference?

Now, both times the Torah states that these punishments came by the "word of Sarai/Sarah, the wife of Avraham" (12:17/20:18). The Midrash (quoted by Rashi) explains that an angel came and took orders from Sarah. These terrible punishments were thus chosen and directed by her. Our question is sharpened: Why did Sarah change her tactics?

My chavrusa, R. Avrumi Apt, posed an excellent answer to this question. When Pharaoh took Sarai, she was as yet unable to have children of her own. By taking her away from Avraham, Pharaoh was depriving them of living together as man and wife. Striking back measure for measure, Sarai made relations painful for him. However, by the time Avimelech took Sarah, God's blessing had already taken effect and she was able to conceive (cf. Rashi to 18:8). By taking her away from Avraham, Avimelech was preventing them from having a child together. In response, Sarah sealed up their wombs.

Reb Avrumi's answer is so good, I was determined not to quote it for fear that it would undermine my own. But then I remembered that Avrumi is an avid reader of this blog. Let's move on now to my p'shat.

It's not hard to understand why Sarai made sexual relations painful for the Egyptians. The Midrash (quoted by Rashi) states that the Egyptians were promiscuous. Sarai wanted to help cure them of that, so she made relations painful.

Sarah dealt with Avimelech differently because the Gerarites were different than the Egyptians - they were not promiscuous (cf. Rashi to 20:15). Their problem was more basic; they did not fear God. "Avraham said... 'There is no fear of God in this place'" (20:11). Sarah wanted to help them overcome their problem. How do you instill the fear of God in people? Seal up their wombs! It worked well. "The people were very frightened" (20:8). (See Chizkuni to 20:11.)

This provides a new understanding for what follows. "God remembered Sarah as He had said, and God did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son unto Avraham in his old age..." (21:1-2). Sarah could be blessed with a child only after she appreciated her barrenness as a vehicle for achieving the fear of God.

Is it any surprise that this child, Yitzchak, grew up to become the exemplar of the God-fearing Jew? (cf. 31:42)

For more on Sarah the Punisher, click here.


  1. What about from Avraham's perspective? How were these Nisyonos (having his wife kidnapped) different? What was Hashem trying to see by having Sarah kidnapped a second time?

  2. I recall a saying of our Sages that goes something to the effect, “When one prays on behalf of another, the blessings he prays for are accrued to himself as well…”

    Sarah was angry with Abraham for not including her in his prayers for a child (see Rashi to 16:5). Perhaps in “sealing the wombs” of the Gerarite wives, Sarah was hoping that she would be attached to Abraham’s subsequent prayer for their healing…


  3. Avraham was much more assertive the second time around. While Avraham was silent in the face of Pharaoh's accusations of wrongdoing, he responds strongly to Avimelech's verbal attack. Could it be that Avraham's confidence as a "Jew" had grown and Hashem wanted to see it expressed? Can we call this a "Teshuvah Gemurah" opportunity? (cf. Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1).

  4. Also, a question for Rabbi Apt:
    It seems a little hard to believe that the story with Avimelech took place after the birth of Yitzchak. After all, they went through the same routine of "tell him your my sister", plus it would be much more difficult to conceal a child. It's possible, especially if you maintain that Yitzchak was older (e.g. in his 20's), just not so plausible.

  5. I am not saying that Yitzchak was born. This story took place after the visit from the angels when Sarah regained the potential to have children. The whole point is that Avimelech, through kidnapping her was preventing her from having children with Avraham, while Pharoah wasn't preventing her as she was barren at the time. I think it is clear that Yitzchak was not born yet.

  6. Fair enough. So the episode takes place in the year between the angels visit and Yitzchak's birth. Although she was 89 or 90 at the time...