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Bad and Not So Bad

Bad and Not So Bad

When reading some of this week’s Torah portion you might get a sense of déjà vu and feel that we are already getting reruns. When Avraham and Sarah approach Gerar, Avraham claims that Sarah is his sister and not his wife. Now if that sounds familiar it is because he pulled the exact same stunt in last week’s Torah portion when they travelled down to Egypt. In that earlier instance we are told of Avraham’s rationale for doing this. He tells his wife, “Listen you are a really beautiful woman. And because of that, they will kill me but let you live.”


And indeed the moment they arrive in Gerar, Sarah is abducted and taken to the king, Avimelech the same way she was taken to Pharaoh. Apparently this is the convention and norm in those places. Different countries have different border and customs issues. When you come into the USA or Canada, you better not be carrying any meat or cheese or fruit otherwise it gets confiscated. But back then, when you arrived in Egypt or Gerar, you better not be married to a beautiful woman otherwise you are toast. On the other hand, if you are her brother and supposedly her guardian, then they can simply make the proper arrangements to “buy” her with gifts and money. 


On both occasions the truth of Sarah’s identity is found out and both Pharaoh and Avimelech return her to Avraham along with a bunch of hush money and loot. But there are glaring differences between the two similar events:


  • With Avimelech, God Himself informs him Sarah is married. We see no such thing with Pharaoh and must surmise that Sarah is the one who broke the news to him.
  • After God reveals this to Avimelech, he claims his innocence to God who even agrees with him to a certain degree. Again, there is no such Divine exchange with Pharaoh.
  • Both Pharaoh and Avimelech get extremely upset with Avraham and pepper him with questions for his behavior. But with Pharaoh the entire discussion revolves around the harm that could have been done by God to him. Furthermore, he gives no opportunity for Avraham to answer or explain himself. Avimelech, on the other hand, frames it in the context of the harm that could have happened not just to him but to his kingdom as well. He also sincerely asks, “What exactly did you see here that compelled you to take such action?” He even allows Avraham to answer, “Because I saw that there is no fear of God in this place and they will indeed kill me over my wife.”
  • Finally Pharaoh kicks Avraham out of his country. On the other hand, Avimelech tries to make amends and not only allows Avraham and Sarah to stay in Gerar but tells them to take any land that they wish to have.


When we compare these two incidents we get very different impressions about each place. You see, when it comes to bad societies – and let’s face it, any place where beautiful women are immediately abducted and/or abused are such places – they are not all alike. Egypt has very little chance at reforming itself because its leader is so corrupt. Pharaoh is not interested in hearing why Avraham did what he did and does not give Avraham any opportunity to point out the moral failings of Egypt. Avimelech is a different story and hears him out and tries to make amends.


It teaches an important lesson. And that is, sometimes we generalize and assume a whole place to be bad and corrupt, beyond any ability to reform itself. And sometimes we do that with groups of people as well. And so we treat them all alike and behave with them in the same patterns and manner as Avraham did, making no differentiation.


We cannot blame Avraham for what he did to take the necessary actions to protect himself and his family. But we also need to give others a chance once we see they are open to the opportunity as Avraham saw with Avimelech. We need to be careful and follow the words of the sages at the very beginning of Pirkei Avot when they say, “Be deliberate in Judgment.” Don’t paint everyone with the same broad strokes and just assume them to be of a certain ilk.


Some people are really bad through and through, and those people you want to avoid and get away from like Avraham did when he gladly took off out of Egypt. But others just need a little guidance, encouragement and teaching. These are the people who can mend their flaws. And these are the people with whom you can certainly live with and even make treaties with as Avraham does with Avimelech at the end of the parsha.


In life, we must strive to see the potential good in those who may initially come off as less than stellar. Because once given half a chance, there is a good chance they will do teshuva, repent from their failings and become better. And we need to always be open to seeing that in others.


All I need is trust

All I need is trust, trust, trust to make it show…


Kick it around, don’t be rude

If you’re gonna make a mistake don’t you make it twice

-Gordon Lightfoot


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