For the foreseeable future, Harvey Weinstein will be in the news. But even when he’s not today’s headline, the many, many women whom he abused continue to suffer every day (as of now, according to the Los Angeles Times, “more than half a dozen women who have accused Weinstein of sexual assault or rape and among more than 50 women who have publicly detailed a range of inappropriate behavior”).
Reflect with me on an incident that occurred thousands of years ago between a husband and wife and the potential consequences of their behavior for other women in their family. Today, we would consider this a clear case of a husband abusing his wife abuse. But historically, although patriarchy was the norm then (and it’s important to put stories in their historical context), it still illustrates how a casual remark by a man could cause family casualties for women.
About 4000 years ago, a husband, wife and extended family members and slaves left their home, settled in a new land, and encountered a famine. To survive, they had to relocate to another country which had food, but as they approached the border, the husband realized that his life might be in jeopardy because the inhabitants of this country might kill him and claim his wife and clan as their prize. “For the sake of the family,” and to save his life, he asked his wife to lie to his hosts about their relationship, and lie that they were brother and sister and not husband and wife. The host discovered the lie, castigated the husband for his behavior, and expelled him and his family from his country. Far from being a barbarian, this host displayed noble behavior and brought into relief how appalling the husband’s ruse was for his wife.
That is essentially what we read about in this week‘s Torah reading when we see that Abraham and Sarah and their extended the clan had to temporarily relocate to Egypt (Genesis Chapter 12). They were forced to travel there as food was available so that they would not die of starvation in Canaan. Abraham, as head of the clan, was desperate to ensure the survival of his family, and a revolutionary way of relating to God, and for those reasons, asked the impossible of his wife (“Please say that you are my sister so that it will go well with me because of you…” – Genesis 12:13), who really had no choice but to comply, set aside her dignity and put her own life in jeopardy.
Fast forward now to Genesis 19, when by now, Abraham and his nephew, Lot, have parted ways over a land dispute. Lot lives in Sodom, pretty fertile territory for his flocks, but rough terrain for his family. When two strangers visit Lot, all of Sodom’s residents converge on his home, clamor at his door and demand that he turns the strangers over to the mob that is clearly intent on gang rape. (It turns out that the “strangers” were God’s messengers in disguise, and from a Biblical perspective “the house eventually wins” when humans act immorally). Lot refuses to turn them over, and when his neighbors threaten him with physical violence, he makes a second attempt to pacify them by offering his two daughters instead. He says, “Please, I beg you, take my two daughters who haven’t been sexually intimate with any man, they’re yours to do whatever you wish…” (Genesis 19:8). At that point, these strangers can’t abide that idea, and they smite the clamoring mob with blindness.
You have to wonder if that punishment of blindness isn’t more than just physical retribution, but also holds symbolic meaning for us as the readers. How could Lot be blind to the fate that he was so quick to assign to his daughters? Could Lot’s callous disregard for his own daughters be traced back to what he saw when his uncle, Abraham, confronted stranger danger in Egypt? One can empathize with Abraham’s dilemma, and be aware that our social values and norms are different (or are at least supposed to be) from his, but it still leaves many of us with a feeling of revulsion in reading that he felt that he had to put his wife at risk in service of a greater mission or vision. In view of the mounting allegations of abusive behavior by Harvey Weinstein against women, it occurred to me for the first time, that how even a spontaneous, casual “suggestion” that Abraham made to Sarah out of fear and desperation, might have had an impact on his nephew, Lot, who was knowingly prepared to have his daughters abused by a mob. I don’t know….but now I wonder.
In Western countries today, we live in very different times than those of Abraham and Sarah. But in some ways, for example, when it comes to men in positions of power perpetrating abuse against women for decades, and knowing that those who can stop them turn a blind eye, maybe things haven’t changed that much. This old story about Abraham and Sarah is a headline-worthy reminder that moral blindness has consequences and turns innocent people into casualties. That’s worth more than remembering; it’s a call especially to men to speak out against any kind of abusive behavior against women. It’s gotta stop already.