A Relationship Under Pressure[1]

Along with all the awe-inspiring and history-altering moments of Avraham and Sarah’s life, there is another, parallel story – the story of their relationship.  It’s a more subtle story, certainly, and easy to miss.  But it’s a story, I believe, that we were meant to notice.

 A little bit of context that is all too easy to forget: Avraham and Sarah lived a hard life.  Torn away from their families, Hashem promised blessing and abundance – but there was plenty of hunger, hardship and stress along the way.  And all too often, these hardships placed a tremendous strain upon their marriage.

 In Parshat Lech Lecha, when Avraham and Sarah traveled to Egypt during a famine, Avraham makes a strange comment to Sarah:

 הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ

Now, I just realized what a beautiful woman you are.

On a simple level, this is beautiful – our zeide Avraham is telling our Bubbe Sarah how beautiful she is (a good reminder for all of us!)!  But what does Avraham mean when he says “I just now realized that you are beautiful”?

Rashi explains, astoundingly, that Avraham and Sarah were so modest that Avraham never realized Sarah was so physically beautiful!  But it seems there is a formality, a distance between Avraham and Sarah.

Now, because Sarah was so beautiful, Avraham was afraid the immoral Egyptians would kill him and take Sarah as their own.  And so he asks Sarah to present herself to the Egyptians as Avraham’s sister instead.  Predictably, Sarah was taken by Pharaoh to be a part of his harem.  Now it’s true that, in the end, God saved Sarah and returned her to Avraham.  But the stress must have been terrible!

Years later, when Avraham and Sarah came to the land of Avimelech, Avraham was once again afraid that he would be killed because of Sarah.  And so once again, he and Sarah did the “brother-sister” act.  Only this time, Avraham didn’t ask Sarah’s permission.  “וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֲחֹתִי הִוא” – “And Abraham said ‘she is my sister.'”  This time, Avraham simply announced that Sarah was sister – and Avimelech promptly took Sarah to his home.

The Rabbis, in Bereishit Rabbah, are very tough on Avraham, saying that this “brother-sister” act was “על כרחה שלא בטובתה”  – that it was against Sarah’s will and not in her best interests!  Obviously, Avraham was afraid for his life; he never intended any harm!  But this whole experience could only have been terribly painful for Sarah.  We are left to imagine the conversations Avraham and Sarah had after these terrifying episodes?  How it must have challenged their closeness and trust…

But this is only the beginning of the stress on Avraham and Sarah’s relationship.  For decades, both Sarah and Avraham yearned and prayed desperately for a baby.  Finally, Sarah told Avraham to take Hagar as a mistress – so that if a son would be born to Hagar, Sarah could raise him as an adopted child.  Imagine how this must have felt for Sarah!

But when Hagar conceived, the Torah tells us that she looked down upon Sarah.  According to the Midrash, she would tell people: “Sarah is clearly not as holy or righteous as she seems – for she is barren, and I became pregnant right away!”  

In her pain, Sarah lashed out at Avraham: “חֲמָסִי עָלֶיךָ” – “The outrage against me is due to you!” 

But what did Avraham do wrong?  Explains the Midrash, Sarah accused Avraham of only praying to God that HE should have a child.  “You should have prayed for US, for both of us!”

The pain in this interaction is so obvious, it hurts to read it even now, thousands of years later!  All the pain that built up over the years boiled over;  Sarah feels insulted and cast aside.  And Avraham must feel that Sarah is being terribly unfair; she had told Avraham to take Hagar as a wife in the first place! 

They’re alone in the desert, with only each other for support, and yet the distance between them seems to be growing wider and wider.

Eventually, as we know, the angels bring miraculous news – that Avraham and Sarah would have a baby.  But the birth of Yitzchak didn’t end the tension in Avraham and Sarah’s relationship; the problems don’t just go away. 

When Yishmael acted sinfully and dangerously, Sarah demanded that Avraham send Yishmael away – “kick him out!” – so Yitzchak would not be harmed.  But Avraham’s view of the situation was radically different from Sarah’s: וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם” “The matter was very evil in the eyes of Avraham.” The tension in the relationship is palpable!

The Hidden World of Marriage

Clearly, God wants us to pay attention to Avraham and Sarah’s marriage – otherwise these painful interactions wouldn’t be in the Torah in the first place!  And certainly, as we’ve just seen, the Rabbis didn’t hesitate to discuss their marriage – even in critical terms.  And this, too, is for a reason.

Why?  Why is the brutal honesty necessary?  It feels like a violation of privacy!

Alain de Botton, in The Course of Love, shares a deep insight:

The ordinary challenging relationship remains a strangely and unhelpfully neglected topic.  The extremes repeatedly grab the spotlight – the entirely blissful partnerships or the murderous catastrophes – and so it is hard to know what we should make of, and how lonely we should feel about, such things as immature rages, late night threats of divorce, sullen silences, slammed doors, and everyday acts of thoughtlessness.

The real experience of a relationship between husband and wife plays out in private, at home, hidden from the eyes of other people – friends and family included!  We spend time together, socially, with other couples, but we don’t really know what’s happening behind closed doors.  And since everybody else’s experience of marriage remains a secret to us, we have no way of knowing if our own struggles are a normal part of marriage, or if we’ve made some sort of unusual and fundamental error.  We are left completely in the dark.

I believe this is why the Torah gives us a “peek behind the curtain” – why we are given a glimpse of what the married lives of our forefathers and foremothers were really like – on the inside!  Our Father in Heaven knew how lonely couples can feel when they struggle in marriage.  And so He gave us models, examples, of extraordinarily holy people who, despite their holiness, dealt with challenges in their relationships.  What greater comfort can there be for married couples struggling to achieve happiness together? 

But the lesson of Avraham and Sarah goes deeper.  At every l’chaim and engagement party, it seems that people say the bride and groom are “perfect for each other.”  But the reality is, this is a lie!  If we’re completely honest, no two people are truly “compatible” in every way.  Our interests, our emotional needs, the way we experience the curveballs of life – we are all too varied and particular to ever be fully aligned with another human being!

This way of speaking, of thinking that people are “perfect” for each other, can be dangerous.  Because as Eric Fromm writes, it leads to the frequent illusion that love means the absence of conflict – which simply isn’t true!  Marriages, by their very nature, are meant to be challenging! 

For the goal of marriage is NOT to remove these differences, and somehow transform husband and wife into a perfectly unified, lean mean marriage machine.  Rather, the goal of marriage is to negotiate inevitable and permanent differences with empathy and good grace – for husband and wife to try to understand each other, as best they can, even when their spouse seems irrational or unfair! 

Where is Your Spouse?

When the three angels come to Avraham and Sarah’s tent, they say to Avraham: “וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, אַיֵּה שָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ” – “And they say to him: where is Sarah your wife?”  It’s an odd question; these are Divine messengers, on a mission from God.  Do they really not know where Sarah is?

And the Midrash adds another wrinkle to this conversation.  In the Torah text, above the words “They said to him,” (אליו) there three extra dots. And if we read only the letters connected to those dots, we get the word “איו” (aiyo), “Where is he.” Interpreting this, the Rabbis say that the angels were ALSO asking Sarah: “Where is Avraham your husband?”

What is the significance of these questions?  The Kli Yakar explains:

My heart tells me that the questions “Where is she?” and “Where is he?” were not spatial questions, meant to determine where she or he actually were. Rather they were questions about their “levels”…

In other words, the angels were asking Avraham and Sarah to describe one another, to remember each other’s wonderful qualities – to remember the things they love about each other!  They are being asked – reminded – to praise one another! 

The angels are telling Avraham and Sarah – “Yes, you have issues.  So what – everybody has issues!  And the two of you have been through so many painful challenges – more than most!  But at the same time, never forget what you love about each other!  Never forget each other’s good qualities, the kindnesses and love you have shown to each other through the years!”

And this is exactly what Avraham and Sarah did.

When Sarah passed away, Avraham wept for Sarah, and eulogized her.  And the Midrash tells us that when Sarah passed away, Avraham aged suddenly.  Without her, his vitality left him; and for all intents and purposes, the story moves on, to Yitzchak and the next generation of Jewish history.

It was a life, and a marriage, filled with great tests and challenges.  It wasn’t “perfect” in the simple meaning of the word.  But it was, ultimately, a marriage of deep and lasting love – a marriage that became the foundation for all that the Jewish people have accomplished in this world!

[1] This drasha was inspired by an insightful article by Rabbi David Kasher, “The Portrait of a Pair