DVAR TORAH: Weinstein, ‘Lech Lecha’, and Ramban

By Ilan Bouskila, 12th Grade

Early on in Parshat Lech Lecha, we encounter a very disturbing episode that hits especially hard, given what’s been circulating the news about Harvey Weinstein sexually harassing and assaulting women in the Hollywood industry. In Chapter 12 of Bereishit, the parsha reads:

As [Avram] was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you and think, ‘She is his wife’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.

When Avram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was. Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace And because of her, it went well with Avram… But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his houshold with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Avram.

Pharaoh sent for Avram and said, ‘What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife, take her and begone!’ And Pharaoh put men in charge of him, and they sent him off with his wife and all that he possessed.

These lines detail a clear account of the objectification of women that was commonplace in the Biblical era (not that anything has changed). First, the fact that the Egyptians would straight-up murder Avram for his beautiful wife is incredibly messed up. “Hey, I know she’s a human being and all, but let’s fight over her like she’s the Gaza Strip” is how I imagine this going. Avram says, “How about instead of me standing up for you, protecting you, or avoiding the situation all together, I allow these men to get what they want out of you without any consequence because I’m scared.” Sarai,
of course, has no recorded response.

Being the wise navi that he is, everything Avram predicts comes true! The Egyptians immediately objectify Sarai, and “the woman [is] taken into Pharaoh’s palace.” “It went well with Avram.”

There’s even more #MeToo style dirt in the narrative, but we can afford to skip it. Who needs to see anything else — God punishes the Egyptians for their evil ways, and we can get this show on the road! Only question is: what about Avram, who treats his wife like a lesser being and allows her to be “taken into Pharaoh’s palace?” “Avram was very heavy with cattle, with silver, and with gold.” He seems to be rewarded for his noble, valiant, and faithful deed by God. Seems crazy, right?

Ramban (Nachmanides) agrees. In his commentary on these verses, Ramban asserts that “our father Avram sinned grievously.” He goes further to explain that yes, Avram may have riches in the short term, but his actions had negative effects on the generations that came after — a concept called ma’aseh avot siman labanim, meaning the actions of ancestors (specifically the Avot) affect the lives of their descendants.

According to Ramban, the punishment for Avram’s sins in Egypt — treating someone like an object for him to command as he pleases — is that the Jewish people become slaves in Egypt, treated like objects for the Egyptians to command as they please. Midah k’neged midah, roughly translating to “what goes around comes around.”

In light of the horror stories we’ve been hearing recently about Harvey Weinstein, this parsha hits very close to home. The Torah and Ramban together are showing just how strong of a crime the sexualization and objectification of women is. Following the logic of Ramban, those “little” offenses like commenting on a female employee’s figure at the workplace and a seemingly meaningless pat on the lower back could result in the heaviest of punishments.