Sarah and Avimelech
When Avimelech returned Sarah to Avraham he bequethed him with more than cattle and servants, he also gave him the right to dwell in his land as a citizen. (Bereishit 20, 4) Afterward we are told that he addressed Sarah:
"Behold I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold it/he is for you a covering of the eyes to all that are with you, and to all you are righted (v'nochachat)." This verse is difficult to understand. It seems that the phrase "your brother" refers to Avraham, for that is the way they introduced themselves at first. In that case Avimelech seems to be making a subtle caustic remark blaming Sarah and Avraham for misrepresenting themselves and causing the entire situation. Still, if this is the case what is this "thousand pieces of silver" that is not mentioned anywhere else? What is the "ksut ainayim" "covering of the eyes" and what is it supposed to cover? Who is it meant to help? And what is the meaning of the last word of the verse- "v'nochachat?"
This cryptic verse has been explained in a number of different ways. Some explain that Avimelech made these remarks to Sarah in anger. He felt that Sarah had set him up and did not do anything to help him extricate himself from this difficult situation, as he hints to her when he reminds her he was under the impression Avraham was her "brother." For this reason he curses her with blindness, "ksut ainayim." According to Chazal his curse was manifest in Yitzchak, Sarah's son. (Megen Avot, Rashbatz) Others explained that the money was given to Sarah to make up for the embarassment of the whole incident, so that she would no longer need to veil herself or hide her identity with a "ksut ainayim." (Hafla'a Ketubot 61a) As Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch explains:
Behold, I the King just wanted to be close to you, and I have already recieved my full share of punishemnt, and I have even been forced to attone and offer appeasement for my sin- and this is the "ksut ainayim" (a Biblical term often understood to describe bribery or appeasement). Now no man will dare act brazenly and you are no longer obligated to hide your identity. You will go before all creatures as the wife of Avraham, in the eyes of all, revealed."
Chizkuni, on the other hand, does not mention any benefit Sarah recieved, instead he stresses Avimelech's claim that he was innocent of wrongdoing:
"Behold, Avraham your brother is "ksut ainayim" (a blindfold) for you, he hides and covers (the fact) that you are his wife from the eyes of all living beings and he commands "everyone with you" to do the same, "and all of it and you vnochachat" and also to the entire world you would argue and say he is my brother, and therefore I did not really sin.
Both these explanations see this statement as a rebuke aimed at Sarah, and she just accepts the chastisement. While Avimelech makes it up to her he does not hide his disapproval, or his feelings that he fell into a trap that was laid for him by the couple. He even goes out of his way to point out that Sarah profited from the whole ordeal. Avimelech's generosity is not a product of his charitable spirit, but rather his fear of Divine retribution; these remarks are made through gritted teeth. He knows his future is in Avraham's hands. He was told that Avraham would pray for him and his household and stop the plague afflicting them. Perhaps this is the reason the verse reads more like indistinct ramblings, a string of incomplete thoughts. "Behold I have given a thousand silver pieces ot your brother..." "Behold it is for you..." "A covering of the eyes..." "For all who are with you..." "And you all..." "And you are present..." It seems choppy, like parts of the sentence are missing. The conclusion, "v'nachacht," "And you were present," is a description of Sarah's position- she is indeed present for this rebuke.
Yet these explanations still seem lacking. I would liek to suggest that perhaps this verse can be read as a dialogue between Sarah and Avimelech. He say "Behold I have given" and she answers "may it be a covering of the eyes for you." He demands repayment and she claims that there is a deeper problem that must still be addressed. He says, "For all that are with you," and she corrects him, "and all [people]." In this case the word "v'nochachat" does not mean "you are righted" or "you are present," but rather "it was argued." (vikuach) The ambiguous wording makes it difficult to understand what each side is claiming, but it is clear that Sarah is standing up for herself. She will not give up and she will not give in. But while I wanted to rescue Sarah from the prevalent understanding of victim blaming and shaming, I could not find even a hint of such an approach in the commentaries.
From the point of view of the commentaries Avimelech's rebuke of Sarah is a classic example of a powerful person who has taken advantage of their position and authority trying to absolve themselves of any hint of wrongdoing after the fact. Here is a person of stature who has kidnapped a woman without asking what she wants, he holds her against her will, and the only thing that kept him from laying a hand on her was Divine intervention. Throughout this episode he has treated her like an object, up to and including the ppoint that he returns her and tries to make it seem like she benefited from the entire episode, which was actually entirely her fault.
The power of this guilt trip should not be underestimated. People often identify with the attacker and adopt their version of the events, as can be seen from the commentaries that try to fill in the blanks in this narrative. For example, the Degel Machaneh Efraim explains that Sarah was barren because she was too "spiritual." Avraham and Sarah lives on a plane that was so elevated they could not have children. This incident with Avimelech made her more "present" (v'nochacht) in this world. As he explains:
Therefore you could not physically give birth at all. But now I have given you a thousand silver pieces, meaning [I have given you] hidden physical desires, and everything will flow from this, "and all and you are present," meaning that the birth will really be in the present. And this is [the meaning of] "Who is wise? One that sees the future (lit. hanolad- what will be born)," [what will be born] physically. And understand."
This commentary is just one of many that prove how easy it is to identify with the dark side of the story, to identify with the justifications of the accused or their point of view.
While this message can be disheartening, it is an important lesson we must all internalize. Yet perhaps we can also find a silver lining in this story. Sometimes tragedy and disaster bring out hidden strengths. This strength can help us through the greatest challenges in our lives; sometimes they can even bear fruit.
Note: All of Rabbanit Tikochinsky’s parsha commentaries are stored on the LSS web site. To access them, please visit www.lss.org/beitmorasha. You are also welcome to forward the link to people who are outside the LSS community and who may otherwise not have access to her columns.