Parshat Lech Lecha, is probably best known for the first-ever verbal communication between Hashem and Avraham.
At 70 years old, Hashem suddenly appears to Avraham to say (12:1): “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you: Avraham must leave everything and everyone he has known all his life, including his familiar surroundings, family, friends, etc., to go to a land that he has never seen before.
Bear in mind that this message comes from a G-d Who has never before revealed Himself to Avraham in any way! This gives rise to alot of discussion about the incredible level of faith demonstrated by Avraham in obeying Hashem’s command despite the difficulty involved.
But what about the incredible level of faith that SARAH demonstrated by joining Avraham in this journey?! Keep in mind that she did not have the luxury of hearing this command directly from Hashem and thus did not have the incentive that Avraham had to obey this command. In fact, she did not really have proof that this whole G-dly exchange even occurred, having only heard it second-hand from Avraham! Not to make an exact comparison, but when you think about it, this is every wife’s worst nightmare. The husband comes home from a hard day shepherding sheep and says, “Honey, THE VOICE OF THE LORD CAME TO ME TODAY”! “Dear”, she says, “you have been out in that hot sun way too long! Why don’t you take a nice long nap and tell me all about it when you get up (while I get the men in the white jackets to restrain you!)”.
“But that’s not all, honey”, continues the husband, “G-d told me we have to leave our family, friends, home, and country and go to some land that He will show us on the way! Honey?! Honey?! Hmm, I wonder if she has a history of falling down in a faint like that.”
It stands to reason that Avraham himself would probably admit that Sarah’s coming along demonstrated an even greater level of faith than his own. For one thing, travel was much more difficult in those days for a woman than a man. As proof, consider what happens when Avraham and Sarah find themselves traveling to Egypt as a result of a famine in the land of Canaan. As they are about to enter Egypt, Avraham says to Sarah, (12:11-13):
“See now, I have known that you are a woman of beautiful appearance: And it shall occur, when the Egyptians will see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife!’; then they will kill me, but you they will let live: Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me for your sake, and that I may live on account of you.”:
There are many questions that beg to be asked here. For now however, we will put aside the question of how a righteous person like Avraham would ask someone to lie for him, or how a righteous person like Sarah would go along with it. We will not even address the question of how Avraham is seemingly more concerned about himself than Sarah, as his solution only saves him but doesn’t get Sarah out of her nasty predicament. Before we can address any of those questions, we must first ask ourselves how it is that Avraham only realized NOW that his wife Sarah was beautiful! After all, Avraham and Sarah had to have been married for a number of years by now. Are we to believe that in all those years of being married, it escaped Avraham’s attention that his wife was beautiful? And if that’s the case, what was it about their situation now that suddenly made it dawn on Avraham as to how beautiful Sarah was?
Rashi comes up with a few different explanations as to what Avraham meant by saying “Now I know how beautiful you are”. The first explanation given by Rashi is based on something he found in the Midrash Aggadah (Oral Tradition). He says that until now Avraham was not aware of Sarah’s beauty because of the extreme “Tzniut–modesty” between them, but that now he recognized her beauty because of a certain incident. Unfortunately, Rashi stops there and does not tell us what that incident was. Those of us for whom curiosity is a form of torture, do some research on this and discover that the Midrash is referring to the following incident: on their way down to Egypt, Avraham and Sarah had to cross a stream. In crossing the stream, Avraham looked down and saw Sarah’s reflection in the water. Upon seeing her reflection, Avraham suddenly realized how beautiful his wife Sarah was.
Interesting. For more than forty years, Avraham gets to see the real MaCoy–Sarah, up close and personal, every morning at the breakfast table, in the evening at the dinner table, at night when they’re together, on shabbat afternoon walks, etc., and…..nothing. But all of a sudden, during their travels they cross a stream, Avraham catches a quick glance at Sarah in the water (and incidentally, how accurate is one’s reflection in moving water anyway?) and immediately he realizes that the wife he’s been married to for so long, is beautiful?!
Well, it seems that Rashi anticipated our frustration with that first answer, because he brings another one. Rashi says that it is common knowledge that travel makes a person become less attractive, due to factors such as the constant dust that dries out the skin, the toll that crossing different types of terrain takes on a body, and the general meager accommodations that a traveler will inevitably encounter. So Rashi suggests that when Avraham saw that Sarah was still looking beautiful after this long treck down to Egypt, he said, “I always knew that you were beautiful. But now I see that your beauty is even greater than I originally thought, because I see that travel cannot even diminish it”.
But that still does not seem to be satisfy Rashi, because he brings a third explanation. He says that Avraham always knew that Sarah was beautiful, but until now, her beauty was never a problem for them. However, now her beauty becomes an issue because they are going to Egypt. Egypt was known to be a hotbed of immorality. So Avraham was saying, “Now that we are coming to Egypt, where they have never seen a woman like you who is light-skinned (since they were a nation of dark-skinned people) your unique beauty will stand out all the more and as a result, they will kill me to get to you”.
While these three explanations are quite interesting, there is a bigger question here. According to a well-known concept in Torah study, a commentary will only bring more than one explanation if the original explanation did not really satisfy the question. Thus, we must always ask ourselves what the first answer did not address, to understand why the commentary felt it necessary to bring another.
Perhaps the main question that Rashi had with Avraham’s saying “Now I know”, was that the word “I know” is written in the past-tense “Yadati–I knew”. Thus, what Avraham really said was “Now, I knew”. That does not really make sense. So Rashi’s first explanation tries to explain the “Now”–i.e. why it was that after all the years that Avraham was married to Sarah, he did not realize that she was beautiful, until “now”. According to this explanation, the level of modesty between Avraham and Sarah was so great that even though they were intimate as husband and wife, Avraham did not realize the extent of how beautiful Sarah was because she never flaunted it. While this may be difficult to imagine, there is something compelling about the notion that two people could maintain a level of mystery and newness between them, despite being so close for so long. But as nice as the idea may be, it doesn’t help explain the word “Yadati–I knew”. How did this discovery now affect what Avraham “knew” in the past?
The second explanation helps us out a bit more by saying that Avraham was really telling Sarah, “Now that we are traveling and I see that you do not look any worse for wear, it reaffirms what ‘I knew’ about you all along, which is that you are beautiful”. In other words, Avraham always knew that Sarah was beautiful and “now” this factor of traveling helped reaffirm what he “knew”. But the problem with this explanation is that this was not the first time that Avraham and Sarah traveled somewhere. Immediately prior to this, Avraham and Sarah had left Ur Kasdeem (Avraham’s birthplace) and traveled to Canaan, as Hashem had commanded them. It was only due to a famine in Canaan that Avraham and Sarah found themselves traveling down to Egypt. Therefore, since they had traveled before, surely Avraham would have noticed THEN that Sarah remained beautiful despite the rigors of travel!
Another reason why that explanation does not totally satisfy the question is because according to Rashi (who is the contextual expert), these verses are clearly implying that Avraham’s concern regarding Sarah’s beauty was specifically tied to Egypt, a place where men would kill Avraham for Sarah. Thus, Rashi had to come up with an explanation that fits with Egypt being the main factor. So his third explanation mentions Egypt as the reason for Avraham’s saying “Now, I knew” because it was specifically the behavior of the Egyptians that made Avraham realize how beautiful Sarah was and what a problem that beauty was going to be for them.
The only question we have left is, why Rashi starts off with the first explanation from the Midrash. If anything, that explanation looks like it is the weakest of the three since it does not seem to reconcile the word “Yadati” at all. Yet somehow, Rashi must have liked that explanation best, because he brings it as his first one.
Perhaps we should take another look at the Midrash, because we never really explained how Sarah’s reflection in the water made Avraham realize the extent of her beauty. In Judaism, there are two words used to describe beauty. One is “Yofi” and the other is “Chayn”. “Yofi” refers to a person’s external beauty–the kind that can get a person into Vogue magazine; the kind that takes a lot of time and investment to maintain. “Chayn” is different. Chayn refers to a person’s internal beauty. It can be a person’s sweet disposition, cheery personality, kind nature, etc. This “Chayn” can actually make the person appear beautiful on the outside as well. Has it ever happened to you that, after meeting a person whose features were not at all beautiful in the “classical” sense, the more you got to know them the more beautiful they became? And when someone asked you to describe that person, you found yourself saying that he or she was pretty or handsome? Perhaps you explained it to yourself as the person’s looks “growing on you”. What really happened was that the person’s internal beauty (Chayn) actually served to alter his or her external features, thus making him or her look beautiful. And the wonderful thing about Chayn is that it never wrinkles or fades and you don’t need vats of Oil of Olay to maintain it. (When you think about it, if beauty was determined on internal features, there would be a lot more “beautiful” people in this world!)
All throughout his marriage to Sarah, Avraham saw her beauty as being a function of both her physical beauty (Yofi) and her inner beauty (Chayn). This explains why Rashi uses the word “tzniut”. People often translate “tzniut” as modesty, which implies having to deny one’s attributes of beauty, intelligence, power, etc., and hide them from the world. But true tzniut is not about denying the attributes you have. Tzniut means acknowledging your attributes and using them WHEN APPROPRIATE, not flaunting them when unnecessary. Avraham and Sarah had this tzniut in their marriage. Avraham never objectified Sarah’s beauty because he never separated her inner beauty from her external beauty. This was because Sarah always used both appropriately. Now, when they crossed this stream and Avraham saw Sarah’s reflection, for the first time he was seeing her simply as a beautiful physical form. After all, a reflection of a person is simply a “copy” of that person’s outer features. When we see our reflection in a mirror, we do not see how kind we are, how intelligent or how generous, etc., we only see our external features. That is why it is so important to remember that the mirror allows us only to see a reflection of who we are, and not the true “us”.
When Avraham saw how beautiful Sarah’s reflection was, he exclaimed “Now I have proof that what I always knew is true. I always viewed you as beautiful, but that was because I saw you as a beautiful person on the inside as well as the outside. Since your “Chayn” is so incredible, I could never be sure if it acted to cloud my opinion of your external beauty–i.e. making it less objective. In other words, I never knew if the only reason why I found you to be physically beautiful, was because I was also seeing your Chayn and thus that made me think you were beautiful. But now that I have seen your reflection in the water, which is a totally objective view of your external features (since your Chayn does not shine through) I now know that what I always knew of you is true. You are truly as beautiful on the OUTSIDE as you are on the inside”.