"Abraham's Counsel to Sarai" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"Abraham's Counsel to Sarai" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

The trials of Sarah (and her husband, Abraham)

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1–17:27

Isaiah 40:27–41:16

Bat mitzvah student (younger, faster, female): Hey, Rabbi, you told me last time that my Torah portion, Lech Lecha, tells the story of Abraham, beginning with God telling Avram, his name at the time, to leave his native land and father’s house for an unnamed destination, and God promises that Avram will be blessed and his name great.

Rabbi (older, grayer, male, getting worried): Yes, and I also asked you to read Pirke Avot Chapter 5:

  • The world was created in ten words.
  • From Adam to Noah there were ten generations.
  • From Noah to Abraham there were ten generations.
  • Ten trials of Abraham.
  • Ten wonders for our ancestors in Egypt.
  • Ten Plagues.
  • Ten times the Israelites denied God.
  • Abraham was tested with ten trials and he stood them all to show his great love.

Student: Yes. I also did the reading from Maimonides, “The Ten Trials of Abraham”:

  1. Abraham leaves his family and homeland for the Land of Israel (Genesis 12:1).
  2. Abraham’s exile to Egypt shortly after arriving in Israel as a result of famine (Genesis 12:10).
  3. Because of Abraham’s fear, Sarah is abducted into Pharaoh’s palace (Genesis 12:15).
  4. Abraham’s battle against “the four kings” (Genesis 14).
  5. Abraham’s having to take Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, as concubine after failing to have children with Sarah for so many years (Genesis 16:1-3).
  6. Abraham’s being commanded to circumcise himself, endangering himself due to his advanced age (Genesis 17).
  7. Sarah’s abduction into Abimelech’s palace (Abraham lied) (Genesis 20:2).
  8. Abraham’s decision, on Sarah’s instructions and God’s approval, to expel Hagar and Ishmael from his home (Genesis 21:9-14).
  9. The binding and near slaughter of Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1–19).
  10. Abraham’s peaceful purchase of a burial plot for Sarah (Genesis 23).

Rabbi: And?

Student: May we take a closer look at Trial No. 3, Genesis 12:10? “There was a famine in the land; and Abraham went down into Egypt. When he came close to Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife: ‘I know that you are a beautiful woman and when the Egyptians see you, they will say: ‘This is his wife’ and they will kill me, but you they will keep alive. Please say you are my sister; that it be well with me for, for your sake, that I will live because of you.’ And it came to pass, that, when Abraham was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the beautiful woman, the Pharaoh’s people saw her, praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.”

“The woman?” That’s abuse. In fact, the whole list of Abraham’s Tests from Sarah’s point of view would look to me like “The Ten Trials of Sarah,” like this:

  1. Sarah, putting her faith in Abraham, and God, leaves her family and homeland for the Land of Israel (Genesis 12:1).
  2. Sarah’s faith in God is tested when the new land is dry as a bone and she is forced into exile to Egypt (Genesis 12:10).
  3. Sarah’s husband, fearing for his life, declares her to be his sister and Sarah is taken to Pharaoh’s palace (Genesis 12:15).
  4. Sarah is left at home while Abraham battles against “the four kings” (Genesis 14).
  5. Childless, Sarah becomes a sister-wife to Hagar, her maidservant (Genesis 16:1-3).
  6. Sarah witnesses Abraham, not a young man, circumcising himself (Genesis 17). And then, after being informed that she, in her old age, will have a child, all she can do in response to this incredible news is, “laugh… to herself,” or at herself (Genesis 18:12).
  7. Sarah is again abducted, now into Abimelech palace (again!) because Abraham lied (again?) (Genesis 20:2).
  8. It’s all too much and Sarah betrays Hagar and Ishmael and exiles them from her home (Genesis 21:9-14).
  9. Wakes up one morning to learn that Abraham has taken Isaac and has nearly killed him on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1-19).
  10. Sarah dies and Abraham buys her a cave (Genesis 23).

Rabbi (trying to be glib): That reminds me of what Ginger Rogers said, “I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.”

Student: She never said that. In a cartoon, two guys are shown looking at a billboard announcing a Fred Astaire film festival, with the caption: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did… backwards and in high heels.”

Just like Ginger, we don’t know what Sarah really says. But I say, “Sarah was tested by God and Abraham with ten trials and she withstood them all, showing her great strength, humor and love.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].