This week's Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha, introduces us to Abraham and Sarah (aka Abram and Sarai), the founders of the Jewish people. The portion opens in Genesis 12:1 with lofty prose as we witness Abraham going forth from his father's house, as he heads out, on his way to the Land of Israel. But by 12:10, the text takes a sharp turn:
"There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. And it occurred, as he was about to enter Egypt, that he said to his wife Sarai: 'See now, I have known that you are a beautiful woman. And it shall occur, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say 'This is his [Abram's] wife!' Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Therefore, please say that you are my sister...' (Gen 12:10-13).
Biblical scholars refer to this story as part of the "sister-wife" motif. (Fascinatingly, the motif repeats itself in Genesis 20 and 26. More on that some other time...)
We could certainly spend ample time criticizing Abraham as to why he would basically prostitute his own wife off onto the king of Egypt in order to save his own skin. But not this week.
This week, I want to read Abraham's motives more sympathetically. Imagine how difficult it must have been for him to have to go to Sarah - the woman he loved - and put her in the position. Maybe we can presume that Abraham truly felt like he had no other choice. If they were to survive, this drastic series of steps had to be taken.
And so, he lied about who he was, and about the nature of his relationship with his significant other.
He had to lie about who he was - and about the nature of his relationship with his significant other.
Who knew that the sister-wife motif could be read as a pre-modern clarion call for gay rights?!
Bear with me as I try to explain.
Egypt, in our tradition, is always associated with degradation, humiliation, and enslavement. Abraham was never enslaved like his descendants (of the Passover story):
His degradation was of a different sort: he was forced into the closet (so to speak), prohibited by circumstance from publicly loving his partner.
How sad it is that that same humiliation persists in the world today, as a private Egypt to be borne in the closet, by gays and lesbians around the world. The recent, and utterly tragic/horrific/depressing suicide of Tyler Clementi on September 22 is a reminder that there is still much work to be done in our society to insure that those who identify as LGBTQ are granted the same respect, rights, and freedoms as any heterosexual individual.
There is, indeed, much political work to be done in this regard. Gay Californians, for example, are still waiting in limbo to find out if they have the legal right to marry. And there is much talk in Washington (and a federal court case right here in California) about ending the ban on openly gay soldiers serving in the military. Interested in getting involved in the political fight? Visit our movement's Religious Action Center webpage on LGBT issues before Congress here, and visit the "Take Action" page of the Human Rights Campaign here. Sign your name onto the important Jewish community pledge here, and then visit the website of Keshet (a national Jewish gay resource and activism center).
Did you know that the Reform movement has long been a proud proponent of gay rights in this country. You can read a Union for Reform Judaism resolution in support of gay rights going back to 1977 here and a resolution from the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1993 here. Closer to home, you can read Rabbi Frank's moving 2008 Rosh HaShanah sermon on gay marriage here.
Although this might be a political battle - at the end of the day what we really need is a sea change in our culture....when we can shift from a society that is suspicious of anyone that is a little bit different, to a society that recognizes the humanity embedded in each one of us. We hope and pray that when that day arrives (and may it come soon), then the Abraham's (and Tyler's) of this world will never feel like they have to hide in the closet again.