What’s the word?
As Parshat Lech Lecha begins, it looks very much, at least on a superficial reading, like the story of Avraham (then called Avram); his wife Sarah (then Sarai) is simply “taken” (12:5) along for the ride.
Sarah Takes the Stage
And Avram went down to Egypt… And when he approached to come to Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “Behold, now I have known that you are a beautiful woman. And it will be, when the Egyptians see you…they will kill me and leave you alive [to take you for themselves]. Say, please, you are my sister…” And it was, when Avram came to Egypt and the Egyptians saw…the woman was taken to the house of Pharaoh. (Bereishit 12:10-15)
There are no verbs connected with Sarah in this passage – not even a reaction to Avraham’s plan. She is spoken of and “taken” – and not even “they took her,” but “she was taken,” as if to emphasize passivity and powerlessness.
On the other hand, we certainly see later that Sarah knows how to speak up when necessary, as when she suggests that Avraham marry Hagar and when she later insists that Hagar and Yishmael be cast out. And indeed, perhaps even in Egypt, Sarah is more active than she seems.
Here’s the Thing About Words
The Torah tells us that God struck Pharaoh and his household with “great plagues, al dvar Sarai eshet Avram” (12:17). The Hebrew word davar has two common translations: “thing/matter” and “word.” These lead to multiple possible translations of this verse, offering very different portrayals of our damsel in distress – or, should I rather say, our heroine.
Biblical translators often assume the first meaning of davar here: “God struck Pharaoh on the matter of Sarai, the wife of Avram.” In other words, something was happening regarding Sarah, and God decided to take action because of it.
(Note that the phrase “the wife of Avram” could be understood in a number of ways, offering further nuances that are sadly beyond the scope of this dvar Torah.)
If we understand dvar as “word,” however, that would change everything: it would indicate that Sarah spoke words – and not only that she spoke words, but that they were effective. “God struck Pharaoh on the word of Sarai, the wife of Avram”: God did not simply initiate the rescue of a damsel in distress; rather, the heroine of her own story spoke up to save herself.
But to whom did she speak up, and how did it help?
Rav Hirsch suggests that Sarai spoke to Pharaoh, admitting that she was Avram’s wife – and by doing so, “forced God’s hand,” as it were, to step in and save her: Pharaoh would no longer try to gain her “brother’s” permission for marriage, and would simply kill Avram and keep her; thus, the danger became immediate and Hashem had to intervene.
Alternatively, Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (41:2) suggests two possible non-physical addressees. First – God himself; it was Sarah’s words of prayer (a remarkably bold prayer; see midrashic text) that moved God to step in when He did.
And second: “Rabbi Levi said: All that night, an angel stood with a whip in his hand. He would say to her, ‘If you say strike, I will strike…’ And why all this? Because she was saying to him [Pharaoh] ‘I am a married woman!’ and he was not stopping.”
It is Rabbi Levi’s interpretation that I find most fascinating. Here, the “word of Sarai” was two-fold: she spoke to Pharaoh and told him the truth (as in Rav Hirsch) – and when he didn’t listen, God sent an angel to make him listen, precisely in accordance with Sarah’s decision and spoken instructions.
At the very depth of her powerlessness – God doesn’t just save Sarah, but empowers her to use her voice to save herself.
Broadening the Message
Part of building an active, personal spiritual identity and mission – for both spouses in this partnership – is developing a balanced relationship between faith in God (bitachon) and personal efforts (hishtadlut). It is not simply about using one’s voice, or about trusting that God will step in, but about finding and using our God-given abilities to the greatest effect.