I am currently teaching a weekly parsha class using the commentary of Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, Ha’ktav V’hakabbalah. As it doesn’t appear in a class Chumash, it is less known outside of Chumash scholarship — but the perspective he brings is fascinating and worth the effort of finding the text — available for free at Hebrewbooks.org — and studying at length.
Yiddish speakers will enjoy an additional perk, as he explains some concepts in finer detail with Yiddish expressions.
In Lech Lecha, he noted that the encounter in Egypt, when Sarah was taken by Pharaoh, ended with Pharaoh sending them out of Egypt, with the Torah describing their departure as accompanied by great wealth. Rabbi Mecklenberg explains, noting that the word “vayhi lo” (and he had) rather than “vayiten lo” (that Pharaoh gave him) the wealth as an indication that Avraham and Sarah left Egypt with the wealth they had brought down to Egypt. Rabbi Mecklenberg makes the bold claim that Pharaoh did not actually give Avraham any parting gifts — Avraham wouldn’t have accepted them anyway. Pharaoh just let Avraham keep whatever he had brought down to Egypt.
In his lengthy analysis on their descent, Rabbi Mecklenburg makes another bold claim — that Avraham and Sarah’s marriage was designed following Noachide rules. In those pre-Torah days, as Maimonides points out in his Laws of Marriage, all that was needed for a union to be recognized as a marriage was for a man and woman to agree to live together and to consummate their union. Divorce was accomplished through their mutual agreement that the relationship was over. And the idea of remarrying the same person was not problematic, contrary to the verse in the Torah which forbids a re-union if the woman was with a different man in the interim. (Devarim 24:4)
It is interesting that Ha’ktav V’hakbbalah doesn’t make similar claims regarding Avimelekh in Chapter 20. Of course it is much harder to make a claim that Avimelekh did not give them anything, as the verse (20:14) says, “Avimelekh took sheep, cattle, and male and female slaves, and he gave [them] to Avraham. He [also] returned [Avraham’s] wife Sarah to him.”
In 20:11-13, Avraham explains why claiming Sarah as his sister is actually the truth, confirming the idea of Noachide marriage (and divorce) for us.
Rabbi Mecklenburg does not address the gift-giving at all. Perhaps it is already clear at this point that Avraham is wealthy. Perhaps Avimelekh’s character (flaws as it is) is a little more savory than Pharaoh and King of Sodom, allowing Avraham to be comfortable receiving these gifts. But one gift stands out, in 20:16, when Avimelekh says, “I am giving your ‘brother’ a thousand pieces of silver. Let it be compensation for you.” (Living Torah translation)
The words “ksut einayim,” which Rabbi Kaplan translated as “compensation” are, as Rabbi Kaplan notes in his commentary, “A difficult idiom, literally translated as ‘an eye covering.’ Thus, ‘something to prevent you from seeing any more evil’ (cf. Ibn Ezra; Rashi). Others interpret it as a vindication, something that will cover other people’s eyes and prevent them from seeing wrong (Rashbam). Another interpretation is that ‘[the money] will cover people’s eyes and prevent them from looking at you wantonly’ (Ramban). Other commentators take it literally, as a veil to show that Sarah was a properly married woman (HaKethav VeHaKabbalah). Still other sources translate eynayim as ‘colors’ rather than ‘eyes,’ and render the phrase, ‘let [the money] be used to buy you a colorful cloak’ (Radak). Finally, some make the subject of the phrase Abraham: ‘[Abraham] shall be for you as an eye-covering,’ however the latter expression is translated (Ibn Ezra).”
While Rabbi Kaplan was clearly aware of the K’tav V’Hakabbalah, in his miniscule reference here he doesn’t do justice to the length of the exposition on this verse. Making references to Middle Eastern cultures which routinely had women covering their faces, to preserve their beauty for their husbands (culturally a different outlook than that of the West), Rabbi Mecklenburg wonders how Avraham and Sarah went about preserving or rejecting the face-covering custom. More so, he talks about how Avraham is the “eye covering,” protecting her and others from sinning due to her beauty.
Regarding the money, Rabbi Mecklenburg argues that it wasn’t really given, that Avimelekh had intended to give it to Avraham as a gift for the fine bride Avimelekh had taken from her brother. But that never came about, so the dowry was never given.
Like everyone, Avraham and Sarah evolved. They grew into their relationship, how they dealt with outsiders, and developed a trust of one another that, to a certain degree, is beyond our comprehension. How would any of us deal with a potentate who takes women at his will, and kills husbands to unchain the women (let the irony of justifying murder to avoid adultery not go unnoticed)?
Hopefully these are not challenges we come face to face with. But may all marriages be blessed to be built on understanding and trust, so challenges and hurdles can be overcome together, and not a cause for making a marriage fall apart.