Sarai in the Palace (A Midrash for Lech Lecha)
In Genesis 12:1, God calls to Abram, telling him to leave his homeland and to go to a land that God will show him. Abram and Sarai follow God’s command, pack up their lives, and begin their journeys. Ten verses later, Abram, Sarai, and their household are about to enter Egypt, when Abram turns to Sarai and says, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live.” Abram continues by proposing a solution to this perceived danger, “Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”
The next verses briefly explain that the Egyptians did in fact covet Sarai, and that the Pharaoh, upon learning that she was only Abram’s “sister” (rather than his wife) took her into his palace and gifted Abram with “sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.” The biblical text does not explain (or even hint at) what Sarai felt when she heard Abram’s plan to disguise her as his sister or what she experienced after she was taken by Pharaoh.
There are many midrashim and commentaries within our tradition that explain and explore Abram’s actions while simultaneously minimizing or ignoring the trauma that Sarai must have felt. In fact, most of the traditional commentaries and midrashim about Genesis 12:12 speak of Sarai only as they describe how each man desired her. (Rashi, Ramban, Sforno, Sefer HaYashar)
This midrash seeks to flip that dynamic by limiting the reader's perspective to that of Sarai. By pushing Abram’s rationales, worries, and feelings into the background, I hope to create enough space for readers to imagine what Sarai could have been thinking, feeling, and wishing for during her time in the palace.
Sarai looked around in shock at the opulent room to which she had been led.
In such fine surroundings, she was aware of every grain of sand on her skin, every tangle in her long hair. The woman who had guided her to the chamber, the one whom Pharaoh entrusted with his harem, saw her unease and said kindly, “Our King decreed that your chamber’s beauty should be the equal of your own. He chose this room for you himself.”
Sarai nodded and tried to smile, hoping that if she appeared reassured, the woman would leave her alone with her thoughts.
Her ruse seemed to work, and after explaining that in a few moments attendants would come to help her bathe, the woman left Sarai in her beautiful cage.
Sarai found a corner where she could sit without damaging or dirtying anything. As she lowered herself to the floor, she gathered her feelings close, trying to make sense of them.
She supposed that she should feel scared of the man who had been tricked into marrying her. Pharaoh had fallen for Abram’s lies. He thought that she was only Abram’s sister when she was in fact Abram’s wife of many years. And now, she was the wife of a foreign king. She thought that if she were a good woman, she would be terrified of what it meant to be bound to a second husband.
But as Sarai sifted through her emotions, she realized that rather than fear, she felt rage.
Her husband- the man to whom she had made promises, the man who had pledged himself to her- had given her away to protect his own safety.
“I know what a beautiful woman you are.” he had said, “If the Egyptians see you and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”
Sarai knew that Abram understood that by presenting her as a single woman, he had stripped her of the meager protections that her marriage provided. He knew that he was asking her to endanger herself, to make herself vulnerable in the most intimate ways possible. And he did all of this so that he would be safe.
Sarai would never forget the way that Abram’s face had broken into a bright and lasting grin when Pharaoh had presented him with an abundance of goods and animals as a bride price for her hand. In that moment, Abram had smiled like a joyful child. There had been nothing in his expression that told her that he understood that the bounty he enjoyed was the payment he had been given for the use of his wife’s body.
Suddenly the door opened, and servants came in with arms full of steaming jugs of water, crisp linen bathing sheets, beautifully decorated jars of fragrant oils, and luxurious bolts of fabrics. One of the attendants smiled shyly at her and said, “They’re from Pharaoh, gifts for his new wife.”
Sarai looked at the tokens her second husband had sent to her, all symbols of his admiration. She was so surprised. Pharaoh was a stranger, and yet he had seen her, a woman covered in dust and exhausted by circumstance, and he had sent her exactly what she would need to feel whole and clean once again.
After feeling for so long that she was nothing more than another back to carry Abram’s goods, another servant to Abram’s vision, another tool that Abram could employ to protect himself and his interests, she was unprepared for how powerful it was to be seen as a person, as a woman.
She wept as the servants helped her bathe, and she could tell from their faces that they assumed she was crying because she had been parted from her “brother” Abram.
But in Sarai’s heart, she knew that she wept because even though she had yet to speak with Pharaoh, if given the chance, she would choose him over her first husband. She imagined that his actions spoke of understanding. Seeing his insight into her needs felt like discovering a spring after days of wandering in the desert. She wept because she felt disloyal- not to Abram but to her God.
God had called to them, and they had answered. But in the months that they had wandered in the desert, Abram had been stripped of any softness and empathy. All that was left were the hardest parts of her husband’s personality. He no longer consulted her in his decisions. He spoke to her in the same way that he spoke to their servants- offering little explanation and no opportunity for dialogue. Sometimes she would wake only to find him packing up the camp, having decided in the night that God wanted them to move.
His continuous thoughtlessness, his disregard and disrespect, all that she had experienced had shown her that he no longer understood that she had a mind and a heart of her own.
As one attendant wrapped her in the soft, flowing fabrics that the Pharaoh had sent and another braided her damp hair into a long and beautiful plait, Sarai wondered if this had been her destiny all along. Could Abram have been nothing more than the way God had chosen to bring her to this life? Could her purpose always have been to teach the Pharaoh how to follow God’s ways?
Asking that question felt like receiving a revelation. Sarai almost collapsed in gratitude to her God. “Thank you for redeeming me and for bringing me to this new place,” she prayed silently. “I promise to honor the position and the responsibility that you have given me.”
Sarai smiled, feeling her spirit and her faith grow and strengthen once again.
Just then another man ran into the room, a stranger. “Come quickly,” he shouted. “We are being attacked, and Pharaoh demands that you come to him!”
Sarai picked up the heavy, draped fabrics of her new garments, and ran after the man, following him all the way to the throne room. As she hurried, she thought to herself, “I have the chance to show my new husband exactly how helpful I can be to him. This will be the start of our life together.”
She slowed when she entered the grand, imposing hall and then came to a stop when she saw both of her husbands standing opposite from one another.
Pharaoh bellowed at Abram, “You lied to me! You treated your wife as a harlot and brought plagues of shame and suffering onto me and my people! How could you have done such a thing?”
Abram looked so small in Sarai’s eyes. She hung her head when she heard him reply, “It was either her safety or mine. And I wasn’t worried. I knew that God would bring her back to me so that we could continue on our journey together.”
Sarai closed her eyes, allowing herself to wallow for just a moment in the grief and despair that she felt when she heard Abram’s response. He had sold her to a man he knew nothing about. He had given her away in the hope that he would be safe.
She startled when someone spoke from right in front of her, opening eyes filled with worry and despair.
“Neferet,” the Pharaoh said softly, as if he meant the word only for her ears, “You must return to your husband. Your god is punishing me for your husband’s deception, and I will not barter my people’s safety for my own happiness.”
Sarai nodded in resigned understanding. Her feet felt heavy with the weight of her disappointments.
With every step she took toward Abram, she tortured herself by silently asking another unanswerable question, “Why had she thought that she was meant for more? Why had she assumed that she would be the partner of a worthy man? Why did she imagine that, in God’s eyes, her happiness was equal to Abram’s?” She felt like a fool.
As she took up her place next to Abram, she couldn’t resist looking once more at Pharaoh, the symbol of the life that she had just begun to dream about. She was surprised to find him looking directly at her as well. When their eyes met, the Pharaoh sighed and turned to Abram, saying, “I will send soldiers to escort and protect you as you travel through my land.” His eyes swung back to Sarai’s as he concluded, “It is my fervent hope that you will feel safe enough that you will allow your wife to be protected as well.”
Abram seemed deaf to the explicit condemnation in Pharaoh’s words, but Sarai heard it and offered him a small but sincere smile. As she and Abram left the palace, Sarai clutched the knowledge that she had been seen as a person, as a woman, close to her heart.
She had glimpsed another life, and she had been changed by it.