She is my sister
I was taught the Bible as a child. They passed over the spaced-out cosmogology of Parasha Bereishit, of course, passing over the Beginning of All Things even as the Spirit of the Lord would pass over the homes of the Israelites-in-Egypt in Chapter 10th of Shemot in the final years of my Sixth Grade —
No, we began with Abraham, with Lech Lecha, with a command from a heretofore unknown God to Go and Take Yourself from your father’s land and become a nomad —
We were children. We had been taught about the great burning of our people that had occurred forty years prior, but we did not understand it, not yet.
We were dimly aware of a distant country called Israel, that was supposedly ours, and we were born to this Third Commonwealth as a commonplace, as if it had always been so —
We were children living in the richest, easiest, happiest country that had ever existed in the history of Man, and we were learning to read an ancient language and an ancient book at least 2500 years old, written when the world was unspeakably dark —
Theory of mind is the ability to model the thoughts and beings of another. I suspect that most people fail to do it on a regular basis, since we do not need to. We have a natural compassion, interest, and care for others that does not necessarily require us to deeply model their alternate minds.
Literature and reading is no different, since it does not ask us to model a different mind, but typically gives us a vague and pliable empty vessel of a protagonist to inhabit while we go on adventures.
Modeling others becomes even more difficult when they are distanced from us in space and time. Even more so when the text has become bowdlerized, either in the writing or the teaching.
When famine struck the land of Canaan, the nomadic Abraham had to venture forth again to strange lands, where he was not known, where he had no network, and where he was at the mercy of the inhabitants.
His wife, Sarah, was exceedingly beautiful.
And coming into this strange land, a land that would one day be that of the Philistines, the lords of the land set upon him, and seeing Abraham’s weakness, and Sarah’s beauty, approached Abraham.
And Abraham knew in that moment that they did not care for him at all, and they would cut his throat, and send him to darkness in the space between breathings, and they would take Sarah to their tents, and force her down, and rape her horribly, ignoring her screams, and likely as not, when they were done with that, they would cut her throat to —
And he had told Sarah this moment would come —
And he loved her, loved her fiercely, and she loved him, he was the only man she had ever loved, and she had come to him a maiden, and in many ways, remained that maiden still, innocent, pure, quiet —
And he said to her, “lift up your head. Do not cry, and do not scream. Be strong, and of great courage.”
And he turned to the men on horses, and welcomed them, and gave them food and wine, and when they inquired as to Sarah, he choked down his anger, and he choked down his tears, and he said to them, “She is my sister.”
And they led Sarah away, to present her to the king, and Abraham railed in his spirit, and cursed his own weakness, and the hardness and harshness of men, and his inability to protect the wife who had been given to him, who he had vowed to all Creation to protect —
Knowing that she would be forced by the inhabitants of the land to submit to their beastly urges. Knowing that this was the cruel law of the Man, that gave no care for strangers, that saw others as things to be owned, and used, and dominated, knowing that they could be owned, and used, and dominated in turn.
What did Abraham do on that long night? How did he succor his infinite sadness, his depthless rage, his howling impotence? With wine? With memory? How many times in that long night did Sarah’s face appear before him? How many times did he forget for a moment what was about to happen, what was happening now, only so that he could remember again, and feel the horrific pain all over?
Every minute, perhaps. Every other.
He cursed himself for weakness.
Did he fall asleep?
Did the horseman ride up, leading Sarah behind him, her eyes drawn, their eyes drawn, and throwing her down, say: “She is not your sister.”
Did he go to her, and hold her, amid his silence and his shame, as they brought them both before the king, as they gave them food and water, and signed a treaty with him, and made a promise —
Did Abraham understand then the miracle that had been wrought? That the cold law had bent to something else, some character of mercy? Was it then that Abraham began to believe?
And years would pass, and Abraham grew rich.
What other looks would pass, when he went in unto the tent of the handmaiden, when he took the handmaiden and his son and abandoned them to death in the wilderness, when the voice inside told him to take the knife to Sarah’s son, when the knife slipped at the last moment, and a ram was found instead, when once-beautiful Sarah died, and he bargained with the Children of Het for a place to lay her, and lay himself too, when the hand of life would eventually pass –
Such is to be chosen?
Abraham and Sarah. Old father and Old mother. In a dark, hard, world.
But once, when the were young, they were spared the loss of everything. The shadow passed over them and the shadow went past them. Many hearts and souls are broken in this world, but some are not. Mercy is mercy whether it comes to all or whether it comes to some.
On that day, something was merciful, and Sarah survived, and Abraham survived, and their love survived, and years later, a life would quicken, and from that life, down through ages, each child burying each father, to be buried in turn —
To me, in a simple school house, on the eastern edge of the Westernlands, twenty years ago, learning the legends of my family.
The world showed mercy, and later, later, Sarah laughed.
There is darkness, and there is a light. There is evening and there is morning. And it is good.