Is She Your Sister?

Yoni A. Dahlen
July 1, 2014
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In the dry desert heat on the road to the river Nile, a foreign man and a foreign woman attract the stares of the local gentry. The oppressive sun has gotten to the locals. They are thirsty, they are tired, and their minds are muddled, creating an explosion of conflicting thoughts and emotions, whims of lust and shameful daydreams. The foreign man can see the ethical conflict reflecting off the glazed glances of the weary men. He panics. As the pharaoh himself approaches, there is but a second to choose between loyalty and humiliation, justice or dehumanization. The foreign man looks from side to side. He bows his head low to the ground, and he can feel the midday sun burning on the back of his neck.

“She is my sister,” he says. Her eyes fill with tears. His eyes fill with shame, and the two of them walk together into an unknown land.

In the town of Gerar, the son of a foreigner makes his home. The king has given him his blessing, but the son is hesitant. The land is one of conflict. It is not the home of his ancestors, but one of uncertainty. He approaches the men of the town, pulling at his robe so that it will cover his quaking knees. The men try to placate their shivering neighbor, and ask about the woman who dwells with him. He bites his lip until he tastes the rusty flavor of blood on his tongue. The men stand by in silence, waiting for a response.

“She is my sister,” he says. He sinks his canine further into his lip, but he can’t keep his jaw from trembling. With some pats on the back, the men walk away, envious of their new neighbor – the one who reaps a healthy harvest and is cared for by a beautiful sister.

In a hotel in the Financial District of Manhattan, a man washes his tie in the bathroom sink. He has spilled some red wine on it during his lunch break and doesn’t have the time to buy a replacement at one of the stores nearby. The stain refuses to succumb to the violent rubbing and layers of soap. The man gives up with a sigh of disgust and places his palms roughly on the sides of the sink. He looks into the mirror and can see her legs in the reflection. She was younger than he expected, and when she laughed she reminded him of somebody, but he couldn’t quite place it. Maybe an actress? Oh well, doesn’t matter. He knew that coworkers might be having drinks in the lobby. I should probably say hi, he thinks to himself.

“Get your pants on, I have to get going,” he says. “You have to meet some friends of mine, just go along with the conversation okay?”

“What do you mean?” She asks. “What am I supposed to say?”

“You don’t have to say anything. Just follow my lead and if anybody asks, you’re my sister.”

The dehumanization of individuals for reasons of sex and social circumstance is not new, nor is it foreign to Jewish tradition. Our history and our literature, as Jews, however, demands that injustice be quelled and acknowledged, not pushed to the outskirts where it can be comfortably avoided. The dignity of a human being is a resilient torch in a world of darkness. One who snuffs out that flame has extinguished some of the precious light that illumines this dark world. Slavery is not a thing of the past. It is present, it is prevalent, and it is throwing gallons of water on the torches of our sisters and brothers around this country and around the world. In facing this epidemic, we are inevitably overwhelmed by its size and its complexity. Yet, our fight is possible because it acknowledges that which evil does not, the identity and the beauty of the individual. When evil asks, “who are you and who is this that is with you?” We shall answer in unison with the victim, “We are torches, and our flame is eternal.” 

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Yoni A. Dahlen is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He attended Brandeis University where he received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Philosophy. Pursuing a career in academia, his topics of interest include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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