The Abraham Family, a Quietly Violent Family: Commentary on Parashat Vayyera 5784

By Rabbah Rona Matlow, Professor of Jewish Diversity Studies at Hebrew Seminary


NOTE: The following message contains violence, abuse, and other adult content. Reader’s discretion is advised.


It has been reported that, during the lockdown stages of the pandemic, domestic violence increased greatly. With families being confined to their homes, tensions were much higher, and things often got out of control. (For a detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see for example, Jane Krishnadas and Sophia Hayat Taha, “Domestic violence through the window of the COVID-19 lockdown: a public crisis embodied/exposed in the private/domestic sphere,” in the Journal of Global Faultlines.)

These reports of domestic violence have led me recently to teaching about domestic violence, and the importance of managing it—to bring shelom bayit lie amid generational trauma, as we can find in Bereshit (בראשית, the Book of Genesis), covering the five generations from Abraham’s father Terah through to Jacob’s children.

Generational trauma, a theory that was developed after the Sho’ah (שואה, “Holocaust”), states that offspring of a trauma survivor will show signs of trauma even if they have never experienced direct trauma themselves. The parent-trauma survivor unknowingly transmits the trauma to their children. For an excellent explanation of this issue, I commend Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone’s book Wounds Into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma.

We are traditionally taught to think of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel, and Leah as heroes of biblical Israel. Many Jews pray to God in their names three times every day after all. We have been taught to revere them as great prophets whom God talked to. Yet, Bereshit presents us with moral and emotional challenges.

This week’s portion, Vayyera, presents at least five narratives of abuse:


  1. When Abraham visits Egypt and the Philistine land, he tells Sarah to say she is his sister, and she is taken into captivity. Per a feminist read, Abraham sells Sarah into sexual slavery (Genesis 12:11ff and 20:2ff).
  2. When Sarah sees she is infertile, she directs Abraham, “Go [in]to my servant Hagar, so I may be built by her” (“בֹּא־נָא֙ אֶל־שִׁפְחָתִ֔י אוּלַ֥י אִבָּנֶ֖ה מִמֶּ֑נָּה”) (Genesis 16:2). When Hagar conceives, Sarah feels belittled, and tells Abraham to drive Hagar out (Genesis 16:1ff).
  3. Sarah relents and allows Hagar and her son Yishma’el back. When Yishma’el was 13, Abraham performed ritual circumcision on him. A circumcision performed without the consent of older children can be very traumatic for the patient, and Abraham is not known for his explanations to his family for why he follows God’s commandments (Genesis 17:1ff).
  4. Yishma’el is seen metzachek (מצחק) with Isaac (Genesis 21:9ff). This term is often translated as “mocking” or “teasing.” However, when Isaac later repeats Abraham’s act of selling his wife into slavery, he is seen—in an identifiably sexual context—metzachek with Rebecca (Genesis 26:8). The rabbinic hermeneutical tool of gezeirah shavah (גזירה שוה) teaches us that we can learn the meaning of an ambiguous term in one text based off of what the term means when used in a different (often clearer) text. Thus, we infer that Yishma’el may have sexually molested Isaac. This informs Sarah’s response to Abraham to drive Hagar and Yishma’el out—that they will not inherit with Isaac.
  5. Last but not least is the Akedah (עקידה), the “binding” of Isaac. God tells Abraham to take Isaac and offer him as an olah (עולה), a “whole-burnt” offering. Though Abraham had bargained with God to save the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16ff),  Abraham is depicted as eager to sacrifice his son. In fact, the text says “he arose early in the morning” (“וישכם בבקר”) to do God’s bidding. Rather than questioning God’s commandments that would disrupt Abraham’s family life, Abraham rushes off eagerly to do them (Genesis 22:1ff).


All of these events show an extremely dysfunctional family, rife with trauma. They show a tremendous amount of domestic violence occurring at the hands of many members of the family. According to Jewish tradition, Abraham had already experienced severe trauma, when put into Nimrod’s furnace in Ur of the Chaldees at the hands of his father (Genesis Rabbah 38:13), who had experienced the loss of another son, Haran. Thus, Abraham was a survivor of both direct and generational trauma. He did not know how to process the trauma that he had received, and he therefore became abusive to his family. In turn, his family members also acted abusively.

We must confront the ugly in the Torah. In Jewish practice, we have a tendency to gloss over the difficult subjects and highlight more pleasant content. But the reality is that the Torah, particularly in Bereshit, is loaded with very challenging stories. If we ignore or legislate these difficult texts out, there really is not much left.

So, I confront these texts instead head-on. This allows us to see the mistakes that those before us have made. Avoteinu (אבותינו)—our Biblical ancestors—were far from perfect people. But they are present in a Holy Book, and they are there for a reason. Our rabbis tell us time and again shiv’im panim battorah (“שבעים פנים בתורה,” “the Torah has many[—literally, 70—] aspects”). We have an absolute obligation to delve into as many of these aspects as we can and to learn as much as we can from each of them.

When we see the domestic violence that occurred here in the Torah, and when we see that the root of it was trauma, both direct and generational, we can take away a lesson from it. Trauma never really goes away, but, when one incurs trauma, it is vital to get support for that trauma. Trauma in remission is much more manageable. A person who has remitted their trauma is far less likely to be abusive than one who has not been able to remit their trauma.

If you have experienced trauma of any sort, or domestic violence of any sort, there are many resources available to help you. These include:

  • Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
  • PFLAG Support Hotlines page:
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
  • Local Jewish Family Service agencies also provide such support, and one need not be Jewish to them for assistance.


We can make the lessons of Parashat Vayyera holy by learning from the mistakes of those who came from before us. For those who have experienced trauma or domestic abuse— please seek help. It can be very difficult, even traumatizing, to do the work of trauma remission, but, without it, healing can never happen.  We are taught in Mishnah, Avot 2:16:


הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to avoid it.


Please consider it Holy Work to work towards safety and recovery from domestic abuse and trauma; this is life-saving work.




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