In an article for Lech Lecha 5774, Rabbi Cherki analyzes the inner meaning of the descent of Abraham and Sarah to Egypt.
“And there was a famine in the land” [Genesis 12:10]. This teaches us that there was a famine. “And Abram went to Egypt to live there, because there was a harsh famine in the land.” [ibid]. Don’t we already know about the famine, why repeat it? The answer is that in essence what drew Abraham to Egypt was the very fact that they suffered from a famine – “not a hunger for bread and not a thirst for water, but rather to hear the words of G-d” [Amos 8:11]. Ever since mankind fell from the idealistic heights of the Garden of Eden to the lowly status of this world, the unifying river that came from Eden to water the Garden became separated into four main rivers (see Genesis 2:10-12). This symbolizes four main human cultures – Egypt, India, Assyria, and Babylon – which were established based on their main rivers: Pishon (the Nile); Gichon (the Ganges); Chidekel (the Tigris); and Perat (the Euphrates). Human culture has been shattered into fragments of human identity, which are known by the masters of mysticism as “sparks of holiness distributed among the shells.” The task of the nation of Israel is to recombine all the sparks into their original form. “And all the families of the earth will be blessed by you” [Genesis 12:3]. Blessed, “venivrechu,” also hints at the root meaning to grow a new plant from a branch of an existing one. The physical hunger in Canaan forces Abraham to leave the land and sends him to in Egypt in order to solve the problem of the “famine” there.
As Abraham approaches Egypt, he gives Sarah a detailed explanation of the task that awaits them there. “Behold, I know that you are a beautiful woman” [12:11]. Beauty denotes an attraction. Sarah provides the vital force that characterizes the nation which will redeem the others. Every nation wants to have her in their possession. There are thus two dangers involved: (1) “They will murder me” [12:12], and “they will keep you alive” [ibid], so that you will become dedicated to Egypt. The solution is for Sarah to say, “You are my sister” [12:13]. This is a hint of the element of wisdom, as is written, “Say to wisdom, you are my sister” [Proverbs 7:4]. This means that Abraham and Sarah went to Egypt in order to collect the wisdom that fell out of the Garden of Eden into the Pishon River. “… so that they will be good to me because of you” [Genesis 12:13] – Rashi explains, “They will give me presents.” The overt meaning of this is that you will be saved because the one who wants to marry my sister will give me gifts, and in this way we will gain some time. But from the mystic point of view, I will obtain the internal gifts of Egypt, so that I can raise them back up to their holy level. “And my soul will live because of you” [ibid] – they will not murder me. Thus, Abraham was first concerned with Sarah’s safety and afterwards with his own. The only person who could take Sarah without asking for permission from her brother was the King, but Abraham did not expect to meet him at all. However, the border patrols and the government ministers praised her to Pharaoh, saying that she was worthy of belonging to the king, and they took her to Pharaoh.
Source: “AS SHABBAT APPROACHES” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato, Lech Lecha 5774, Volume 1494. (Zomet Institute) See: www.zomet.org.il/eng