Due to a heavy famine that strikes Eretz Kena’an in Parashat Lech Lecha (BeReishit 12:10), Avram is forced to retreat to Egypt. Just before entering Egypt, Avram tells his wife Sarai that she is a beautiful woman, and if the Egyptian men see her beauty, they will kill him in order to take her (12:12). To prevent this issue, Avram tells Sarai, “Imri Na Achoti At Lema’an Yitav Li VaAvureich VeChaytah Nafshi Biglaleich,” “Please say that you are my sister so that it will go well with me for your sake, and my life will be spared because of you” (12:13). At first glance, this Pasuk does not seem problematic, for Avram is merely asking his wife to lie in order to save his life. Obviously, one can tell a “white lie” in order to save a life. However, regarding Sarai’s lie, Avram mentions that “it will go well with me” before he mentions that his life would be spared. Is our beloved forefather, one of the most righteous and selfless individuals to ever live, taking advantage of his wife’s beauty for personal gain?
Radak (ad. loc s.v. Lema’an Yitav Li VaAvureich) comes to our patriarch’s defense explaining that Avram meant that the lie would benefit him because it would keep him alive. Rashi (ad. loc s.v. Lema’an Yitav Li VaAvureich) comments that what would go well for Avram was that he expected to receive gifts from the Egyptian men on behalf of his beautiful wife. Seforno (ad. loc s.v. Lema’an Yitav Li) explains that Avram believed the Egyptian men would give him a dowry for the hand of Sarai, as the tradition of that time was to give such gifts to a bride’s family.
In contrast to the many understandings of Avram’s white lie, most of which assume that Avram in some way lied for monetary benefits, we see later in the Parashah that Avram is eager not to take money. After Avram rescues Sedom from the Four Kings (14:14-16), Bera, king of Sedom, offers Avram all the city’s belongings as reward, yet Avram refuses to take even a shoelace (14:23). Why was Avram willing to take gifts from Egypt yet not willing to take gifts from Sedom? We can argue, following Radak’s interpretation, that Avram did not desire Egyptian gifts. Avram solely focused on keeping himself and Sarai safe in the foreign land of Egypt and had no desire to obtain riches. Even though Sarai’s white lie was unsuccessful in that the Egyptian men took her, Avram as a result received servants, camels, sheep and other Egyptian goods from Par’oh. By the time Avram interacted with Sedom, he had plenty of belongings, thanks to the mishap that had transpired in Egypt. A broader picture of Avram’s life can help us resolve apparent contradictions in his actions.