Parashat Lekh-Lekha tells of Avraham’s experiences after resettling in Canaan, including his decision to temporarily leave Canaan when a drought struck the region, and move to Egypt, where, apparently, food was available. There his wife, Sara, was abducted by Pharaoh, and God punished the Egyptian king for taking a married woman into his palace, prompting Pharaoh to return Sara and send her and Avraham out of the country. The Torah relates that after Sara was taken to Pharaoh, Avraham – who had disguised as Sara’s brother – was showered with gifts (12:16).
Many commentators noted that whereas in this instance Avraham did not hesitate to receive gifts that were offered to him by a wealthy king, later, when a different king offered him riches, he refused. After four empires captured and ransacked Sedom and the other cities in the Jordan River Valley, Avraham mobilized a small army and launched a surprise attack against the four kings, defeating them and rescuing the people and property of Sedom. Upon Avraham’s triumphant return, he was greeted by Sedom’s king, who offered Avraham all the property which he had rescued from the four armies. Although Avraham was certainly entitled to – at very least – a sizable portion of this property which he had saved, he declined to keep “even a thread and even a shoe strap” (14:23), explaining that he did not want the king of Sedom to take credit for Avraham’s wealth. The question naturally arises as to why Avraham declined the offer made by Sedom’s king but had no qualms about receiving the gifts showed on him by Pharaoh.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his Torah commentary (12:14-19), suggests an answer as part of his general analysis of Avraham’s situation upon arriving in Egypt. He explains that Avraham told Sara that they should pose as siblings because then an Egyptian man who desired Sara would attempt to win the favor of her “brother” so he would allow him to marry her. If she were believed to be married, then the desirous man would simply kill Avraham and then seize the widow. By posing as Sara’s brother, Avraham hoped to buy time. Since in any event his sojourn in Egypt was temporary, he figured that eventually, over the course of the period in which suitors made their attempts to win Avraham’s consent to allow them to marry Sara, they would leave. What Avraham did not expect was that the king would desire Sara. When this happened, they were at Pharaoh’s mercy, and the king had Sara forcefully brought to his palace, where he kept her while showering Avraham with gifts in order to earn his favor, attempting to gain Avraham’s consent before resorting to forcefully marrying Sara. Under such conditions, Rav Hirsch explains, Avraham was not able to refuse the gifts, for if he had, then Pharaoh would have simply married Sara without Avraham’s consent.
A surprising answer is given by Rabbeinu Bechayei, in his commentary (as well as by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, in Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala). Without explicitly addressing this question, Rabbeinu Bechayei notes that the Torah does not actually say that Pharaoh gave Avraham gifts. Rather, it says that Pharaoh “dealt kindly” (“heitiv”) with Avraham on account of Sara, and that Avraham “had sheep, cattle, donkeys…” According to Rabbeinu Bechayei, this means that Avraham was left with the possessions he had brought with him to Egypt. Avraham did not receive anything new, but was rather left alone, due to his connections with the palace, and so he was able to keep all his belongings. As such, Avraham did not, in fact, receive any gifts, and he would have refused any gifts he was offered, just as he later refused the gifts offered by the king of Sedom.
Of course, the plain meaning of the text does not support Rabbeinu Bechayei’s understanding, as it certainly sounds as though Avraham received wealth on account of Sara’s joining Pharaoh’s harem. Moreover, the Torah tells that Avraham returned from Egypt a very wealthy man (13:2), and considering that he had moved to Egypt due to financial hardship in Canaan, there seems to be no explanation for his wealth other than the gifts showered upon him by Pharaoh during his sojourn in Egypt.