Judaism

PARASHAT VAYESHEV

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - SH­MUEL RABI­NOWITZ The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

From this week’s To­rah por­tion of Vayeshev and un­til the end of the Book of Ge­n­e­sis, the To­rah fo­cuses on the story of Joseph and his broth­ers. This is a long and un­usu­ally com­pli­cated story dur­ing which there are dra­matic twists and turns. To­ward the be­gin­ning of the story, Joseph is thrown into a pit by his broth­ers and sold into slav­ery. By the end of the story, Joseph is the sec­ond-in-com­mand to Egypt’s Pharaoh, lead­ing and sus­tain­ing his fam­ily.

There is one ex­cep­tion in the long tale which ap­pears in our To­rah por­tion, and that is the story of Ju­dah and Ta­mar. Of course, this ex­cep­tion, like all oth­ers, is not co­in­ci­den­tal. Many com­men­ta­tors, be­gin­ning with Hazal – the early bib­li­cal com­men­ta­tors – un­til cur­rent bib­li­cal schol­ars, have delved into ex­pla­na­tions of why this story is em­bed­ded into the larger story about Joseph and his broth­ers. We will fo­cus on the cli­max of Ju­dah and Ta­mar’s tragedy-rid­den story.

We turn to the story. Ju­dah, Ja­cob’s fourth son, mar­ries a woman who bears three sons: Er, Onan and She­lah. The el­dest, Er, mar­ries a woman named Ta­mar, and then dies fol­low­ing sins that are not de­tailed in the To­rah, with­out leav­ing be­hind chil­dren. Ju­dah mar­ries his sec­ond son Onan to Ta­mar, based on the an­cient tra­di­tion that when a man dies with­out chil­dren, his brother mar­ries the widow so the chil­dren she will bear will be con­sid­ered the chil­dren of the de­ceased brother. But Onan does not want Ta­mar to bear chil­dren for his brother, so he de­stroys his seed so that Ta­mar can­not be­come preg­nant from him. This de­spi­ca­ble act leads to Onan’s death.

Now Ta­mar finds herself a widow again, and ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, she is meant to be mar­ried to the third brother, She­lah. How­ever, he was still young and un­able to marry her. Ju­dah, un­aware that his older sons died as a re­sult of sins they com­mit­ted, blames Ta­mar for their deaths. He fears she car­ries a curse that leads to the deaths of her hus­bands and is afraid to marry She­lah to her lest he meet a sim­i­lar fate to that of his broth­ers. He is not coura­geous enough to ad­mit this out­wardly so he takes a cow­ardly ap­proach and sends Ta­mar to live with her fa­ther, de­ceiv­ing her into think­ing that, in the fu­ture, She­lah will marry her.

A day goes by, and then an­other, win­ter fol­lows sum­mer and then it’s win­ter again, and Ta­mar is still sit­ting alone in her fa­ther’s house. She un­der­stands by now that there is no chance of She­lah mar­ry­ing her. She is alone, she has no chil­dren, and she is for­bid­den to marry un­til She­lah re­leases her. One day, she hears a ru­mor that Ju­dah’s wife has died and that he is about to pass near where she lives. Ta­mar makes a dan­ger­ous and coura­geous decision, coura­geous es­pe­cially given the sta­tus of women in those days.

Ta­mar sits along the road with her face hid­den. Ju­dah thinks she is a pros­ti­tute, and with­out know­ing she is his daugh­ter-in-law, he gets her preg­nant. Ju­dah con­tin­ues on his way, but be­fore part­ing ways with Ta­mar, she man­ages to get him to give her his per­sonal seal, his signet ring, and other per­sonal items.

Af­ter sev­eral months pass, her preg­nancy be­comes no­tice­able, and since she was sup­posed to re­main loyal to She­lah, she is con­sid­ered an adul­ter­ess. Her life is in dan­ger and Ju­dah com­mands to have her killed. Ju­dah does not know who got her preg­nant, but Ta­mar does. She sends him his signet ring along with the sen­tence “From the man to whom these be­long I am preg­nant… Please rec­og­nize whose signet ring, cloak, and staff are these.”

Ju­dah un­der­stands what hap­pened. He un­der­stands she had no choice. And he also un­der­stands what brought her to this level of de­spair. He de­clares, “She is right,” ex­empts her from pun­ish­ment and mar­ries her.

What a dra­matic, hor­ri­fy­ing story that teaches us lessons on courage, in­tegrity and most of all re­spon­si­bil­ity!

We must ad­mit that Ju­dah is not the most pos­i­tive char­ac­ter in this story. But by the end of the story, he comes to his senses, takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for his ac­tions and ad­mits the truth. Where did Ju­dah get the strength to con­fess his short­com­ings?

The sages of the midrash teach us that he was in­spired by his mother, Leah. When Ju­dah was born, she said “This time, I will thank the Lord”, and she named him Ju­dah from the He­brew root for thanks­giv­ing. With ev­ery ex­pres­sion of grat­i­tude there is an ad­mis­sion of truth. This pos­i­tive trait of Leah’s – ad­mis­sion of truth – passed on to Ju­dah. This trait gave Ju­dah the strength to stop the un­rav­el­ing sit­u­a­tion and ad­mit “She is right.” The abil­ity to ad­mit the truth passed on in Ju­dah’s fam­ily for gen­er­a­tions. Even af­ter the prophet chas­tised King David for the story of Bathsheba, David did not hes­i­tate, and he de­clared “I have sinned.”

Peo­ple are not per­fect. They sin in big or small ways. But at any point, a per­son has the op­por­tu­nity to stop and de­clare, “She is right, I have sinned.” And we must re­mem­ber: the more a per­son sinks into a lie, the greater the difficulty to stop and ad­mit the truth. Leah, Ju­dah, and David teach us: In ev­ery sit­u­a­tion, even when there is a so­cial price to pay, truth is too im­por­tant to be pushed aside. Al­ways ad­mit the truth. ■

What a dra­matic, hor­ri­fy­ing story that teaches us lessons in courage, in­tegrity and most of all – re­spon­si­bil­ity

(Pix­abay)

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