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