The narrative concerning Judah and Tamar in Chapter 38 of this week’s parish, Vayeshev, seems to be an interruption in the flow of the Joseph stories.
Nevertheless, it ties together some loose ends, bringing seemingly unrelated incidents together, and provides a key understanding about divine forgiveness.
Judah was the brother who had the bright idea to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites and make some money on the deal. He is the natural leader of the brothers, the one they all listen to, and therefore, the one who is most responsible for the deception of dipping Joseph’s tunic in goat’s blood to mislead his father and cause him to be bereaved for many years. Judah says to Jacob, “Identify if you please, is it your son’s tunic or not?” (Gen. 37:32) Jacob concludes that Joseph has been attacked by a wild animal and is dead.
Sforno comments that “Judah was requited according to the fruits of his action, having two sons who would die and he would remain bereaved of both.” (Commentary to Gen. 38:1) Judah’s wife then dies too. God is breaking Judah’s heart to break it open, showing him that one who separates and bereaves will himself be separated and bereaved. It is the beginning of the education of a tzadik.
When Er, his first son dies, Judah gives Er’s wife Tamar to his second son Onan, in a levirate marriage. Single women were a threat to society, having no possibility of any occupation save prostitution, and in danger of becoming destitute if they were not living in a family group. Onan does not wish to fulfill a brother’s duty to make Tamar pregnant, and dies also. Judah deceives Tamar by promising her to his third son, Shelah, with no intention of keeping his word.
Tamar then poses as a prostitute in order to have a child from her husband’s family, a right in accordance with levirate marriage. She asks Judah for a pledge, so that she will possess some of his personal items, as payment for her “services.” He does not recognize her and she becomes pregnant by him. After three months, when her pregnancy begins to show, Judah is informed of her sexual immorality and commands that she be taken out and burned. She sends word to Judah and says, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant. Identify if you please, whose are this signet, this wrap, and this staff.” (38:25)
When Judah heard, “Identify if you please,” it must have been like a knife through his heart, letting him know that what he had done to his father was coming back to haunt him. Judah the deceiver is deceived by Tamar.
R. Nahman b. Isaac said: “A transgression performed with good intention is better than a precept performed with evil intention.” (Nazir 23b)
Her deception was not only well-intended, but reveals that Tamar was smart and virtuous. She knew that it would be easier for Judah to confess in private rather than in public. The Talmud comments: “Better for a person to cast oneself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his fellow in public. Whence is this? From Tamar” (Sotah10b, Berachot 43b). He does confess, and she has twins, one of whom becomes the ancestor of our most blessed king, David.
There are no saints in Judaism, only flawed human beings like ourselves who can grow in goodness and selflessness if they own up to their sins.
Tamar’s fate stands in contrast to that of Rachel, who stole her father Laban’s household idols. When she had a chance to confess, she lied and covered up the theft, never confessing. As a result of this, she died very young, in childbirth. One would think that Rachel’s transgression was less severe than Tamar’s or Judah’s; however we are being taught that the severity of the transgression does not determine the outcome. It is the willingness to confess, to change, and to grow that is the key.
Judah’s confession allows him to grow in compassion and understanding, and eventually become the true leader of the family: one who is willing to sacrifice himself for his youngest brother. There are no saints in Judaism, only flawed human beings like ourselves who can grow in goodness and selflessness if they own up to their sins. King Solomon wrote in Proverbs: “One who conceals his sins will not succeed, but one who confesses and forsakes them will be granted mercy” (28:13).
The story of Judah and Tamar shows us that not only will divine forgiveness flow to us when we are willing to admit our wrongdoings, but that we will even be blessed.
Jill Hausman is the rabbi and cantor of the historic Actors’ Temple.
Friday, Dec. 11, 2020
Kislev 25, 5781
Light Shabbat Candles at 4:10 pm
Saturday, Dec. 12
Kislev 26, 5781
First Torah: Vayeshev: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Second Torah: Numbers 7:18-23
Haftarah: Zachariah 2:14 – 4:7
Shabbat Ends 5:14 pm