Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayishev December 7, 2012

Joseph is the key figure in this week’s parsha as we read through the unfolding drama of his betrayal by his brothers and subsequent descent into Egypt to become a slave in the house of Potiphar. There are so many issues raised in this reading:
* parental favoritism and its effects
* sibling rivalry
* dishonor to a patriarch by his sons
* Judah’s three sons and Tamar
* Judah and Tamar
And on and on it goes. We could spend hours in discussion. However, since this blog’s purpose is to give you a snippet of the week’s reading with comments to stimulate your own meditation, with difficulty we will confine ourselves to just a few thoughts.

In the midst of the story of Joseph, we find a jarring break in the narrative as chapter 38 begins.
The last line of chapter 37 and the first verse of chapter 39 are virtually identical: both declare that Joseph went down to Egypt and became a slave. Why then, this parenthese of sorts, which we identify as chapter 38? It seems to be a strange digression, an unwelcome intrusion on a gripping story.

In fact, it is neither. Properly understood, it is critical to the entire situation.

After the brothers sold Joseph to the Midianites, they had a problem. What would they tell their father, Jacob? Joseph was the center of his world. They didn’t want to boldly lie and say “He’s dead” for they were reasonably certain he wasn’t — he was a slave by now in Egypt. But neither did they want to own up to what had truly happened.

So they killed one of the goats in their own flock, dipped Joseph’s multi-striped coat in it and presented it to their father with a question, “Do you recognize whose this is?”

Jacob is beyond consoling; he is distraught and refuses to be comforted. Seeing their father in such crippling grief, the brothers – and particularly Judah who suggested they sell Joseph – are deeply troubled. Judah, we can consider, is filled with guilt and is very likely being blamed by the others for their father’s desperate state of mind.

For these and perhaps other reasons, chapter 38:1 tells us that at that time Judah separated himself from his brothers. He goes off by himself to a different area. Time passes, he marries and has three sons. When the oldest is ready for marriage, Judah secures a wife for him, a young woman by the name of Tamar, a descendant of Seth, the son of Noah.

The marriage is short-lived as his son, Er, dies. The Torah describes Er as ‘wicked’ because he spilled his seed to avoid impregnating his wife. Given that the very first commmandment in the Torah included the directive to “be fruitful and multiply”, this sin was – and is – considered a serious violation against the very purpose of mankind.

In the tradition of the day which the Torah later describes as ‘Levirate marriage’,Tamar is then married to his brother, Onan, who commits the same sin, which to this day carries his name, Onanism. There is one son, Shelah, who is at this point too young to marry. Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house to wait until Shelah is older. At least, that is what he tells her but in reality, he is very reluctant for he’s already lost two sons.

Time passes and Tamar realizes that Judah has no intention to marry her off to Shelah. She hears that her father-in-law has brought his flocks to a place nearby. Tamar takes action. Removing her widow’s clothing, she covered her face with a veil and wrapped herself in the normal fashion of the day. She then went and sat at a crossroads where she knew Judah would pass by.

Seeing her, he did not recognize who she was and approached her as if she were a prostitute. It is important to make note here that these events occurred BEFORE the giving of the Torah. Judah’s wife had died, and as a widower, in the society of his time, it was not looked upon as a terrible moral failure for him to ‘consort’ with an unmarried woman. (It is always imperative for a proper understanding that we keep events in their context and not try to interpret ancient stories with a 21st century cultural mindset.)

He offered Tamar a goat as a gift; she asked for a pledge which would be returned when he sent the goat. Judah gave Tamar his ring, his cloak and his staff.

On returning to the flocks, he was prompt in sending a goat by one of his servants but the “prostitute” was nowhere to be found. The three items in pledge remain with Tamar.

Three months pass and someone reports to Judah that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Oblivious to the real situation, Judah condemns her to death, for though a long time had passed, she was nevertheless considered “pledged” to Shelah and not free to engage in any other relationship.

As she was apprehended and brought out for execution, she sent the ring, the cloak and the staff to Judah with a simple question, “Do you know whose these are?”

Immediately, Judah realizes what has happened and his response is deeply significant. He says simply, “She is more righteous than I.”

What is really happening here?

Tamar, we are told from historical sources, knew that she was called into the family of Abraham and that Judah would be the royal leader of the tribes of Israel. She was deeply aware of the responsibility to bear children to carry on the line of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob and she was not willing to miss her destiny because of her father-in-law’s fear of losing his last son.

At the same time, she had the consideration NOT to humiliate Judah publicly. She did not accuse or embarrass him. She simply sent the items with a question. In her confrontation, Tamar presented Judah with an opportunity to manifest his latent greatness.

He rose to the occasion. Judah had the courage and integrity to acknowledge his error immediately. In saying that “She is more righteous than I”, he publicly admitted his guilt, took responsibility for what he had done – and had pushed her into doing – and from this point on, Judah is a changed man.

When he heard the words, “Do you recognize whose these are?”, he had to have remembered the moment when he and his brothers stood before their father and said, “Do you recognize whose cloak this is?”
Perhaps this was the first time that he truly understood the heart-wrenching pain he had caused his father when he shattered his world.

Tamar subsequently gives birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach. Peretz becomes the ancestor of King David, and therefore, is positioned in the royal line of the Messiah.

The Sages have written of this incident that while the brothers were busy getting rid of Joseph, and Judah busied himself with finding a wife, the Holy One of Israel was busy creating the Light of Messiah.”

For this IS in fact the mission of Messiah – to impart to man the power to recognize his sin, take responsibility and change. That is what Messiah will teach all of the nations. Judah takes the lead.

In Tune with Torah this week: we need to remind ourselves that we too often judge people and situations on a superficial level, oblivious to what Hashem may be doing even in the most unlikely and unexplainable set of circumstances. This is a classic example from the Torah of why we are told not to judge one another.

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