December 8, 2009
Harlot as Hero
Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)
Back in grade school, the story of Yehuda and Tamar was always deemed too racy to teach. Our teacher skipped that one episode, and looking back it’s difficult to argue against the omission. Can you imagine explaining to elementary school students what a harlot is?
The annual exclusion of this episode wasn’t difficult to pull off, for it seemed to have no negative impact on the telling of the primary narrative — the epic story of Yosef and his brothers.
So why is the story of Yehuda and Tamar inserted into this larger narrative at all? What, if anything, does it contribute to the sweeping tale of dreams and jealousy, attempted fratricide and repentance?
A closer inspection of Yehuda and Tamar’s story reveals that it is not only relevant, but that without it we might never have had the happy ending of the brothers’ story at all.
When Yehuda first encounters Tamar — as she becomes the wife of Er, his eldest son — he is much the same character who had earlier sold his brother Yosef into Egyptian slavery. Yehuda’s universe revolved around himself, and he pushed out of the way those who threatened his self-interest.
When Er dies childless, Yehuda at first follows the ancient custom of levirate marriage and arranges for Tamar to marry Er’s brother, Onan. And when Onan dies, Yehuda promises that Tamar will one day marry the third brother, Shelah, but it is obvious he has no intention of following through on the promise. Yehuda is prepared to leave her in a perpetual state of widowhood, with no prospect of remarriage. To Yehuda’s imagination, Tamar is the cause of his sons’ deaths. Like Yosef, Tamar was perceived as a threat to his interests and therefore must also be dispensed with.
Recognizing that the family line now had no future, Tamar takes matters into her own hands — the part not appropriate for grade school students — and becomes pregnant with Yehuda’s child, all without his realizing what had happened. Several months later, after learning of Tamar’s pregnancy, Yehuda, true to form, orders that she be burned at the stake in response to the feeling that his honor had been besmirched by his wayward daughter-in-law. But when Tamar — discreetly and without causing Yehuda any embarrassment — shares the truth with him, he utters the words that signal a wholesale shift in his way of thinking, and which later change the flow of the parasha’s larger narrative. Tzadka mimeney, he says. “She is more righteous than I am, for I did not allow her to marry my son Shelah.”
Yehuda realizes that Tamar risked her life to continue his family line, and that his cowardly and self-centered inaction was deplorable and dishonorable next to her heroic action. It was from Tamar that Yehuda learned that a person is called upon to act selflessly and courageously when the future of one’s family is at stake.
And Yehuda applies this lesson at the most pivotal point in the larger narrative of Yosef. In the coming week’s parasha, Yosef releases his brothers from Egyptian prison with the understanding that they will bring their youngest brother Benjamin with them when they return to purchase food next. Yakov adamantly refuses to allow Benjamin to descend to Egypt, and as a result his family faces the prospect of starvation. No one can figure out how to change Yakov’s mind. But just when all seems lost, it is none other than Yehuda — no longer the Yehuda who had sold a brother into slavery, but the Yehuda humbled and enlightened by his daughter-in-law Tamar — who persuades Yakov to send Benjamin.
“I will take responsibility for him. From my hand you can expect his return. If I fail to return him to you, I will have sinned before you forever” (Genesis 43:9).
As our sages color Yehuda’s words, he is placing both his life in this world and his share in the world to come on the line. He realizes that the continuity of the family is at stake. And under such circumstances, a person needs to step forward with courage and self-sacrifice to save his or her family. The legacy of Tamar becomes the destiny of the Jewish people.
Family relationships are so laden with deep — and tricky — emotional baggage. It is so common for us to be mature, thoughtful and spiritually generous when it comes to relationships outside of our families and at the same time be narrow, stubborn and self-absorbed when it comes to the relationships that truly matter the most — the ones we have with our parents, children and siblings. Tamar is our biblical model for transcending the baggage. Her story, placed strategically within the larger story of Yosef and his brothers, conveys the life and death difference that a deep commitment to family can make.
It’s never easy to do, and Tamar’s life was not easy. But as the parasha attests, she brings forth the genealogical line that later produces the kings of Israel.
Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.