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Right or Righteous?

Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

November 29, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Have you ever dealt with someone who insisted s/he was right -- even smugly so -- while actually being objectively, measurably and completely wrong?

Now, let me ask a tougher question: Have you ever been that person? If so, you are in good -- and plentiful -- company.

In this week's portion, Vayeshev, Judah marries his son Er to Tamar. But Er is evil, and God takes his life. Because Er dies childless, his brother, Onan, marries Tamar in compliance with the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5). Children from their union would "belong" to Er and perpetuate his name, and therefore also reduce Onan's portion of the family estate. Onan "spills his seed," rather than impregnate Tamar. When God takes Onan's life in punishment, Judah sends Tamar back to her father's house to wait for his third son. But Judah considers Tamar a "black widow," and has no intention of providing her protection and progeny through a third marriage.

A long while later, Judah loses his own spouse. Tamar finds out where his travels will take him following the mourning period, and waits at the crossroads, posing as a prostitute. She requests his distinctive seal, cord and staff for collateral, until the payment of a kid can be delivered. Later, the "prostitute" who has Judah's proprietary items cannot be found to make the exchange.

About three months later, Judah is told that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Everyone assumes that Tamar is guilty of harlotry, since she is supposedly awaiting levirate marriage. Judah calls for her to be brought out and burned for adultery. She sends him the seal, cord, and staff with the message: "I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong." Understanding the lengths to which Tamar has gone, he announces: "She is more right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her my [third] son." Not only is Tamar's life spared, one of the twins she carries is Perez, progenitor of David and the Messiah.

Judah thought his first two sons suffered because of Tamar. He thought he was sparing his third son. He thought she betrayed the family. He had it entirely wrong.

To Judah's credit, he acknowledges the children he sired and the justice of Tamar's position. He can't make everything right; he can't give Tamar a real marriage or compensate her for lost time and honor. Yet his admission of guilt and fallibility makes him not only more likable, but actually more righteous. Saying, "I'm wrong and you're right" is a crucial step in his moral development. It enables him to repent and in some way compensate for the greatest wrong of his life: selling his brother, Joseph, into slavery.

With Tamar, Judah is proven wrong by the collateral (eravon, 38:18) he leaves behind. Then -- and perhaps, therefore -- he is able to offer himself as collateral (anochi e'ervenu, 43:9), and protect Benjamin in a way that he failed to protect Joseph years before. When Benjamin is framed for a crime, Judah, having pledged himself (arav, 44:32) for the boy, pleads to be enslaved in his stead. Only in the face of this expression of love and righteousness, does Joseph finally reveal himself and forgive his brothers.

There is a modern-day term for the inability to admit wrongdoing: sociopathy. A conscience that cannot feel guilt is capable of untold evil. An ability to look critically at ourselves, to see where we are wrong, is the beginning of making things right.

Being right -- in the narrow sense of "correct" -- amounts to very little, if a correct position isn't also righteous. Joseph is correct in interpreting his dreams of domination and superiority to his family, but he is also insensitive and inflammatory. He is right again, according to midrash, in what he tells his father about his brothers' bad behavior. But in Jewish law, unlike American, truth is not a defense against defamation. Accuracy is not piety.

Judah wins Joseph's heart and heals the breach between the brothers not because he is right, but because he is righteous.

I like to think that Judah, after fearing and ignoring Tamar, learns from her. He learns to question his own position and to treat those who may be wrong with kindness. Tamar is right when she advocates for herself, Er, and her future children. And she is righteous in the way she makes her claim. She could have exacted revenge and humiliated Judah, displaying his personal items and publicly naming him as the father. Instead, she sends him a private message that allows him to preserve his dignity.

Tamar takes a risk because Judah might have let her burn, rather than admit he was wrong. In fact, it's because she could have burned that the rabbis teach, "better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to publicly shame another" (Ketubot 67b). Tamar is willing to risk more than most human beings to be righteous. She is also willing to see more nuance than most of us. Her father-in-law was wrong, but that's not all he was. Despite the way Judah treated her, Tamar is able to see some decency in him and decides to trust him. Between the time he recognizes his belongings and the time he pronounces "she is more right than I," they are both in peril. The exchange between them is a gift of grace for and by them both. Tamar is finally recognized, as so many family members long to be. Judah discovers that, though wrong, he can still choose to be righteous. And so can we.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of "Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life," is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (www.makom.org).

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