This week we will be reading parashat Vayeishev. It is the beginning of the Joseph novella, the most complete narrative in the Torah. However, just as it begins, there is a break in the narrative. After Joseph is sold into slavery, we read a bizarre and fascinating story about Joseph’s brother, Judah. It begins by telling us that “… Judah parted from his brothers, and fell in with an Adullamite named Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua; he took her [to wife] and coupled with her” (Gen. 38:1-2). Together they had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah.
Er was wed to a woman named Tamar, but Er did something grievous in the sight of God (the Torah does not specify his action), and Er died. According to tradition, because they did not have children, Er’s brother had an obligation to wed Tamar, referred to as Levirate marriage. “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so whenever he coupled with his brother’s wife, he would waste [his seed] on the ground, in order not to produce offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the sight of the Eternal, who brought about his death, as well” (Gen. 38:9-10).
Needless to say, Judah did not wish to give Shelah over to Tamar, which meant Tamar had to take matters into her own hand. Tamar dressed herself in such a way, that when Judah was out on a business trip, he mistook her for a ritual prostitute. Needless to say, they had intercourse and she became pregnant by him. Thus, the Levirate promise was fulfilled. Tamar bears twins Perez and Zerah. It was from the line of Perez that King David would ultimately be descended.
This is a fascinating, scandalous, and perhaps even a salacious story. Because of this, it is not one that is typically told from the pulpit or in Religious School, and yet it is part of our canonical inherited tradition. We are also left wondering what to make of it.
There are certainly parallels between Tamar and Potiphar’s wife, the woman who attempts to seduce Joseph. There are also parallels in how both Judah and Jacob were deceived, and perhaps even parallels to David’s own story. However, for me, the greatest parallel is between Tamar and Rebecca. Like Tamar, Rebecca knew what was right and what she, or really her son Jacob, was owed, and she took control of his destiny through deceit just a couple of parshiyot ago.
In the Torah, women have very little power, if any. Therefore, they occasionally have to act in ways that we might frown upon today, but the Torah condemns neither Rebecca nor Tamar for their actions. It is as if the Torah is teaching us that when people in power fail to do what is right or fail to fulfill their obligations, others, including those without power, can and maybe even should intercede by the means they have at their disposal.
It is even said that Judah lived in fear of Tamar for the rest of his life. Judah knew he did not fulfill his obligation, which meant Tamar had to do it for him.
Perhaps the story of Judah and Tamar is not a story meant for children, but it is certainly one that can resonate with us. We all know tales of love and loss, the cultivation of power and the failure to act. Even though we may not read this story often, it is a good reminder to us that if we have power we must act on behalf of those who don’t, because otherwise they may very well find a way to act on their own behalf using the means they have at hand.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff