file Musings on Parshat Vayeishev

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8 years 9 months ago #41 by Heshy Berenholz
Musings on Parshat Vayeishev was created by Heshy Berenholz

Yaakov favors Yosef and gives him a special long-sleeved coat…Yosef angers his brothers with his dreams and interpretations …Yosef is sold by Midianite traders to Ishmaelite merchants traveling in a caravan headed to Egypt and then resold to Potifar, Pharaoh’s Chief of Staff…Yosef’s siblings dip his special coat in the blood of a slaughtered goat and present it to their father with the words Haker Na… Yaakov concludes that Yosef is dead, having been torn to pieces by a wild animal and is inconsolable… Tamar the Canaanite displays courage in founding a family with Yehudah her father-in-law (without publicly embarrassing him), that leads to the birth of Peretz, the ancestor of King David …Yosef in Potifar’s house…Mrs. Potifar’s unsuccessful seduction of Yosef…Yosef interprets dreams in prison.

Yehudah and Tamar

The unfolding story of Yosef and his arrival in Egypt is interrupted with a story about Yehudah, who “goes down from his brothers”, marries a woman named Shua, and sires three sons—Er, Onan and Shelah. Yehudah takes a wife named Tamar for his son Er. When Er dies, Yehudah commands Onan to perform Yibum, and marry his brother’s widow so that there will be offspring to perpetuate Er’s name. When Onan also dies Yehudah instructs Tamar to return to her father’s home and wait until Shelah is old enough to marry.(The real reason is his fear that were Tamar to marry him,Shelah would die like his brothers.)

Yehudah’s wife dies. After the mourning period ends he goes to a sheep-shearing in the town of Timnah. Upon learning this, Tamar dresses like a cult prostitute and waits at the crossroads on the road to Timnah. Yehudah is attracted to her (unaware that she is his daughter-in-law) and agrees to send her a kid from the flock in payment for her services. Tamar demands and receives Yehudah’s signet, cloak and staff as collateral until the kid is delivered. (Biblical scholar Robert Alter notes that this was not an inconsequential request; it is the equivalent of a demand for one’s credit cards in contemporary times.) Yehudah impregnates Tamar, after which she returns home and dons her garments of widowhood. Yehudah‘s friend is sent to deliver the kid and recover the collateral but is told by the locals that there was no cult prostitute in the area. When the friend reports his findings, Yehudah calmly expresses the hope that he will not be made a laughing stock should the prostitute show his personal things to others.

Some three months later, when Tamar’s pregnancy becomes evident, Yehudah angrily rules that she should be burned to death (or, according to some, be branded) for committing adultery. Tamar quietly asks to meet with Yehudah, privately shows him the signet, cloak and staff in her possession and asks if he knows to whom they belong. Yehudah realizes what happened; says that Tamar is more righteous (or more in the right) than him; and no longer sleeps with her. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s view is that Yehudah is undergoing a transformation from being cold and calculating to becoming “ethically passionate, loving, and responsible”.

Tamar is carrying twins. During labor, when one of the twins puts out a hand, the midwife ties a scarlet ribbon on it. As the hand is pulled back in, the second twin comes out and the midwife names him Peretz (breach) because “what a breach you have made for yourself”. The baby with the scarlet thread comes out and is named Zerach because of the shining appearance of the scarlet thread (ZeRiCHas).

Tamar displays a sterling character: When told that she would be put to death for committing adultery she could have announced that she was impregnated by Yehudah. Instead of publicly embarrassing him this way, she chooses to quietly and privately confront him. (From this incident the Sages concluded that it is better for one to die by fire than to publicly shame another human being.)

Benno Jacob’s view is that the purpose of this story is to show how this non-Jewish, extraordinary individual perceived the role Yehudah would play in creating a nation and wanted to be part of this destiny. (The novelist Thomas Mann speculates that Tamar was aware of the tradition in Yaakov’s home regarding Yehudah’s critical role in the nation building.) When there is no longer a son for her to marry with whom to procreate, she turns to Yehudah in a variation of Yibum. After all, she reasons, the wife of Yehudah’s deceased son is no more closely related than the wife of a deceased brother.

Tamar gives birth to Peretz the ancestor of David and the Judean royal dynasty. The comparison with Ruth is striking in that both were ethical women of foreign origin that considered themselves part of their Jewish in-laws’ family; and both contributed to the building of the House of Israel in a significant way. It is interesting how the two are linked in the closing verses in the Book of Ruth where the genealogy of King David starts with Tamar’s son Peretz.

Rav B.S. Jacobson, in his Meditations on the Torah, observes that Tamar is the most appealing character in this episode. Unlike Yehudah’s wife, whose name is not mentioned, Tamar’s name is repeated over and over. Mrs. Yehudah is a passive, anonymous personality who bears three sons only to tragically witness the deaths of the two older ones, until she herself passes away. Tamar, on the other hand, personifies independence and daring. She is a person who takes the initiative, using everything within her power to achieve her goal of serving as a critical link in the building of the nation of Israel. No wonder the name Tamar is so popular!

Rabbi H. L. Berenholz

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