Vayeshev 5778
Rabbi Englander's Sermons

Vayeshev 5778

“Yehuda, Tamar, and This Moment”

The part of the Torah portion we read for the second year of the triennial cycle includes what is, when the whole portion is read, a kind of interruption to the narrative. Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, saved from death only by Judah’s words to sell him instead of killing him. “After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” After delivering the “news” to Jacob that Joseph had been devoured by a beast, Joseph is sold to Potiphar, and the narrative leaves him there, the reader tense and wondering about Joseph’s fate, whether or not we know the rest of the story.

The self-contained narrative we read today is about Judah and Tamar. Most people – I guess this is not saying much – cannot tell you even the barebones details of this story, even though it is full of intrigue, power, and sex. You would think it would be more famous, and perhaps it would be if it were not couched right in the middle of the Joseph story, which is one of the greatest ever told. So let’s review the basic plot outline in case you forgot since we last read it three years ago.

Judah is Jacob’s fourth-born son. After Joseph is sold into slavery, the Torah tells us that Judah marries a Canaanite and has three sons. The oldest son marries Tamar and then dies childless. The laws of levirate marriage required the second born son to marry the widow, which happens, but no children are produced and then the second son dies. There is a third son who is required to marry the twice-widowed Tamar but he is young and Judah says wait and then you can marry him when he grows up. And Tamar agrees to wait.

A long time passes, apparently enough time that the third son should have been given in marriage to Tamar and she takes matters into her own hands. She disguises herself as a prostitute and Judah – her father in law – hires her and she becomes pregnant. He does not have payment with him so she takes a deposit of his seal, staff, and cord – items that no doubt identify him as the one who owes this pledge. Tamar is accused of “harlotry” and Judah is ready to punish her, until she produces these items which show that he is the father of her child and is, we assume, responsible for them both. She has twins, who just like their grandfather Jacob fight to be first into the world, and their names are Peretz and Zerah. And immediately the Joseph story picks up again.

We assume that this narrative is included in the Torah for a reason, though the conversation about that reason (or reasons) is ongoing. I want to mention three.

First it is no accident that it was Judah who stood up to his brothers, Judah who is the center of this story, Judah who will be deputized by his father to lead the mission to Egypt to procure food for the family, Judah who will explain the plight of the brothers to the viceroy of Egypt who turns out to be Joseph, Judah who guarantees the safety of Benjamin to satisfy the demands of this mysterious ruler. Judah is being affirmed as the “new firstborn” of the 12 sons of Jacob, continuing the theme of the whole book that arriving first in the world is not a guarantee of future leadership or superiority. God’s blessing, one’s own merit, and commitment to the fate of something bigger than yourself will be determinative. This precedes and predicts something that was quite the revolution in how leaders are chosen. While you could be king if your father was a king, and you were a priest if your father was a priest, if your parents were leaders you could only truly become a leader if you earned that role. The rabbis of the Talmud worked more by merit than by lineage, and most democracies today work the same way. Despots seek to keep power in the family. So the story affirms Judah’s ascension at that time and in this story.

But there is more. Judah is the progenitor, the ancestor, of a people who would be known as Bnai Yisrael, but even more so by another title – as the people of Judah, or Jews. The southern kingdom of Judah would survive longer than the northern kingdom. The northern tribes were scattered and lost, the southern tribes, including Judah, led to, well, us. Joseph’s tribal territory was in the north, and some even referred to the northern kingdom as Joseph. So this is an affirmation not just of Judah during the story in the Torah but of what his line led to – King David’s lineage would be traced back to Perez, one of the sons born to Tamar. No one calls us the people of Joseph; everyone, though, connects us to Judah and we do as well.

Lastly, we have to ask – are we named after Judah because of what he did or in spite of what he did? Obviously, there are troubling aspects to the story we read today which we would not want any part of, which we would not advise for our children or community. Judah makes a mistake both by withholding his son from the woman who was dutifully waiting for him and by, well, being rather uncareful and uncaring in expending his, um, physical energy (in contrast to Joseph, who in the very next scene controls his body when Potiphar’s wife pursues him, to his immediate detriment but to his eternal credit).

But then he does something unexpected: he takes responsibility. After his identifying items are produced by Tamar, he doesn’t dissemble or lie or make excuses. He says, “She is more right than I” – I was in the wrong, and she is correct. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that this is the very first narrative in the Torah – and it is chapter 38! – that someone takes direct responsibility for a mistake they have made. Judah is the first one to actively do teshuvah, to say it wasn’t her, it was me, and I accept, live with, and will do what I can to change for the better and to prevent further shame for one who I hurt.

Hmmm, taking responsibility for your mistakes, being called to task for your improprieties, this sounds familiar. As I wrote yesterday, the wave of the #metoo campaign has empowered some women, Tamar-like, to do something they previously felt they could not do because they would not be believed. Our culture is sorting out what is a past offense with present-day consequences, what can be atoned for, and how to deal with those who are credibly accused but deny either the charges or their severity. We are not there yet – some who did less will pay more, some who did more will not pay, at least not now. What we can say for sure is that a tide is turning and appropriately so. In a great and free country, we cannot abide or accept powerful men treating the women in their proximity as objects and targets. Hopefully no one needs to go to the lengths of the Biblical Tamar to see justice done, yet we admire and affirm the bravery of women who have truthfully, honestly, and painfully are confronting those who expressed their power so hurtfully, and we affirm our community – and our JUDAH-ish tradition’s value of calling out injustice, taking responsibility for our mistakes and our lives, and, bottom line, treating everyone with respect.

Shabbat shalom.