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01.12.2015 17:23    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parshah  genesis  vayeshev >  

"The Torah Laughs at Men"



Parashat Va-Yeshev introduces the great drama of Joseph and his brothers.  This drama, which begins with a description of the break between Joseph and his siblings, does not conclude until the end of the book of Genesis, where the family's reunification is described.  However, this is but a partial conclusion, since the reunification described there took place in the land of Egypt and the final denouement only comes when the Israelites return to their land.

The Joseph narrative over fourteen chapters (37-50), all its parts joined together like links in a chain:  take one out, and the chain comes apart.  This is true regarding all but one link: in this week's reading, in chapter 38, we come upon a narrative of thirty verses, dealing with Judah's life.  This story is an exception in the great drama of Joseph and his brothers.  All the other links deal with things that happened to Joseph himself or to Jacob's entire family.  It seems that if we were to remove this link, dealing with Judah's life, the entire chain would not be harmed and its absence would not be felt.

An indication of this is given by the verse at the beginning of chapter 39, which picks up the thread of the Joseph story after the Judah narrative:  "Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and a certain Egyptian, Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward, bought him..." (Gen. 39:1).  This verse repeats what was said at the end of the narrative preceding the Judah story:  "The Midianites, meanwhile, sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward" (Gen. 37:36).  The purpose of this recapitulation is to bring us back to the main narrative after Scripture's aside to a secondary story.  Thus the Judah narrative can be thought of as a parenthetical remark within the main narrative about Joseph and his brothers.  Of course this striking deviation from the main story demands an explanation.

The Sages in Midrash Rabbah took up this question and suggested three explanations:

About that time—the verse should have read simply, "Joseph was taken down to Egypt."  So why was this passage placed in juxtaposition to the other?  Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Johanan differed, Rabbi Eleazar saying in order to juxtapose one going down to another, and Rabbi Johanan saying in order to juxtapose one act of recognizing to another.  Rabbi S. bar Nahman said in order to juxtapose Tamar's action to that of Potiphar's wife.[1]

The Sages found clear connections between the Judah story and the narratives that precede and follow it.  Judah's leaving his brothers parallels Joseph's going down to Egypt (the same verb, y-r-d, being used in the Hebrew), the difference being that Joseph went down to Egypt by force of what his brothers did to him, whereas Judah left his brothers on his own initiative.  The brothers led their father astray at Judah's suggestion, sending him Joseph's tunic and saying, "'We found this.  Please examine it (Heb.hakker-na); is it your son's tunic or not?' He recognized it, and said, 'My son's tunic!  A savage beast devoured him!  Joseph was torn by a beast!'"

Tamar also sent objects to Judah, saying, "'Examine these (Heb. hakker-na):  whose seal and cord and staff are these?'  Judah recognized them, and said, 'She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.'"  The brothers, however, misled their father and caused him unnecessary sorrow and mourning, whereas Tamar told Judah the truth and enabled him to prevent a travesty of justice.

This last point is highly emphasized in another homily of the Sages in Midrash Rabbah, 85.9:

Judah bar Nahman said in the name of Resh Lakish:  "Laughing in His habitable earth; laughing always before him" (Prov. 8:31, 30).  The Torah laughs at men.  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Judah:  You deceived your father with a kid goat; on your life, Tamar will trip you up with a kid goat.

This homily underscores the connection between the crime and its punishment, measure for measure, even though the punishment did not follow immediately after the sin.  Further, it emphasizes that this is a fundamental principle of the Torah, which laughs at men.

The third view in the previous homily ties the Judah narrative with the narrative that follows it.  In the Judah story, Tamar seduces Judah, and Judah is lost from the first moment he sets eyes on her; Scripture emphasizes his turning aside to her by the road precisely for that purpose.  In the next story, Potiphar's wife attempts time after time to entice Joseph, both by words and deeds, but Joseph does not fall for her.  Judah was willing to give up his garments in order to sleep with a woman, whereas Joseph gave up his garment in order to flee from a woman.

Thus the Judah story is connected both with what precedes and with what follows it.  On the one hand, it describes Judah's punishment for the part he played in the sale of Joseph; yet, on the other hand, it creates an implied comparison between Judah and Joseph.  In this comparison, Judah comes out on the bottom.

Judah's failing not only finds expression in his sleeping with a woman whom he thought to be a harlot, but also is indicated from the very beginning of the chapter, as the following homily from Midrash ha-Gadol explicitly shows:

Judah went down—as Scripture said "Judah has broken faith; abhorrent things have been done in Israel" (Malachi 2:11-12).  Judah broke faith, for he said to his father:  Examine this; and abhorrent things have been done in Israel, for they sold Joseph.  "For Judah has profaned what is holy to the Lord,"—in going down from his brothers and leaving his father's house to espouse a daughter of idolaters, for he married a Canaanite woman.  And what was his punishment?  "May the Lord leave to him who does this no descendants (Heb. er ve-oneh)"—thus Er and Onan died.  And why did all this befall Judah?  Because he suggested that they sell Joseph.[2]

According to this homily, Judah sinned by the very act of leaving his brothers, disowning and distancing himself from his father's house while at the same time drawing closer to the local peoples to the extent of espousing the daughter of a Canaanite man.  Perhaps even his attraction to the Adullamite man by the name of Hirah is viewed as being to his discredit, as possibly indicated by the Hebrew expression va-yet being used both at the beginning of the story, when Judah left his brothers and "camped (va-yet) near a certain Adullamite," and further on in the story, when "he turned aside (va-yet) to her by the road."

Also Judah's delay in seeing to a successor for the household of his two sons who had died, for fear that his third son might also die, seems to be viewed with reproach by the text.  All the more so when it turns out, after the fact, that his words to Tamar, "Stay as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up," were no more than an empty pretext for postponement; for Tamar saw that Shelah had grown up, yet she was not given to him as wife.  Thus it seems that Judah had no intention of realizing the obligation to perpetuate the name of the deceased, nor of freeing his widowed daughter-in-law to marry someone else.

Bear in mind that Onan, his second son, was put to death by the Lord because of his perverted behavior and his unwillingness to father a child who would perpetuate his brother's name.  We also remind the reader that according to the commandment of levirate marriage, explicitly stated in Deuteronomy, a brother is obliged to perpetuate the name of a deceased male sibling so that his name not be erased from the Jewish people, and unwillingness of a brother to do so is considered extremely reprehensible:  "His brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration:  Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house!  And he shall go in Israel by the name of 'the family of the unsandaled one.'"

Tamar's determined action stands in sharp contrast to Onan's perverted behavior and Judah's hesitance.  Although she used means which are generally frowned upon, her objective was certainly worthy:  to continue the name of the deceased.  Apparently Tamar assessed that in the situation which had emerged this was the only way to perpetuate the name of the deceased, and to that end she was prepared to sacrifice living a married life ("he was not intimate with her again") and even to risk her very survival ("bring her out and let her be burned").

After the fact, Judah admitted the justice in what she had done:  "Judah recognized them, and said, 'She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah,'" and by virtue of this deed Tamar was rewarded with bearing two sons.  Scripture thereby brings out Judah's greatness, even though most of the chapter comes out critical of him.  At the decisive moment, Judah took responsibility for what he had done and admitted it publicly.  Confessing one's sin and accepting responsibility is the key to making amends.  Thanks to Tamar, Judah was graced with two sons—Perez and Zerah—in place of the two who had died—Er and Onan.

This character trait, revealed at the critical moment in the secondary narrative about Judah, was destined to emerge again, ever more strongly, at a critical moment in the main narrative.  When Joseph sought to keep Benjamin as a slave, and all the brothers stood by, at a loss, Judah approached the Egyptian governor and, in a moving speech in which every word was carefully weighed and thought out, took responsibility and offered himself as a slave instead of Benjamin.  The cry at the end of his speech—"For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!"—touched Joseph's heart and made reunification of the family possible.

Interestingly, even though Joseph is the central character in the main narrative, and even though his dreams that his brothers were bowing down to him came to actual fulfillment, nevertheless when Jacob blessed his sons at the end of the last act he gave the blessing of leadership specifically to Judah:  "You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise…Your father's sons shall bow low to you…The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet" (Gen. 49:8,10).  The position of leader is given to the person who, even though he failed at the beginning of the main story as well as at the beginning of the secondary story, nevertheless knew how to rise above himself at critical moments in both stories and take responsibility, subordinating himself and his own wishes to the good of the generality and thus tipping the scales.

Perez, Judah's first-born son by Tamar, became the forerunner of the ruling dynasty, as stated explicitly at the end of the book of Ruth:  "This is the line of Perez:  Perez begot Hezron…and Jesse begot David" (Ruth 4:18).  It is instructive that the central point in the book of Ruth bears a remarkable resemblance to the central point in the story of Judah and Tamar:  there, too, two brothers died without leaving sons.  Ruth, the wife of one of them, went with her mother-in-law, thus showing her exceptional kindness.  Like Tamar in her time, Ruth, too, was willing to risk her honor and perhaps even her future in order to perpetuate the name of the deceased.

However, unlike Judah, who could not control his urges and thereby cast a shadow over Tamar's act of grace, Ruth was favored with a partner, Boaz, who controlled his urges and did not let Ruth's exceptional act of grace become dimmed in the darkness of the threshing floor.  With exceptional heroicness, Boaz led the process towards redemption and perpetuation of the name of the deceased, properly according to Jewish law, and thus retroactively made amends for the flaw in the act of Judah and Tamar.

Tamar's act of grace and Judah's acknowledgment, which reemerge in Ruth's kindness and Boaz's heroism, paved the way to establishing the monarchy:  "And a throne shall be established in goodness in the tent of David, and on it shall sit in faithfulness a ruler devoted to justice and zealous for equity" (Isa. 16:5).

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