Vayeishev (And he settled)

Genesis 37:1 to 40:23

The focus is now on Jacob’s children. Most of the action centers on Joseph. A brief interlude features Judah who will play a major part in Joseph’s future.

“Jacob now settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.” (Gen. 37:1) This parsha actually begins the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son …. How he went to Egypt and eventually brought his entire family to join him.

Jacob's childrenWe all know the story. It’s one of the major stories taught in Sunday Schools throughout the ages……. Joseph’s trip from an arrogant teen relating his dreams to his brothers while wearing the “coat of many colors,” a gift from his father, Jacob …. To a leader in Egypt who invites his entire family to join him.

It’s an interesting story, even for Sunday Schoolers. There is a lot that can be learned about bad – and good – family relationships…..

However, upon reading this parsha, we come upon a story about Judah – one of Joseph’s older brothers – and his daughter-in-law, Tamar….. Now I don’t recall that story from Sunday School …. Maybe because it’s about the SEX – or the lack of it – that the story contains …. Maybe those subjects aren’t subjects just weren’t taught in the Sunday Schools I attended.

However, there is a lot that can be learned from the Judah/Tamar incident….. Briefly, Judah has three sons. He arranged to have his oldest son, Er, marry Tamar. “Er was wicked in the sight of the Eternal, and the Etenral brought about his death” Judah than told his second son – Onan – to marry Tamar “and raise up offspring for your brother.” (This is an example of a Levirate marriage were the younger brother marries a deceased older brother’s wife. Then, fathers a child to be raised as if it was the elder brother’s son.) Onan knew that offspring would not be his, so “he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to produce offspring for his brother.” God saw this as wicked and also brought about his death. Now Judah realized that he had an obligation to Tamar in regards to childbearing through his sons. He told her that his youngest son, Shelah, was too young for marriage and she should return to her father’s house until he was older. However, Judah was afraid he would also lose his youngest son if the marriage was completed.

Years pass…. Judah’s wife dies… and Shelah grows older; yet, Tamar hears nothing from Judah.. However, she felt that Judah had a responsibility to provide her with a child. She thought up a plan where she would pose as a prostitute along a path were Judah was traveling. Judah saw her and took her for a prostitute. “Judah approached her and said, ‘Pray let me couple with you’ – he was not aware that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, ‘What will you give me to couple with me?’ He replied, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock.’ Tamar knew that Judah had a reputation as a trickster and did not believe he would provide the kid. So, she asked him to provide a pledge that he would send the kid… the pledge consisted of Judah’s ‘signet seal, cord, and staff’ which he gave to her. These items were Judah’s symbols of identity… roughly equivalent to asking someone for all of their credit cards today. Judah accepted.

Several months pass. Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant. Although not actually married to Judah’s youngest son…. She is technically engaged to be married…. Judah is enraged and orders her to be brought to him and burned to death!

At the same time Tamar sent a messenger to Judah with the symbols of his identity and a message reading: “The man to whom these belong made me pregnant. Acknowledge whose signet seal, cords and staff these are!” Judah recognized them in an instant and said, “She is more in the right than I, for certainly I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he never touched Tamar again. (Gen. 38:1-26)

At first reading, this story appears to be just a brief interlude in the Joseph story… But, in fact, it has a lot to do with the story.

First, the Judah/Tamar story can be compared to the Joseph/Potiphar’s wife story to show how Joseph acted correctly when the stories are compared.

Then. we also can see how the story actually marks a major turning point in Judah’s life….. Judah was part of the plot to harm Joseph. After the brothers sold Joseph, Judah lied to his father, Jacob, by presenting the coat that had been soaked in GOAT blood. In the Judah/Tamar story, Judah again uses a goat (kid). This time it is offered in exchange for sex….. After lying to his father, Judah now tells the truth in regard to Tamar’s relationship with him…. Even though it may seem embarrassing. He takes the guilt away from Tamar and actually takes his share of the responsibility for the event when he admits that did not allow his son, Shelah, to marry her. He is no longer interested only in his own needs. We see that Judah is now a responsible person.

Tamar also takes actions that are praised by commentators. Rashi states, “Tamar acted out of pure motives. She wanted to have a child for the sake of her first husband.” Then, when punished for her pregnancy, she could have publically accused Judah of actions that lead to her pregnancy. Tamar sent Judah a private note along with Judah’s identity objects. Thus, the accused is not publicly humiliated. Talmud makes the following statement about on Tamar’s message: “It is better to throw oneself into a fiery furnace than to shame another person in public.” (Berachot 43b)

So , when viewing this week’s entire parsha, in addition to reading a great “soap opera”… we can obtain many guidelines that will guide us toward a better life.

Earl Sabes

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