Tamar: Our Fifth Matriarch?

Parshat Vayeshev opens with what can only be described as a dysfunctional family on the brink of total breakdown

Jacob is playing outright favorites through his unabashed preference for Joseph (Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons…” Gen 37:3).

Joseph at this point is an adolescent snitcher who feeds Jacob bad news about his brothers (“…And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father”– Gen 37:2). In addition he has grandiose dreams in which he lords it over his brothers – dreams that he delights in sharing with them and with his irate father (And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams” – Gen 37:8).

Joseph associates only with the sons of the maidservants Bilha and Zilpah, the second-tier brothers, who are apparently ignored by the children of Leah who likely consider themselves socially superior (“And the lad was with the sons of Bilha and with the sons of Zilpah…” – Gen 37:2).

The brothers hate Joseph (“…they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him” – Gen 37:4) and wish him dead (“they conspired against him to murder him” – Gen 37:18).

Jacob, apparently clueless, dispatches Joseph – in his fancy rainbow-colored robe, no less – to spy on his brothers and report back on their doings to the Patriarch (“… see if all is well with your brothers and well with the flocks, and report back to me again…” Gen 37:14).

The brothers seize the opportunity of Joseph’s visit to plot his murder. The killing is initially thwarted by Reuben who then evaporates after arranging to have Joseph cast into a deep, waterless pit (“…shed no blood, instead cast him into this pit.” Gen 37:22).

Judah ultimately puts and end to the murder plot by having the brothers sell Joseph to a band of itinerant Ishmaelites (“What profit is it if we kill our brother … let us sell him to the Yishme’eilim and let our hand not be in him as he is our brother …” Gen 37:26).

The brothers then return to Jacob bearing Joseph’s coat all bloodied and in tatters, claiming they found it, and creating the impression that Joseph must have been devoured by a wild beast (“It is my son’s coat, and evil beast has devoured him” – Gen 27:33).

Not a pretty picture. Yet one that ultimately plays out magnificently by setting the stage for Joseph’s triumph in Egypt which culminates centuries later in the Exodus – the seminal moment in the launch of Jewish national history.

* * *

There is another, seemingly less significant episode that takes place in Vayeshev, namely the story of Judah and Tamar.

Someone at the Shabbat table asked why this utterly disconnected story is inserted into Parshat Vayeshev. Surely the Parsha has enough drama without any need to add the tale of Tamar’s ruse to entrap Judah into levirate marriage.

I would like to suggest that the Judah/Tamar drama is in fact a critical element of this parsha.

While tension and dysfunction were hardly unprecedented in the sagas of the first two Patriarchs, neither was there any evidence of the sort of unanchored mayhem and potential fratricide that we observe in the chronicle of Jacob. Compared to the madness that seems endemic in Jacob’s household, the families of Abraham and Isaac were models of serenity.

Where did Jacob go wrong? Or did he? Why was he, alone among the Patriarchs, living in a vortex of conflicting passions and plottings that bordered on fratricide, and stopped barely short of such murder? How could he be so clueless and so incapable of ruling his roost?

Perhaps the answer lays in the fact that Jacob did not have a Sarah or a Rebecca in his life. The first two Matriarchs were not merely vessels for the bearing of sons. They were strong, smart, proactive, sharp tongued, strategic-minded, and possessed of iron wills.

Were it not for Sarah, Abraham would have been adrift and Jewish history would have been a non-starter. He seems to have been content with Ishmael as his son and heir, and even after the arrival of Isaac, somewhat ambivalent regarding his parental preferences. It was Sarah who put her foot down, forcing him to evict Hagar and Ishamel; tough measures that met with the Almighty’s approval.

Sarah’s daughter-in-law Rebecca was a smooth, smart, strategically savvy woman who prevented her husband Isaac from making the catastrophic mistake of driving his blessings and legacy through Esau.

We can only surmise that these two women were hardly pushovers, even on a day-to-day basis, and exerted a great deal of influence that helped keep their households functional.

There may not have been much romantic love between Abraham and Sarah, or Isaac and Rebecca. But it is clear that these women were the gyroscopes that gave stability to their respective marriages, and without doubt determined the course of history.

Jacob had no such woman in his life. He hated Leah, and his beloved Rachel died too soon to manifest any complimentary stability. Jacob was left on his own with twelve, mostly unruly boys, a wife he detested and two servant girls, Bilha and Zilpah, who are first upgraded to the status of wives in our parsha (Gen 37:2).

As a result, the entire mishpacha seems on the verge of meltdown. Jacob cannot manage alone, and none of his sons seems to offer the kind of galvanizing leadership that would impel his siblings to fall into place.

Our tradition suggests that Judah, in this parsha, establishes himself as a true leader through two acts; the first being his ‘saving’ Joseph’s life by arranging his sale into slavery (see above), the second is his rising to the occasion and coming clean when Tamar presents the evidence of his paternity (“She has been more righteous than me…” – Gen 38:26).

And, yet these two examples seem to fall somewhat short of establishing one’s credibility as a leader and as the progenitor of royalty and the Messiah. After all, if one were to run for President of the United States on the basis of having not murdered his brother (merely sold him to a bunch of Arabs) and of having confessed to a sexual peccadillo, not too many voters would be persuaded to cast their ballots in his favor.

Hence I would like to suggest another explanation for Judah’s ultimate maturation into the undisputed leader of his brethren, and as the Patriarch of the Davidic/Messianic line. And this explanation can be summed up in one word: “Tamar”.

From the text alone we know absolutely nothing about this woman, other than the fact that Judah’s firstborn son Er – from his Canaanite wife – married a girl by the name of Tamar. We are told nothing about her nationality, tribe, color, religion, father, mother, or siblings if she even had any.

And yet, if we observe her conduct and deeds over the course of a long and despairingly lonely widowhood, we witness the blossoming of an incredibly strong woman. What’s more she emerges ultimately as a woman who, if not divinely inspired with prophecy or the holy spirit (ruah ha-kodesh) has a profound faith and the courage of convictions that are simply staggering.

Widowed relatively young from her childless husband Er, Tamar expects to be wedded in levirate marriage to his brother Onan whose responsibility it is to make sure the deceased brother’s legacy will continue through his surviving sibling.

Onan shirks his responsibility, and is killed by G-d. The remaining brother Shelah, is very young. Judah uses this son’s youth as an excuse to withhold him from Tamar, who is then consigned to her father’s house in widow’s weeds until Shelah might be old enough to fulfill his obligations.

But this never occurs. For whatever reasons, Judah does not allow Shelah to take Tamar (Gen 38:14) who, by now, is no longer in the first blush of womanhood. She has patiently, and chastely spent her years in anticipation of a union that never materializes.

But this is a woman with a mission. She will not go passively into old age without child. More importantly, she clearly has a sense of destiny, and knows that she will have children, and that these children will be the progeny of Jacob and Judah. Her determination is absolute. And thus she organizes her plot to entrap Judah who has yet to hit his stride as a mature and focused man.

Her plan is to pose as a veiled prostitute at a crossroad that Judah is expected to traverse (Gen 38-16). He would then avail himself of her services which would result in her impregnation. His purse would be empty, therefore necessitating his providing his personal rod and seals as security against subsequent payment (Gen 38:17-18). When word would get out that his now pregnant daughter-in-law violated the norms of widowhood and had indulged in harlotry, he would arrange to have her burned in an honor killing (Gen 3:24-25). At the very last moment she would produce the evidence of his paternity and the rest would be history.

And indeed this is how it all works out.

But let us stop for a moment and consider the statistical likelihood of any of these stages working out as planned. The probability of the ultimate denouement being successful seems pitifully close to zero.

Let us begin with her sitting temptingly at the crossroads. It is not every man who happens by who engages a harlot’s services. In fact most simply ignore her offerings. And yet, Tamar counts on the fact that Judah will succumb to her charms. Rather a long shot.

Secondly she is counting on the fact that Judah will be without the means to pay her. For had Judah had his purse with him, Tamar would have met a dreadful end. She would have become pregnant. She would have lacked the evidence of Judah’s paternity, and her honor killing would have been a foregone conclusion.

Thirdly, Tamar absolutely believes she will become pregnant from this single encounter. Again, the statistical likelihood of a woman who has been abstinent for so many years becoming pregnant from a single act is a long shot at best.

And finally, Tamar is counting on Judah coming clean when she presents him with the pawns she had taken in lieu of payment. One can easily imagine Judah denying any knowledge of her, and claiming his personal effects had been stolen as he consigns her to the flames.

For a woman to build her hopes on such flimsy assumptions proves that we are dealing here with a woman whose sense of destiny and determination are of a caliber that is beyond the reach of most mortals.

Indeed she foreshadows the saga of Ruth. Both are childless non-Israelite widows in quest of levirate marriage and children. Both have a burning desire to be part of the Israelite nation and faith. Both use their sensuality to insinuate themselves into the favor of Judah and Boaz respectively. And both become Matriarchs of the royal Davidic/Messianic line that descends from Judah.

Which brings us back to the original question, namely whatis the relevance of the Judah/Tamar story to this week’s parsha? The answer, of course, is everything.

By marrying Tamar, Judah brings the much needed and normalizing balance into Jacob’s family. It is Tamar who succeeds Sarah and Rebecca as a de facto Matriarch. And it is through her that Judah ultimately finds the stability that enables him to restore some normality to Jacob’s family, and fulfill his true potential as an undisputed primo inter pares, the leader and galvanizer of Jacob’s sons.

 

JJ Gross

Jerusalem

Sunday, 22 Kislev 5733

December 18, 2011