Every year as a child at my Jewish day school, as we made our way through the identity-building stories of Genesis, we would conclude Chapter 37 of Parshat Vayeshev with Joseph’s being sold into slavery, and our teachers would tell us that we would be skipping to Chapter 39 where the story picks up again with Joseph’s working in Potiphar’s house. When asked why, our teachers always looked uncomfortable and said things such as “Chapter 38 is not for children.”
So of course we always made it a point to read Chapter 38, and while it mildly engaged our burgeoning prurient interest, it seemed rather unexciting. But exciting or not, now years later I feel the chapter can serve as a dramatic teaching instrument for Jewish youth, teens through college. “Haker na?,” or “do you recognize?” is a key phrase in Chapter 38. As this story is discussed, we can ask our youth, do you recognize emotional aspects of your own life within the narrative. Can you derive any core Jewish values from the story? And do these values tie to Jewish lessons that might help you grow throughout your life?
At the beginning of Chapter 38. Judah leaves his family and travels to Canaanite country. There are commentators who believe Judah departed right after the confrontations between Joseph and his brothers. Judah had lacked the moral compass and authority to save Joseph fully and instead suggested that the brothers profit from selling him into slavery.
What must Judah have felt upon leaving home? He separates himself from an unhappy mother, a father devastated by the apparent loss of his favorite child in which Judah is complicit, and from two other brothers who went on a murderous rampage destroying Shechem as “honor killings.” Might he have been agitated, angry, and guilt-ridden? But Judah also carries examples of righteousness exemplified by his forbearers, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca. He must have learned right from wrong from Jacob who chastised Shimon and Levi for their murderous actions, and even Joseph for his vain behavior. “Haker na?,” we might ask our youth, when we leave, perhaps for college, are there emotional items we tote that weigh us down? Are there other items that sustain us? We might suggest that how well we balance our load is key to how well we travel.
Judah marries a Canaanite woman and has three sons. The oldest, Er, marries a woman named Tamar. But Er is “wicked in the eyes of God,” and God slays him. There is no explanation as to Er’s wickedness. How, we should ask our youth who are probably engaging nascent questions of good and evil, do you react to this part of the story which offers a minimalist yet powerful statement that there is undefined evil in the world? How do you feel about the story’s suggested response to such evil?
We then need to understand an ancient Israelite commandment called “Yibum,” or Levirate Marriage. When a married man dies without an offspring, the man’s brother must marry the widow, and any son of this union is considered the spiritual son of the deceased. If the brother wishes not to marry the widow, he can be excused if he agrees to a public shaming.
After Er dies, Judah orders Onan, his second son, to marry Tamar, but Onan “spills his seed” because he does not want his child to have his brother’s name. God is enraged and slays Onan for this dereliction. Judah is hesitant to command his youngest son, Shailah, to perform Yibum because he fears that Tamar is a widow maker. So he instructs Tamar to return to her father’s house and wait until Shailah is old enough to marry her. But Judah has no intention to do so.
As arcane and archaic as this custom may seem to us today, we can discuss with our youth how one engages an obligation (mitzvah) if one does not understand or is uncomfortable with what is expected. Onan could have been excused from marrying Tamar if he were willing to accept public shaming. Aren’t there times we wish to flee in anger or repudiation as opposed to questioning, debating, or seeking explanations and even alternatives? What similar situations might our youth be experiencing?
At its core, the Judah and Tamar story is about how one acts responsibly, or as we might ask our youth, what constitutes mensch behavior? Some time goes by, Judah’s wife dies, and grieving, he sets out to do some business. Tamar finds out that Judah will be passing through a certain town gate, puts on a veil, and sits awaiting Judah’s arrival. In her determination for Judah to “do the right thing,” Tamar is seeking justice. Judah sees Tamar, doesn’t recognize her, takes her for a harlot, and asks the equivalent of “are you available?” Tamar asks what will he give her, he says a kid from the goats of his flock, she demands security, he agrees to give her his signet, his cord, and his staff (central marks of his identity), the deal is struck, the action consummated, and she is impregnated.
If Judah’s previous relationship with Tamar was shallow and avoidant, now, in his grief and impulsive drive for sexual satisfaction, Judah doesn’t recognize Tamar, rashly gives away his identity, and leaves himself vulnerable. Here, our youth can be asked, when it comes to Tamar’s actions, how far might one go in pursuing justice? And as for Judah’s behavior, how do negative emotions keep us blind to the world around us, hinder judgment, and interfere with distinctions of right and wrong?
Tamar returns to her father’s house. Judah asks his friend to deliver the kid and redeem his pledge, but as his friend is seeking a harlot, he is unable to find Tamar and returns to Judah who basically says, “let’s not press this search since we have a reputation to maintain.” What a delightful lesson in irony and awareness for our youth. Does reputation depend on deceptive or tenuous appearances? Does it rely on power, position, or financial standing? Or should it be linked to a conscience-based meeting of one’s obligations and redressing injustices and personal failings head on?
The townsfolk discover that Tamar is pregnant and tell Judah who orders her to be burnt. Tamar sends the pledge objects to Judah and tells him she is pregnant by the man who owns these items. When Tamar asks Judah, “haker na,” if he recognizes the pledge objects, she is saying, do you recognize who you are, do you recognize your duty? Judah faces protecting his reputation and condemning Tamar to death or publically admitting his indiscretions. Judah chooses to acknowledge his pledge and says, “she is more righteous than I because I did not give my son Shailah to her.” The story ends with Tamar giving birth to twins.
We might ask our youth about Judah’s journey in which he stumbles, learns, rights himself, and comes through at the end. Is he heroic in any way? And if so, “haker na,” what differences do you recognize between this possible “Jewish hero” and the heroes with whom you are familiar? Finally, why would Judah and Tamar merit the honor to be progenitors of David, the future great king of Israel?