David Walk

The Tamar Affair

This week’s Torah reading presents us with new and very different heroes. As we enter the final third of Breishit, a new phenomenon emerges, multiple protagonists. From chapter 12 until chapter 38 of the book, we are always focusing on one main character at a time. First Avraham, then Yitzchak and finally Ya’akov. Now our attention must be divided between two new leading men, Yosef and Yehuda.

Chapter 38 begins: About that time Yehuda went down from his brothers. Chapter 39 begins: When Yosef was brought down to Egypt. Both their stories begin with a downward direction.

Yosef’s descent was forced upon him by circumstances, and eventually he prevails against all odds. Yehuda’s descent was of his own choosing, and we’re not sure why he departs from the family and seems to join Canaanite society. Yosef descends by force; Yehuda descends by choice. The latter is often a harder circumstance from which to recover.

Yehuda truly appears to be on a negative trajectory. He marries a Canaanite woman, Shua, and finds a Canaanite wife, Tamar, for Er, his son. Our Patriarchs had clearly disapproved of marrying into Canaanite society. 

This downward spiral seems to accelerate when he sleeps with what appears to be a harlot, in reality Tamar. How far has Yehuda fallen! The Torah pulls no punches when describing our heroes. As Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch noted:  

The Torah never hides from us the faults, errors and weaknesses of our great men. By that it gives the stamp of veracity to what it relates. But in truth, by the knowledge which is given us of their faults and weaknesses, our great men are in no wise made lesser but actually greater and more instructive.

This continuing descent comes to a screeching stop when judging Tamar for becoming pregnant while a YEVAMA (widow bound to the family). Yehuda could have easily executed her for what the world saw as an adulterous act, and no one would know that he was the father of the unborn child. It is very easy for men in power to bury their indiscretions. He publicly declares: She is more righteous than I, the fetus is from me! (Breishit 39:18).

There we have it. The Torah’s first public admission of sin. This begins Yehuda’s ascension through the ranks of the 12 brothers to become the acknowledged leader. Why? Because, as Rav Ari Kahn explained: A leader is one who, though they may stumble and fall, arises more honest, humble and courageous than they were before.

Now he can be the guarantor for Binyamin (43:8-9), now he is worthy to stand up to Yosef, when he was viceroy of Egypt (44:18-30), now he can lead the family into Egypt (46:28), and now he deserves Ya’akov’s greatest blessing: Your brothers will acknowledge you, your hand will be on the neck of your enemies, your father’s sons will bow down before you…The scepter will never depart from Yehuda (49:8 & 10).  

In other words, those who carry Yehuda’s genes will rule Israel and, one will, eventually, become MASHIACH. His heirs will eventually surpass Yosef’s heirs, because ultimately the ZADIK, who never sinned, can’t stand in the lofty position of the BA’AL TESHUVA, penitent (Brachot 34b).

Is that the whole story? Have we finished describing the DNA of Mashiach? No, because half those genes have another source: Tamar!

Usually, when poring over these stories we feel that our description of Mashiach is complete once we’ve concluded that Yehuda will be the father. But there’s also a mother. We can’t see the whole picture until Tamar’s role has been described.

Rav Soloveitchik described the role of Tamar in the following manner:

Tamar was a heroic woman, a great woman. What could Tamar do that others could not? She could wait; she possessed the heroic ability to wait without end. Judah told Tamar, his daughter-in-law, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until Shelah my son be grown up’. All her friends married; people treated her with ridicule and contempt. Shelah married; Judah had for­gotten her. And yet she waited. Wasn’t she the incarnation of Keneset Yisrael, which has waited for her Beloved thousands of years? Did not Tamar personify the greatest of all heroic action—to wait while the waiting arouses laughter and derision?  

However, as powerful as this image conjured by the Rav’s words, there is another aspect of Tamar’s greatness and importance. Rav Amnon Bazak explains:

Apparently, Yehuda is simply dumbstruck in the face of Tamar. By placing the entire burden of responsibility on Yehuda while refusing to accuse him directly, Tamar leaves him no choice – he is forced to confront himself. For the first time since the beginning of the parsha, he assumes responsibility for his actions. Not only does he acknowledge that Tamar has not played the harlot, he goes so far as to acknowledge his own responsibility for neglecting her for so many years.

Tamar is the perfect catalyst for Yehuda’s rehibilitation. As Rav Bazak points out, she cunningly induces Yehuda to acknowledge his responsibility. She did this by asking, ‘HAKER NA’, ‘would you, please, acknowledge (who owns these, 38:25). This seemingly innocent, polite request cunningly echoes Yehuda’s own question to Ya’akov, ‘HAKER NA, please, recognize your son’s (Yosef’s) coat (37:32).

Tamar is not only monumentally patient, she also has the acute awareness of how to bring out the best in those around her. 

Our MASHIACH will inherit all these remarkable traits. From Yehuda, he will feel responsibility for others and have the strength of character to admit mistakes, to repent and reform. From Tamar, he will inherit patience and the keen ability to bring out the best in others. This is a powerful combination of talents making MASHIACH the great leader ‘to smite the world with the staff of his tongue’ (Yeshayahu 11:4).

BARUCH HASHEM, we all have, hopefully, inherited at least parts of these traits. But mostly patience. And now in these difficult days, we patiently turn to God and say: Haven’t we been patient long enough?

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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