Truth and reconciliation: a lesson from my dad

The first anniversary of my father’s death on the Hebrew calendar happens this week. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about where my family and I were a year ago, at St. Joe’s hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

There are many moments from that week that stand out to me, but none more so than this one.

Knowing that my Dad was dying, my brothers and I wanted to make sure he had a chance to say goodbye to his oldest friends. We let various people know and they came to see him.

But my Dad had had a falling out with one of his oldest and dearest friends, who was married to another old and dear friend, and my parents hadn’t spoken with them in several years. With some trepidation, I emailed the wife in this couple and said simply, “My Dad is dying, and I know he would like to see you.”

They were there in 20 minutes. Tears were shed, laughs were had, apologies were offered, forgiveness was granted. Hugs were in abundance.

Of all the moments of my father’s final days, this one has stood out to me for the last year because it was such a genuine fulfillment of what is supposed to happen on your deathbed: Confronted with the end, you confess, you forgive, you reconcile. You are able literally to rest in peace.

It has also been on my mind because of the parasha, both in the context of the larger Joseph narrative and, especially, in the story of Judah and Tamar. This story, of course, is marked by a similar gesture of reconciliation. Judah and Tamar share the grief of the loss of two of Judah’s sons, Tamar’s original husband, Er, and his brother Onan. Understandably afraid for the life of his third son, Shelah, Judah prevents him from marrying Tamar through levirate marriage and sends her away under the false premise that he is too young.

Eventually Tamar figures things out and takes matters into her own hands, tricking Judah into sleeping with her and making her pregnant.

Judah has broken faith with Tamar, Tamar has been less than honest with Judah. As seems to be the curse of this family, no one is a straight dealer, no one tells the truth.

But at length the truth will out. After a few months, Tamar is visibly pregnant, and people start to say things. “Vayugad l’Yehuda lemor.” Rumors spread—rumors that attach Judah to his daughter-in-law and make him the very laughingstock he was afraid of becoming just a verse earlier in the story. So, in his capacity as the local judge of the time, he orders her put to death, burned.

At the dramatic high point of the story, Tamar speaks up and plays her hand. She uses the very words Judah and his brothers used to trick Jacob about Joseph’s death: Haker na, Recognize these items. And not just these items. Says the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 85:11): Amra lei haker na et boracha, shelcha v’shel boracha hen—She said to him, “Recognize your creator, for these are yours and those of the one who created you.” If you lie about this, you’re lying to God. Everything is on the line.

It’s important to linger here over the fact that what comes next is not at all inevitable. Judah can simply say, “These aren’t mine. Burn her.” No one would know. No one would question him. He has power, he has authority, there is no one to hold him to account, and frankly he has no strategic interest in admitting the truth.

Which is what makes the next words among the most remarkable moments in a family saga full of remarkable moments. Judah decides to do the right thing. Vayaker Yeudah, vayomer tzadkah memeni. Judah recognizes his belongings, and in the same breath recognizes the totality of his actions. He says simply, She is more in the right than I. She is right, I am wrong. I take responsibility.

The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 30:19) points to this moment as the one that elevated Judah over his brothers and made him a worthy ancestor of kings—because in this moment Judah put justice and fairness above personal needs and desires. That is the stuff that princes and kings are made of—the good ones, at any rate.

Yet I don’t think it’s enough simply to laud Judah for his leadership qualities here. No, I think we have to recognize another remarkable dimension of his behavior in this episode, and that is that he does all this in public. The Talmud (Sotah 10b) notes this, and contrasts Judah with Joseph. Where Joseph performs a private kiddush Hashem when he refuses the advances of Potiphar’s wife, Judah’s kiddush Hashem is performed in public.

That is no small thing, both because it changes the stakes, but even more so because it means that the matter is not just a question of righteousness, but a question of justice. While justice rests on the incorruptibility and fairness of authorities, genuine justice—that is, justice that is not merely punitive, but justice that is restorative and healing—also involves a public reckoning with the truth between the parties involved and the larger community of which they are a part.

The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 85:12) picks up on this aspect of Judah and Tamar’s story as well. It notes that this is one of three moments when a divine voice went forth to proclaim the truth. The other two it cites are the case of King Solomon deciding the case of the two women who claimed the same baby, and the case of Samuel when he publicly said to the people of Israel, “The Lord is witness against you… that you have not found anything in my hand,” and they replied, “He is witness.”

Further, the Midrash contrasts these moments of public goodness with the story of the sons of Eli, who abuse their office in order to perform sexual crimes against a woman who works at the tabernacle, and the sons of Samuel, who abuse their position to take bribes and enrich themselves.

In these negative cases, it is not just an issue of unrighteousness that draws our attention. In the reading of the Midrash, it seems to be that they erode faith in leadership and institutions. It is one thing to abuse people, which is bad enough. But to abuse people by abusing the trust they place in you as a leader takes the calculus to an entirely different order of magnitude.

Likewise in the positive cases of Samuel, Solomon, and Judah: It is not just a moment of private righteousness taking place, but a moment of public reckoning, when faith in the courts, in justice, in the law, is on the line. In such moments, the Midrash seems to suggest, the faithfulness and moral probity of leadership is affirmed by the heavenly voice. Leaders who occupy positions of public trust and authority thus have the opportunity to perform a kiddush Hashem or a hillul Hashem. We celebrate the former and we chastise and mourn the latter.

A final aspect of these stories highlighted by the Midrash is also important to mention. While all of them involve the actions of leaders who properly use or improperly abuse their power, three of them—Judah and Tamar, Solomon and the baby, and the sons of Eli—specifically involve how male leaders use their power with respect to women. Do they take advantage of them? Do they listen to them? Do they simply erase them? The textual tradition makes clear that how men with power treat women who don’t have it is a fundamental test not only of personal righteousness, but of communal justice.

Most of us are not communal leaders. And yet, in a democratic society, all citizens are sovereign. And in a world where our actions can be broadcast, where our words can be recorded and shared, the lines between the spheres of private righteousness and communal justice become blurrier. Compassion, fairness, goodness, doing the right thing: These become not just questions between us and God or us and another individual, but between us and society.

That brings me back to my Dad and that moment of reconciliation before his death. In my eulogy for my father, I talked about how, more than anything else, he was our teacher. I’m not sure he was thinking of it then, but in retrospect he must have been. Because in deciding to reconcile with old friends, he was teaching us a final lesson: Anger, self-righteousness, and stubbornness are not the way any of us want to be remembered, nor are they really the way any of us want to live. Olam hesed yibaneh, the world is built ultimately on lovingkindness, on compassion and forgiveness. These are the roots of a good life, and they are essential not only for personal righteousness, but for a society of justice and the rule of law.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is president of Big Questions Associates, LLC, a consulting practice that serves leaders of nonprofit and educational organizations, and a Senior Fellow at The iCenter.
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