Yehuda and Tamar: This Doesn’t Make Any Sense!

In the middle of our sedra, sandwiched perhaps a little too haphazardly between the story of Yosef’s sale and of his wrongful incarceration, is the story of Yehuda and Tamar. A cursory read of this thirty-ninth perek of Bereshit would leave the reader with a basic understanding of Yehuda’s genealogy: It would show how Yehuda left his brothers, became friends with an Admuli (Canaani), married the daughter of another Canaani, and had three sons. The first two sons sinned and were killed by Hashem, and Yehuda, afraid that his third son will die if married his twice daughter-in-law Tamar, instead sent the poor widow back to her father’s home. Tamar, insistent on having Yehuda’s offspring one way or another, disguises herself as a harlot and cons him into sleeping with her, getting her pregnant. When Tamar begins showing a few months later, Yehuda tries to have her burned at the stake, only to find out that he is in fact the father. Tamar later has twin sons Peretz and Zarach.

Even on this most basic level, the story is a little bit unusual. Once one begins to examine the pesukim on a deeper level, even more plot holes and textual difficulties emerge. Here are a few of the most compelling difficulties with this story of Yehuda:

  • Why did Yehuda become friends with a Canaani after “lowering himself” from among his brothers?
  • Why did Yehuda marry the daughter of a Canaani, especially after his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were explicitly forbidden to do so?
  • How was Er, Yehuda’s eldest son, “evil in the eyes of Hashem”? The pesukim don’t elaborate further than that.
  • How exactly were Er and Onan, Yehuda’s second son, killed? Was it natural or supernatural? We aren’t told anything more than “Hashem killed them.”
  • The pesukim say that Tamar was told when Yehuda left his home. Why did Tamar want to know why Yehuda was traveling? Who was watching Yehuda to let her know that he was on the move
  • Why did Yehuda sleep with a prostitute? The pesukim justify it by saying “כי לא ידע כי כלותו היא,” that Yehuda wasn’t doing anything wrong because he thought he was sleeping with a random stranger and not his widowed daughter-in-law… It’s good to know that he was just breaking one of the שבע מצות בני נח, one which a person is commanded to die rather than commit, and not also sleeping with a relative.
  • Why did Yehuda give up his staff and and his seal? For that matter, why did he have a seal at all?
  • Why did Yehuda send his friend the Admuli to do the dirty work of tracking down the prostitute he had slept with? Why does he say afterwards “this is an embarrassment to us“?
  • Why would Tamar get burned for זנות? We’ve already seen that the Cana’anim didn’t have such high moral standards, and Yehuda, who had just slept with a prostitute himself, wasn’t exactly in a position to lecure someone else on moral decency.
  • Last, but definitely not least, is perhaps the biggest question of all: Tamar justifies her זנות to herself by saying “Yehuda didn’t give me Shela (his third son)”- this sounds really crazy and unusual, until Yehuda says the same thing when he is identified as the person who committed זנות with Tamar. How does this possibly justify the moral indecency that both Yehuda and Tamar committed? This doesn’t make any sense!

I believe that if someone wanted to give a label to the entire story of Yehuda and Tamar, the latter sentence would be the perfect title: “This doesn’t make any sense!” The mefarshim treat each of these individual question separately and have very good and plausible explanations, but I believe that given the oddity of this story, a bigger picture answer is necessary here.

On Sunday, July 3rd 1904, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook gave over a long and beautiful eulogy in Jerusalem, scarcely two months after he made aliyah to Israel. Called “המספד בירושלים” and considered required reading in modern-day Dati Le’umi circles, it laments the death of secular visionary Dr. Theodore Herzl z”l and speaks at length of the magic and beauty of the journalist turned Zionist’s actions and his vision. (full source available here).

At the very end of the speech, Rav Kook writes of the pain of עקבתא דמשיחא, the era of Masiach ben Yosef, that the Jewish People will face before they will merit the more peaceful period that will come with Mashiach ben David, and the final ge’ulah. First, Rav Kook explains, came the stage of Mashiach ben Yosef, in the form of Herzl and the Zionist Congresses, who opened the gates of immigration of Jews to our ancestral homeland.

However, as the time of redemption nears, if Jews still remain in the Diaspora, G-d may need to send them a wake-up call to remind them of where they belong. Even though המספד בירושלים was written when Hitler was just a teenager and may not have even had his Kampf of wiping out our people yet, it explains perfectly how the exiled Jewish People will have a disruption of their physical and spiritual lifestyles that will force them to leave their comfortable lifestyles in Europe and contemplate moving home. Only after this (though how long after is a different question), will the world reach the final stage of the Davidic Masiach, and it will be clear without any doubt that it is time for all Jews to move to Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Kook taught that in the final transitional period, immediately before Mashiach ben David, the Jews will face the most difficult physical and spiritual challenges, to the point that reality will not entirely make sense. Happenings in the world will be so against the Jewish people that logically, emotionally and logistically, one will look at them and question his own sanity, asking himself if maybe he’s dreaming, because there’s no way that things like this could actually happen. This is supposed to serve as wake-up call to the Jews of the Diaspora, to show them that if they are insistent on ignoring the more subtle signs of Geu’lah, that they are effectively sleeping and now, the time of nonsensical happenings in the world, is wake-up time, an opportunity to leave the dream of the exile and re-enter the reality of the redemption, in Israel. As we say by the Shofar, another symbol of the ge’ulah, “עורו ישנים- wake up sleepy heads!”

With this in mind, I think that we can explain each and every difficulty of the story of Yehuda and Tamar with one simple answer. At the end of the story, Tamar gives birth to Peretz, the forebear of David and ancestor of Mashiach ben David. Perek 38 of Bereshit is, in effect, the story of the birth of the Messianic line. The fact that there are so many questions and inconsistencies in this story is perhaps symbolic of the questions and inconsistencies that Rav Kook foresaw in the time when Peretz’s descendant will come and redeem the Jewish People. Just as the story of Mashiach’s birth is purposely bizarre and full of storyline difficulties, in the time of Mashiach’s coming, current events will be so beyond ridiculous that any thinking person will have no choice but to say to himself “I must be dreaming. How do I wake up?!”

Even though Rav Kook wrote his מספד בירושלים over 110 years ago, at our slightly more advanced stage of אתחלתא דגאולה, “HaRav”‘s vision is still holding strong. Our people have managed to survive the furnace of the Shoah, pulling through despite the terrible loss of six million of our brethren, and many have turned over and gone back to sleep, returning to the Diaspora dream despite it turning so sour for previous generations. Herzl and his movement set the foundation, and the modern day Israeli government has made it possible for each and every one of us to live the Jewish dream and fulfill our national destiny, but many of us still remain distant from the endgame of עליה לארץ.

As Rav Kook taught and history has shown, a storm may brew again. Even now, the modern and enlightened world has once again embraced anti-semitism. Their hatred of us is so strong that it has led them to do the most ridiculous things, such as establishing Palestinian Solidarity Day on the 29th of November (the historical day when the Palestinian People refused an offer for a state), downright nonsensical international bias on reporting terror in Israel, and outright support for the annihilation of the Jewish People. The only label that could possibly be given to recent events against the Jews is (להבדיל), exactly the same one given to the story of Yehuda and Tamar: “This doesn’t make any sense!

The insane events going on in the world right now should serve as a wake up call for global Jewry. Instead of searching for individual reasons why the EU is boycotting Israeli products, why Ban Ki Moon refuses to condemn terrorism in Israel, and why the President of the United States seems to undermine every attempt to subdue ISIS and Hamas, we need to look at the global answer. Current events don’t make any sense right now, because, as Rav Kook taught, they are an opportunity for Jews around the world to realize that the time has come to abandon the lands of our enemies and come home to Eretz Yisrael.

As we prepare to celebrate Chanukah next week, a holiday symbolic of Jewish spiritual and military victory over our enemies, let us take advantage of this wake-up call, and work on trying to move home to Eretz Yisrael. We must work on escaping the insanity of the Diaspora and fulfilling our destiny in our ancestral homeland, so that we too can merit the miracle of a victory, and of a lasting peace in the Middle East. Only through this can we ever hope to merit the last stage of the ge’ulah, very very soon. Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach.

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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