Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz
  • What did Yosef misunderstand about the Hebrew mission in his youth?
  • How did Tamar help Yehuda rediscover himself after decades of self-imposed exile from the Hebrew clan?
  • How do the forces of Yosef and Yehuda express themselves in the people of Israel today?

Parshat Vayeishev shifts our focus from Yaakov to his sons, the tribal chiefs, as the Hebrew clan continues to develop into what will become the nation of Israel.

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Already towards the end of Parshat Vayishlaḥ, we saw the initiative pass from Yaakov to his sons, specifically Shimon and Levi, when they attacked the city of Shkhem to rescue their sister Dina.

Then at Beit El, HaShem officially changed Yaakov’s name to Israel. But this change didn’t just pertain to Yaakov as an individual. It also applied to his entire family.

The last son of Yaakov, the only one to be born an Israeli – both in the geographical Land of Israel and after the family had officially become Yisrael – was Binyamin. As the family was traveling from Beit El to Hebron, Raḥel underwent a very difficult labor that was ultimately fatal for her. As she was dying following the delivery on the road to Bethlehem, she named her new baby Ben-Oni – “son of my grief.” But Yaakov changed his name to Binyamin – “son of my right hand.” This was actually the first of Yaakov’s children that he named himself, showing significant personal development after returning home to his land and officially becoming Israel.

Parshat Vayeishev begins roughly ten years after these events. It’s important to note that the tribes of Israel are not only biological tribes but also represent unique forces in Israel’s identity that together comprise the nation. These forces are no longer limited to shining into our world through their tribes. A soul that expresses the tribal force of Binyamin, for example, can today come into this world as a member of the tribe of Levi. But in Israel’s early history, these forces tended to be more exclusively expressed through their corresponding biological tribe. And the interaction between Yaakov’s sons to a large extent represented these different forces within Hebrew identity organizing themselves appropriately within the national collective soul as the Israeli clan continued to develop into a nation.

The two most prominent of Yaakov’s sons would become Yehuda son of Leah and Yosef son of Raḥel. The relationship dynamics between these two will for the most part determine most of Israel’s history until today. Yosef and Yehuda possessed the foundational traits of their two respective messianic personas, the Mashiaḥ ben Yosef and the Mashiaḥ ben Yehuda – better known of course as the Mashiaḥ ben David.

Yosef was the only son of Yaakov included as one of the seven key personalities that shaped Israel’s collective soul, and whose corresponding seven attributes are personified as part of what our Sages call the Tree of Life. Yosef’s corresponding s’fira is yesod – foundation.

Along the central line of the Tree of Life are the s’firot that strike a balance between right extroversion, which seeks to give, and left introversion, which seeks to restrain. As we move from the top of the tree to its bottom, the attributes become more practically material.

The triangle formed by the attributes of ḥesed, g’vura and tiferet – manifested by the personalities of Avraham, Yitzḥak and Yaakov, respectively – represent the level of human aspirations and emotions. And the triangle of netzaḥ, hod and yesod just below it on the tree correspond to Moshe, Aharon and Yosef and represent the level of actual practice in reality. Yesod collects and concentrates the light that has passed through the Tree of Life’s right, left and center lines. But yesod is actually only the preparation for the realization of Divine goals, which are practically accomplished at the stage of malkhut, the s’fira corresponding to David from the tribe of Yehuda.

The tribal force of Yosef represents the aspects of Israel’s identity that we share in common with other nations, specifically the dominant nation of any given generation. More than any other Hebrew tribe, Yosef possesses the ability to be like Esav – to be successful in major material pursuits.

Those who are manifestations of the force of Yosef within Israel tend to show remarkable skill at managing the material world, whether as farmers, engineers, scientists, business leaders or financiers. In the Diaspora, they’ve exemplified the stereotypical successful Jew. But on a national level, they tend to be primarily concerned with the material wellbeing of the Jewish people. In the modern State of Israel, this is often expressed through an emphasis on issues of security and economic success – the “earthly needs” of the nation. But it’s also the force within Israel that most strongly desires to be part of the West. Yosef has a very cosmopolitan tendency that yearns for a connection with the outside world.

The force of Yehuda, on the other hand, represents that which makes Israel special among the nations. Manifestations of this force don’t have Yosef’s ability to build armies or economies but are focused on our identity, our culture, our Torah and our homeland.

Yehuda is a far more nationalist force, firmly rooted in Israel’s identity, history and destiny.

The Gaon of Vilna’s teachings regarding Mashiaḥ ben Yosef are recorded in the book Kol HaTor. There, we learn that the process of Mashiaḥ ben Yosef will be the physical return of the Jewish people to our land and the material rebuilding of our nation. But once the vessel is built, the process of Mashiaḥ ben David must fill it with content and direct it in advancing Israel’s mission.

We’ve already learned that Yosef and Tzion – Zion – share a g’matria – a numerical value – of 156. And when Rav Ahraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook eulogized Binyamin Z’ev Herzl after his death, he related to the Zionist movement as the movement of Mashiaḥ ben Yosef. This doesn’t mean that the Rav didn’t have criticisms of the Zionist movement. He wrote in his Maamar Yerushalayim, which can be found in Maamarei HaRe’iyah (pages 298-299), that the ideas behind Zionism weren’t sufficiently deep to sustain a living nation, let alone revive a dead nation. But the Rav also saw a Divine historical process unfolding and recognized Mashiaḥ ben Yosef as an important stage.

Yesod, Yosef’s attribute, is a product of Yaakov’s attribute of tiferet. The Torah’s narrative of Yaakov’s sons begins by emphasizing the connection between them in B’reishit 37, verse 2, by stating that “This is the line of Yaakov: Yosef.”

Just as the attribute of tiferet personified by Yaakov represents a balance between the traits of ḥesed and g’vura – giving and restraining, Yosef’s attribute of yesod is the projection of this equilibrium to a level of practical activity. If tiferet understands the theoretically correct measures of giving versus restraining in any given situation, yesod is the proper assessment of options.

In a sense, Yosef exists between Israel’s patriarchs and the nation that descends from them. Unlike Yaakov’s other sons, Yosef will produce not one but two tribes, Ephraim and Menashe. This gives Yosef the status of a partial Patriarch. The fact that he was one of the youngest of Yaakov’s children but also occupied an intermediate position between his father and brothers was a constant source of friction within the family. Yosef’s greatest passion was correcting the world around him. He sought to intervene in every situation that came his way. For the most part, this worked out for him, because he generally had extraordinary success in everything he did. But it initially created conflicts within the Hebrew family.

Just as Avraham and Yitzḥak saw themselves in the personalities of their sons Yishmael and Esav, Yaakov very much saw himself in Yosef. But the next verse, verse 3, tells us that Israel loved Yosef more than all his other sons. The change of name from Yaakov to Israel in these verses might have something to show us regarding the root problem in Yaakov’s family dynamics. Because yesod is an extension of tiferet, Yaakov understood and perhaps even valued Yosef more than his other sons. They saw the world the same way. But Yaakov was essentially making the same initial mistake as Avraham and Yitzḥak by seeing his continuation in the son who is most like him.

It was one thing for Yaakov to have a favorite son. And it makes sense that that son would have been Yosef, both because he was so similar to Yaakov but also because he possessed attributes associated with Esav that compensated for what his father lacked during much of his life. But at the level of Israel, it wasn’t appropriate to allow parental feelings to influence the family hierarchy. A nation with a monumental historic mission was being established and each tribe had to be appropriately positioned to play its unique role.

Had Yaakov been able to publicly allocate a place in the national structure for each of his sons, they likely wouldn’t have seen Yosef as a threat. But Yaakov’s open favoritism for Yosef, combined with Yosef’s own behavior, caused his brothers to see him as a danger to the family.

B’reishit 37, verse 2, states that Yosef was seventeen years old at this point and that he spent most of his time with the sons of Bilha and Zilpa, who the Torah makes a point of telling us had become Yaakov’s wives in the full sense. The Midrash notes that Leah’s four eldest sons, Reuven, Simeon, Levi and Yehuda, had established a strict hierarchy among Yaakov’s children, in which they were the clear leaders. Yosef wanted to level the family dynamics and made a point of spending his time with the sons of Bilha and Zilpa in order to emphasize that they were his father’s wives and had full equal status.

But it will later become clear that the family hierarchy that placed the older brothers, specifically Yehuda and Levi, in positions of leadership will persist among the children of Israel for many generations. When the Hebrews will later emerge from Egyptian slavery, this system of relations will still find expression in the way in which the tribes would be organized into camps in the desert. Only after the liberation of the Land of Israel and the allotment of territorial portions to the tribes will the tribal forces be able to fully unite into a single nation.

At the age of seventeen, Yosef had sought to dismantle the family hierarchy established by his dominant older brothers because he saw it as fundamentally unfair. B’reishit 37, verse 2 even tells us that Yosef brought evil reports of his brothers to Yaakov, which we understand to mean Leah’s eldest sons. According to the Maharal of Prague, these reports are called evil because they weren’t true. Yosef believed his eldest brothers to be committing some very serious transgressions but had he been viewing his brothers favorably, through a good eye and not an evil eye, he would have given them the benefit of the doubt and quickly discovered that he was mistaken.

The Torah informs us of two significant events that exacerbated tensions within the Hebrew clan. The first we see in verse 3, where Yaakov gave Yosef a striped tunic. These were stripes of different colors joined together in a single shirt. In modern times, it’s very easy to take colored clothing for granted but it’s important that we appreciate how rare and expensive clothing dye was at that time. So the colors alone make this garment significant.

But the colored stripes also had meaning, symbolizing the unification of diverse forces within Israel into a single unified people. Our Sages teach that the garment had long sleeves, indicating that Yosef was not expected to engage in manual labor. He studied Torah – obviously the Oral Torah – at home with his father. Yosef would often go out to his brothers in the field and try sharing what he had learned in an attempt to improve his brothers. But they likely experienced this behavior as inappropriately judgmental.

The striped garment should have probably been given not to Yosef but to the ten year old Binyamin, because it was actually Binyamin who would later successfully unite the brothers. And the tribe of Binyamin would one day produce Shaul, the first king of the unified tribes. The Jerusalem Temple, which became a point of national unity, would also be built in Binyamin’s territory. And Binyamin’s tribal flag would actually feature stripes of several colors, similar to the tribe’s jasper gem on the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol.

Giving this garment to Yosef was actually inappropriate and clearly led to further resentment from Yaakov’s other sons. The next verse states explicitly that Yosef’s brother’s resented his favoritism by Yaakov.

The next event that exacerbated family tensions was Yosef relating his dreams to the family. In his first dream, Yaakov’s sons were all binding sheaves in the field when Yosef’s sheave stood erect and the other sheaves bowed low to it. When he told this dream to his brothers, they accused him of wanting to rule over them. But that may not have been the only problem they had with the dream. The sons of Yaakov were shepherds but in Yosef’s dream they were farmers binding sheaves of corn. Farming may have been far more profitable than breeding livestock in the ancient world, as it produced significantly more food. But farming would also enslave the farmer to his plot of land and was considered a spiritually depraved occupation. Yaakov’s sons likely valued their freedom and therefore might have been troubled by what they could have perceived as their father’s favorite son pushing the family towards agricultural pursuits.

Yosef yearned to repair the world and to feed its inhabitants. He therefore dreamt of corn sheaves. His agricultural dreams may have foretold his eventual descent to Egypt, which was both a land of slavery and the economic center of the time – similar to farming. Egypt was also a land where breeding livestock was offensive to the populous.

One could make the argument that Yosef’s mission, as he understood it at seventeen, would be easiest to accomplish from Egypt. In what might have seemed very similar to the beliefs of Naḥor and Lavan, Yosef likely saw Egypt as the best place from which to influence and repair all of humanity. Whether conscious or subconscious, Yosef may have actually desired to live in Egypt.

Because he had made aliya to Eretz Yisrael at the age of seven, Yosef might have had fond childhood memories of living in exile. But Leah’s eldest sons had been between the ages of twelve and fifteen and likely remembered that their family had almost been swallowed up by Aram. Their appreciation for what it meant to live in their own land would likely cause Yaakov’s sons to feel threatened by ideas that sounded similar to the rejected path of Naḥor.

In Yosef’s second dream, the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowed down to him. He seems to have been ignored the first time he tried telling his brothers about this dream but he then made sure to find a time when his whole family would be together so he could tell his father of the dream in front of them. It was clearly important to him that his brothers acknowledge his unique status.

Yosef’s brothers may have seen his dream of the sun, moon and stars as symbolic of a coexistence between day and night. In Hebrew culture, night is generally a symbol for galut – exile from our land. If Yosef saw the sun, moon and stars all at the same time, that could indicate that for him, day and night can coexist. And that the Hebrew family could fulfill its universal mission and influence humanity from the Diaspora no less than from the Land of Israel. It would make sense that this would have reminded Yaakov’s sons of the path advocated by Naḥor and Lavan.

Yosef’s brothers contemptuously referred to him as a “master of dreams.” Dreams clearly played a central role in his life. And the fact that he was a dreamer who yearned to realize his dreams was actually something positive. But because Yosef’s dreams challenged the status quo within the Hebrew clan, his brothers perceived him as an arrogant young fanatic who endangered the family by trying to force a transition to agricultural work and perhaps even bring them down to Egypt. And their family history likely also led his brothers to perceive Yosef’s behavior as threatening their place within Israel.

Their family history already had two examples of one son becoming the sole heir despite not being an only child. If Israel’s formation was still a work in progress, it would make sense that some of Yaakov’s sons might have seen their father’s behavior as an indication that they could be excluded from the family mission. And Yosef constantly behaving as if he were superior to his brothers obviously wasn’t helpful. His evil reports to their father likely created the impression that he was actively trying to force his brothers out of the family. This might shed light on why Yosef’s brothers later saw fit to strike first.

It’s important to scrutinize how Yaakov attempted to address all of this. The fact that he displayed obvious favoritism towards Yosef and even gave him a special garment indicates that he might not have been sensitive to the dynamics at play. But once Yosef told Yaakov and the entire family about his second dream, the one where the sun and moon and eleven stars all bow to him, it’s likely that Yaakov started to see the problem.

Perhaps Yaakov’s reaction should have been to try deciphering the dream together with all of his sons in such a way that would alleviate everyone’s concerns.

But instead Yaakov berated Yosef, which may have put his older sons’ minds at ease but may have also validated their hostility towards Yosef by sending the impression that their father recognized the same danger they saw.

But B’reishit 27, verse 11, tells us that Yaakov kept the matter in mind, indicating that he believed in the prophetic power of Yosef’s dreams and might have only berated his son in order to restore harmony to the family. But his way of handling the situation didn’t elevate his sons to a higher awareness of what was actually taking place – it only served to reinforce their animosity towards Yosef.

Yosef didn’t actually want to dominate his brothers. Like them, he was only interested in what would strengthen the family and help it succeed – first in the material world and ultimately also in its spiritual mission. He likely understood his dreams differently from how his brothers saw them.

From his brothers’ point of view, these dreams expressed Yosef’s narcissistic personal aspirations, but from his perspective, they illuminated a path that would be important not only for him and his family, but also for mankind.

Yosef’s understanding of the Hebrew mission focused on helping humanity to achieve material prosperity. And he wasn’t completely wrong. Part of Israel’s national function might be to lead mankind into a world where everyone enjoys equal access to the wealth and resources of our planet. But this will have to come through humanity first reaching the awareness that we’re all in fact actually united at the source. That we’re all part of an organic whole and that no one can really succeed at the expense of someone else. This was part of the ethical panentheism of Avraham that’s meant to be brought to the world through the story and national example of a specific people in its land.

Although Yosef was correct in identifying the material wellbeing of mankind as part of the Hebrew mission, it would be a mistake to reduce Israel’s mission to this goal. The ultimate purpose of Mashiaḥ ben Yosef is to prepare the material platform for the spiritual leadership of Yehuda.

It would have been good for Yosef to know this. Just as it would have been good for his brothers to appreciate that the economic prosperity Yosef was so focused on could serve as a strong material base for the realization of Israel’s higher mission.

In B’reishit 37, verse 13, we see Israel sending Yosef from Hebron to Shkhem in order to check on the welfare of his brothers and their flocks. The fact that the Torah uses the name Israel rather than Yaakov here indicates that this isn’t merely a personal or family matter but rather something of national significance. Shkhem also happens to be significantly far from Hebron, at least a two day journey, indicating that Yaakov’s older sons had moved away in an attempt to distance themselves from Yosef and disengage from the family drama. Shkhem would have actually been a great place for them to strike out on their own, especially given the fact that Shimon and Levi had conquered the city ten years earlier and were likely still feared by the population in the area. The family also owned land outside the city that would later become Yosef’s tomb so it makes sense that Yaakov’s eldest sons would choose to live around Shkhem.

We also see from Yosef’s behavior here that he clearly wanted to improve his relationship with his brothers. When he arrived in Shkhem and was asked what he was looking for, he responded in verse 16 by stating that he was looking for his brothers. And even though his father had only told him to look for them in Shkhem, Yosef continued on his own initiative to Dotan because it was important to him that he find them.

But when Yaakov’s four eldest sons saw Yosef approaching, Shimon and Levi advocated for executing him. Reuven, however, convinced them to instead throw him into a pit. Reuven wasn’t a leader and it took serious effort for him to talk his brothers down from killing Yosef. But he bought time with a compromise that they would first throw their young brother into a pit and then discuss further what to do next. Reuven’s plan was to rescue Yosef himself later on and return him safely to Yaakov.

When Yosef came close, his brothers took his striped tunic and threw him into the pit. The fact that verse 25 tells us that they then sat down for a meal indicates some importance to this detail. Yaakov’s sons hadn’t yet eaten that day, because, according to Torah law, judges presiding over a capital case are forbidden to eat until a verdict is rendered. The brothers considered their deliberations and actions to be Yosef’s trial and sentencing for what they believed to be his attempts to destroy the Hebrew family. But then they looked up, meaning that they shifted their attention from Yosef and their family drama to a wider view of the world around them. They saw a caravan of merchants and began to reconsider their own verdict.

It was Yehuda who spoke up and saved Yosef’s life. He convinced Shimon and Levi that there would be nothing to gain from killing Yosef. He convinced them that it wasn’t Yosef the person who was dangerous but rather the views he espoused. The combination of Yosef immaturity and his inclination towards fixing the world for all mankind caused him, at that point in his life, to reject the nationalist Hebrew orientation and adopt a cosmopolitan position similar to Naḥor’s family line. Yehuda suggested that selling Yosef to a caravan bound for Egypt might give Yosef a taste of life in exile and teach him the error of his ways.

Reuven was apparently not part of this conversation. When he returned to rescue Yosef as he had planned, he saw that his brother was gone. Although we never see Reuven demonstrating any meaningful leadership qualities, he clearly felt responsible and panicked. It’s not clear from the text if Shimon, Levi and Yehuda had pulled Yosef out of the pit or if Midianite traders had done so. But either way, Yosef had been sold to the Ishmaelite caravan bound for Egypt. The brothers then slaughtered a young goat and dipped Yosef’s striped tunic in its blood so they could present it to Yaakov and let him assume Yosef had been killed.

Although Reuven might have seen himself as responsible, the brother who actually did show real leadership and was most responsible for Yosef being sold was Yehuda, the youngest of Leah’s first four sons. And after seeing the anguish they had caused Yaakov by selling Yosef and letting their father believe he was dead, Yehuda’s brothers began to blame Yehuda for what happened and his status within the family was significantly diminished.

B’reishit chapter 38 begins by telling us that Yehuda descended from his brothers at this time and entered into business with a gentile named Ḥira. At this point Yehuda completely withdrew from his family and seems to have been embarking on a new life disconnected from the Hebrew mission.

The second verse of chapter 38 tells us that Yehuda took the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua as a wife. The Talmud, in P’saḥim (50a), understands the word Canaanite to actually mean “merchant,” asking if it’s believable that Yehuda could have married a Canaanite woman after Avraham and Yitzḥak extolled their heirs not to do so. It’s certainly possible that Shua was a merchant. But it’s also possible that he was actually a Canaanite. Perhaps we should see Yehuda taking a Canaanite wife within the context of his moral crisis and departure from his family.

It’s possible that Yehuda married a Canaanite woman in direct violation of the family tradition because he was no longer interested in playing a role within that family. And it’s equally possible that Yehuda saw the birth of the Hebrew nation as already complete. Now that Israel’s national roots were firmly planted, maybe he thought it had become permissible to incorporate Canaanite elements into the Hebrew identity. We don’t know the extent to which Yehuda had contact with his family at this point and it’s unclear how much Yaakov knew about Yehuda’s life.

What we do know is that Yehuda’s inner spiritual fall and self-imposed exile from the Hebrew clan had lasted a long time. Not weeks, months or even a few years but decades. Certainly long enough for him to see two of his three sons with Shua’s daughter grow up and marry Tamar. The Midrash teaches that Tamar was a daughter of Shem son of Noaḥ, making her a distant relative of the Hebrews. We also learn that she foresaw that she would be the ancestress of the Davidic dynasty and therefore made it her life’s goal to participate in building the tribe of Yehuda. Despite Yehuda’s spiritual fall and disconnection from Yaakov’s family, Tamar saw his inner strength and potential to return. But she initially joined his family as wife to his first son Er.

But Er wasn’t interested in fathering children with Tamar. He was apparently concerned that impregnating her would ruin her great beauty. So he spilled his seed rather than impregnate her. B’reishit 38, verse 7, tells us that Er “was evil in the eyes of HaShem and that HaShem caused him to die.”

Yehuda then pushed his second son Onan to enter into a levirate marriage with Tamar and produce offspring for his dead brother. The concept of levirate marriage – “yibbum” in Hebrew – requires that when a man dies childless, his widow remains part of his family and one of her late husband’s surviving brothers is expected to marry her in order to perpetuate the lineage of the deceased. But Onan also wasted his seed rather than impregnate Tamar, so HaShem also caused him to die.

Yehuda didn’t understand why his sons were dying and he began to see Tamar as a dangerous woman. Rather than risk his last remaining son Shela’s life by having him perform yibbum, Yehuda instructed Tamar to go wait in her father’s home as a widow till further notice.

But by the time Yehuda’s wife – the daughter of Shua – died, Tamar saw that she wasn’t going to be given as a wife to Shela. And so she hatched a plan to reclaim her destiny.

Following the mourning period for Yehuda’s wife, Tamar received word that Yehuda and Ḥira were traveling to Timna to shear their sheep. In those days, sheep shearing would include a big local celebration. It’s important to note that B’reishit 38, verse 12, states that Yehuda “went up” to oversee his sheep shearers, and we should contrast this with the first verse of the chapter, which tells us that Yehuda “descended” from his brothers. While that decent following the sale of Yosef marked the beginning of Yehuda’s spiritual fall, this “went up” decades later marks the beginning of his return.

The loss of his wife and two eldest sons shows that the new life Yehuda had created for himself away from the Hebrew clan had not really worked out. His business ventures with Ḥira still seemed successful and he was a highly respected judge and community leader. But the loss of most of his family offered an opportunity for reevaluation and growth.

Although Yehuda’s renewed potential for ascent and return might not yet have been outwardly visible, it was certainly present. It just needed to be actualized. And it will be Tamar who ultimately takes decisive action to force Yehuda to rediscover his inner strength.

As Yehuda was on his way to Timna for the sheep shearing celebration, Tamar removed her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil and posed as a prostitute at the entrance to the nearby community of Einaim. Yehuda saw her, assumed her to be a sex worker and decided to engage in relations with her.

Our Sages have gone to great lengths to teach us what might have caused a man as righteous as Yehuda to consort with a mysterious prostitute.

The basic idea is that he was Divinely compelled to do so in order to produce the future Davidic dynasty. We learn that the Creator has placed forces of darkness into our world, what our Sages call the Sitra Aḥra, as an essential ingredient to enable free will and human growth. This evil has been Divinely tasked with attempting to prevent Israel from fulfilling our national mission of spreading ethical panentheism and bringing humanity to the awareness of HaShem as the timeless ultimate Reality without end that creates all, sustains all, empowers all and loves all. As any good story requires a formidable antagonist, the Sitra Aḥra is placed into the system of Creation in order to ultimately be defeated by Israel, who must wage a holy war to overcome the earthly manifestations of this evil.

Sometimes these manifestations come in the form of enemy nations and sometimes in the form of our own destructive inclinations. At historic moments with great potential for the emergence of light and the advancement of Israel’s mission, the forces of evil fight tenaciously to prevent the light from breaking through to this world.

Tamar disguising herself as a sex worker and Yehuda consorting with her were acts that provoked no resistance from the Sitra Aḥra. But the union resulted in the birth of twin boys, of which one would become the ancestor of David and the future messianic figure that will lead the people of Israel in ushering in a better world.

From this perspective, the episode of Yehuda and Tamar is not unique. The messianic lineage is full of problematic events that circumvented the forces of evil. And while this makes sense and is certainly true, it could also be simultaneously true that consorting with a sex worker was an indication of the level Yehuda had fallen to and was in need of coming back from. It’s important to relate to our ancestors not as static heroes but as dynamic personalities who sometimes failed and had to struggle to get back up. The story of Yehuda might be one of our best examples of this.

Yehuda offered a young goat as payment to the disguised Tamar but she demanded a pledge to hold onto until receiving it. She wanted his seal, his wrap and his staff, valuable personal items that reflected his high status among the people. The fact that he agreed to give her these items – everything in his possession that attested to his noble position – likely expressed his own desire, either conscious or subconscious, to renounce his status, forfeit his leadership role within Israel and revert to simply being just an ordinary citizen – something he had been trying to do since striking out on his own after what happened to Yosef.

If we understand Yehuda as someone who had been running away from his destiny ever since the sale of Yosef, it shouldn’t surprise us that he married a Canaanite woman, consorted with a prostitute or gave up the items that expressed his noble position.

In any case, when Ḥira later went looking for the sex worker to pay her the agreed upon goat, he couldn’t find any trace of her. And Yehuda decided to give up the search rather than risk the humiliation of his act becoming public knowledge. But Tamar had conceived. And three months later, when her pregnancy had become obvious, Yehuda was asked to judge and issue a verdict regarding his widowed daughter-in-law’s alleged promiscuity. He sentenced her to death by fire.

But then, after the sentencing but before her execution, Tamar sent Yehuda his seal, wrap and staff, telling him that these belong to the man she had been intimate with – the man who impregnated her. It’s interesting that she waited until this moment to produce these items. Had she shown them to Yehuda during the actual trial period, when it was appropriate to present evidence, he could have found a way to discreetly drop the case and avoid embarrassment. And even now, after the sentencing, the ball was totally in Yehuda’s court. Tamar created a situation in which he could either save face and let her be executed or interfere in the justice process after the trial was already over to save her life in such a way that would leave him totally humiliated.

Tamar deliberately put Yehuda in an extremely uncomfortable position because her primary goal wasn’t to save her own life, but to elevate Yehuda by forcing him to rediscover his values and inner strength so that he could once again become the best version of himself and retake his leadership position within Israel. Despite the fact that Yehuda had fallen to such a low spiritual level after having tried to escape his destiny and become a “normal” person, Tamar saw his inner greatness and helped him to rediscover it.

After decades of estrangement from not only the Hebrew clan but also from his true self, Yehuda found the strength to do what was right and took responsibility for his actions. He publicly honed up to the fact that he had been intimate with a woman he had thought to have been a prostitute.

This ability to rise up, take responsibility for his actions and improve himself elevated Yehuda to a much higher plane that ultimately restored him to his family and to his leadership role within Israel.

[Published in Vision Magazine]

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Rav Yehuda HaKohen is an organizer and educator living in northern Judea. As a leader in the Vision movement, he works to empower students and young professionals to become active participants in the current chapter of Jewish history.
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