Drash on Parashat Vayeshev 2018
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue
Adelaide, South Australia
Growing through adversity
The Torah portions for the next three weeks clearly focus on the figure of Joseph. But to a lesser extent, they are also about his elder brother Judah. It is Judah who suggests to his brothers that an easy and relatively guilt-free to rid themselves of Joseph is to sell him into slavery. Many years later, when a mysterious Egyptian official threatens to make Jacob’s beloved son Benjamin his prisoner, it is Judah who offers to be taken hostage in his place. What happens to transform Judah from a heartless opportunist into a man filled with compassion and empathy? This week’s parshah offers one explanation.
The story of Joseph’s descent to Egypt is interrupted by a messy, extraordinary story of Judah’s own life. Judah has three sons. His first son marries Tamar, and when he dies with no sons, custom demands that Judah give over his second son to marry her. When that son dies as well, Judah keeps his youngest safely at home and keeps Tamar waiting. And waiting. Years pass, and Judah gives no indication that he ever intends to allow Tamar to wed his sole remaining son.
So Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She disguises herself as a harlot and sleeps with Judah in exchange for the promise of a lamb. He offers his distinctive signet, cord and staff as collateral until the lamb can be delivered. When the servant who is charged with the task of bringing the lamb to Judah’s harlot cannot find her, Judah appears relatively unconcerned. Tamar becomes pregnant, and when Judah learns what has happened, he threatens to have her put to death. She then discloses his signet, cord and staff, thereby clearly proving that he is the father. Judah humbly announces, “She is more in the right than I.” She bears twins, Peretz and Zerah. Among Peretz’s descendants is King David.
Tamar’s method for assuring that she becomes a mother is unorthodox—even shocking. But the truth is that, as a widow in a society where women cannot own land, she has very few options for assuring her own future. Much credit is due Judah, who recognises that his fears for his youngest son have led him to leave his own daughter-in-law disadvantaged and vulnerable. It is also clear that Jewish tradition honours her choices. Just as Ruth is rewarded for her faithfulness to Naomi and to the Jewish people by becoming the great-grandmother of King David, Tamar is rewarded through her connection many hundreds of years later to that same monarch.
Throughout his life as portrayed in these parshiyot, Judah models for us what it means to be open to growth and change. He is utterly unsympathetic to his younger brother. The result of this callousness is that his father Jacob suffers the utter heartbreak of believing that his beloved son Joseph is dead. In his encounters with Tamar, Judah’s own world is turned upside down. By the time he faces Joseph in disguise to bargain for the return of Benjamin, Judah’s heart has been softened. He now recognises the pain his father has experienced and seeks to ease it. His is a powerful lesson for all of us: we will all encounter challenges in our lives that turn our world upside down. They will not be easy. But, they may well leave us far better people in the end, as we see with Judah.