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Vayeshev 2013

Dvar Torah

This is an action-packed Sedra.  It is framed by two pairs of dreams, and has all the makings of a Greek tragedy -- albeit without the tragedy.  The first two dreams represent hubris, with it being implied that Joseph is to lord it over his father and brothers.  The last two – the dreams of the butler and the baker -- occur at the depth of his nemesis, and are the starting gun for the non-tragic catharsis which plays out in the following two Sedrot.  And in between those episodes is enacted a separate drama, the story of Judah and Tamar.  This is a tale of death and sex, remorse and rehabilitation.  Looking at the Sedra as a whole, you simply couldn’t make it up.

So what to focus on?  Well, I thought that death and sex might be more fun than dreams, so that’s where I’ll start.  Let me remind you first about the story of Judah and Tamar.  I should say first of all, parenthetically, that it has occurred to me as I from time to time cross the River Tamar, marking the boundary between Devon and Cornwall, that there might be a connection with our Sedra.  But Mr Google informs me that Tamar actually derives from a Celtic root meaning dark waters, and is cognate to the word Thames.  So there’s an interesting and wholly irrelevant fact for you.

Anyway, back to our story.  Judah had three sons – Er, Onan and Shelah.  He married Er off to Tamar; but Er sinned in some unspecified manner and was slain by Hashem.  By the laws of levirate marriage – known as yibum – Onan was then required to marry Tamar and sire children in his brother’s stead.  But the children would not be accounted as his, so he avoided his obligation by performing coitus interruptus; and was also punished by death in consequence.  Again parenthetically, from this one episode have come centuries of guilt about certain kinds of sexual activity, especially among Christians.

By now Judah was beginning to suspect that Tamar was bad news so far as his children were concerned, and so he sought to prevent, or at least delay, her levirate marriage to his youngest son, Shelah.  This was tough for her, for she was not able to marry anyone else.  The next step was that Tamar, disguised as a harlot, entrapped the recently widowed Judah; and, as immediate payment, she asked him to give her certain uniquely recognisable personal items.  She became pregnant by this liaison.  Judah, meanwhile, tried to redeem his personal items from her by sending a kid in exchange; but by then she was nowhere to be found.  Three months later, Judah learned that Tamar -- his still unmarried daughter-in-law, remember – was pregnant, allegedly by harlotry.  He was a powerful guy in those parts, and ordered her to be burnt to death as punishment; at which point she came forward with Judah’s personal items and said that the pregnancy had been caused by their owner.  Judah immediately owned up, and admitted that she had been more righteous than he because he had withheld Shelah from marrying her.  The midrash says that by this act Judah publicly sanctified the Name of Hashem and therefore merited having the Tetragrammaton included within his name.  Another interesting thing about his name, which was given to him by Leah as a thanksgiving for his birth, from the root lehoda, to thank, is that the latter also means to admit.  (And, of course, the Jews – Yehudim – take Judah’s name.)

In any event, Judah had himself effectively fulfilled the requirement of yibum with Tamar.  Subsequently she gave birth to twins (Perez and Zerah); and as so often in the Torah, the apparent junior of the two (Perez), who looked as if he would be born second but  stole a march on his brother by popping out first, was preferred to the senior  -- think of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Menasseh and Ephraim.

Now Judah does not come out of this story smelling of roses, although he redeemed himself to some extent by confessing his error and acknowledging Tamar’s moral superiority.  And there is an interesting parallel with an earlier incident in the Sedra where Judah again failed to cover himself in glory.  You will recall that Reuben had suggested throwing Joseph into the pit when the brothers were planning to kill him, with the intention of rescuing him; but it was Judah who later suggested selling him to the passing Ishmaelites, thus (probably unintentionally) thwarting Reuben’s plan.  When Joseph’s blood-soaked coat was subsequently shown to Jacob, those presenting it asked him to please identify whether it was his son’s coat or not.  The Hebrew words used were: “hacer-no” (37:33).  And exactly the same phrase was used by Tamar when asking Judah to examine the personal items as I described earlier (38:25).  Another parallel is that Judah deceived Jacob with a kid (dipping Joseph’s coat in a kid’s blood to make it appear as if Joseph had been killed by a wild animal), and Tamar deceived Judah by intending to exchange her harlotry for a kid. It is as if Judah is getting his come-uppance for his behaviour towards Joseph.

And yet Judah emerges as the most favoured of the tribes, in the sense that through Perez he is the ancestor of David and all the Israelite kings that followed.  This is foreshadowed in Jacob’s deathbed blessing in the Sedra of Vayechi (which is perhaps better viewed as a series of predictions rather than blessings):

“Judah, thee shall they brethren praise; thy hand shall be on the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s sons shall bow down before thee.

Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, thou art gone up.  He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up?

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from beneath his feet, until Shiloh come; and upon him shall the obedience of the peoples be.

Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washeth his garments in wine, and his vesture in the blood of grapes.

His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.”  (Gen 39, 8-12)

The key phrase is the middle one: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah” – taken to mean kingship; and “until Shiloh come” – taken to imply the coming of the Messiah, and even that the Messiah will be of the tribe of Judah.  (This was of course followed to the letter by Christian theologians, who trace the ancestry of Jesus back to David.)  (It is puzzling, by the way, that Moses’ deathbed blessing of the tribes in Vezot Habracha makes no mention of any of this.)

So the question is: why, given his less than perfect behaviour, was Judah so elevated?  First of all, there is a negative reason – namely, why his three elder brothers were not preferred.  He was the fourth son of Jacob and Leah. The firstborn was Reuben, who actually behaved rather well during the incident with Joseph.  But he had later blotted his copybook by consorting with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah, into whose tent Jacob had moved after the death of Rachel (Vayishlach).  A more innocent explanation, by the way, is that Reuben, being a son of Leah, had interfered with Jacob’s bed because he was incensed at the slight afforded to his mother by his preference for Rachel’s handmaid.  In any event, Reuben had forfeited his place in the pecking order; and so had the next two sons, Shimon and Levi, by their behaviour at Shechem when they had tricked the kidnappers of their sister, Dinah, into being circumcised so that they could kill them at their weakest.  So Judah was the most senior with the least bad marks to his name.

And he showed leadership at crucial moments.  In regard to selling Joseph, his brothers listened to his advice; when they met Joseph as leader of Egypt, it was Judah who spoke first; when Jacob did not want to allow Benjamin to go down to Egypt it was Judah who persuaded Jacob to change his mind; and there are several more examples.  To my mind, the most praiseworthy are that he offered himself as a surety to Jacob for the safe return of Benjamin ahead of the brothers’ second visit to Egypt to buy food; and then offered himself to Joseph (still unknown to him) as a bondsman in place of Benjamin to spare Jacob from more suffering.  In all of that, he showed brave and compassionate leadership.

Even so, the question remains as to why Joseph, the firstborn of Rachel, is not elevated above Judah.  Just a simple comparison of their behaviour in our Sedra is instructive: whilst Judah immediately succumbed to Tamar, Joseph refused to succumb to Potiphar’s wife.  Jacob’s blessing of Joseph is, in Hertz’s words, in his “softest and most loving accents”, and Jacob concludes by calling him a “prince among his brethren”.  And yet Judah got the monarchy.  Go figure!

Shabbat Shalom


Stephen Collins

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