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Vayeishev 5777 - 2016, The Greatness of an Unorthodox Woman

posted Dec 21, 2016, 7:07 PM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated Dec 21, 2016, 7:59 PM ]

As the month of Kislev continues, we spend this Shabbat reading Parshat Va’yeshev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23. The story of Joseph dominates this week’s Torah portion, from his highly egocentric dreams, his brothers’ jealousy, through his interpretation of dreams while prison. In the middle of Joseph’s narrative (chapter 38) is the story of Tamar. This is not the same Tamar as the Tamar in 2 Samuel, as that narrative happens many generations after the Exodus. The Tamar in our parsha this week is married off to Er, the first-born son of Judah. According to the Torah, Er was ra – wicked – and was killed by God. Custom in much of the ancient Near East endorsed the practice of levirate marriage – the marriage of a widow to the brother of her deceased husband. In the Torah, this practice is proscribed in the case where the deceased brother had no children. The first-born son of the widow is considered the rightful heir to the deceased’s property. Significantly, he is not considered a son of the brother who sired him. Losing her husband before he fathered any children, Er’s widow, Tamar, marries Judah’s second son Onan. Like his brother, Onan is killed by God for engaging in a wicked act. However, in this case, the Torah tells us exactly what Onan did to warrant death. Recognizing that the child he would father would not be “his” child (as it would legally be considered the son of his deceased brother), Onan refused to have intercourse with Tamar, instead “spilling his seed on the ground.” Many sects of Christianity and Judaism interpret this passage to have significant relevance to modern relationships, sexual behavior, and public policy. Looking closely at the story, Onan’s behavior is not wicked because he refused to father a child, per se. Rather, his behavior is wicked because he refused to give a measure of security and safety to his brother’s widow. Levirate marriage was designed to protect widows, maintaining their ownership of their deceased husband’s land. In ancient Israelite culture, it is difficult to imagine the kind of isolation and poverty a woman such as Tamar might suffer, particularly if she had no children. Onan denies her the safety and security that levirate marriage was meant to offer – this is the wickedness for which Onan is killed. After Onan dies, Judah tells Tamar that she will be given to Shelah – Judah’s youngest son. Shelah is apparently so young at the time, that he cannot yet be married. So, Judah tells Tamar to wait, and when Onan is older, they will be married. Time passes, and Tamar sees that Judah is not keeping his promise. She dresses as a zonah – a prostitute – and seduces Judah without revealing her identity. Tamar succeeds, and Judah sires twins with her, not realizing that she is his daughter-in-law. Unaware that the harlot and Tamar are one in the same, Judah tries to have Tamar executed when he discovers that she is pregnant. However, Tamar produces incontrovertible proof that Judah was the one who slept with her, yet manages to do so without embarrassing him. Judah realizes that she had pretended to be the harlot, and admits his own guilt with an interesting statement. He says, tzad’kah mi’meni – she is more righteous than I. He explains that he had promised to have Tamar marry Shelah, though never followed through on this promise. By breaking his word to his daughter-in-law and denying her future security and safety, Judah has committed the same offense as Onan. Why, then, is he not killed? Was it simply that Judah was able to be outsmarted by Tamar? If that is the case, Tamar essentially saves Judah’s life. By forcing him to father a child (really, children) with her, Tamar ensures both her own safety and that of her father-in-law. The Talmud extols Tamar as not only having done right, but to have done it without humiliating Judah. This story is both uplifting and saddening. Certainly, it is difficult for modern audiences to read our ancestors living with such inflexible gender roles. However, within the constraints of this patriarchal society, we can also find it heartening to read about a strong-willed woman who did not sit idly by and wait for her father-in-law. So often, unwittingly or not, we reinforce the “male-actor, female-acted upon” stereotype, allowing men to do, and women to have done to them. Here, Tamar acts – she does what she believes she must do in order to have a future in her community. Indeed, our Jewish people might not have survived were it not for this bold and unconventional woman. Her most notable descendant from this liaison is none other than King David. Christian theology, based on the Gospel of Matthew, sees Tamar as a direct ancestor of Jesus. Small narratives like Tamar’s are often overshadowed by the central narratives in Bereshit – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. Taking this story out and reading it on its own merits begins to break down the patriarchal past and gives us a more balanced view of our ancestry. While this story may be a difficult one to discuss with children, I hope we are able to recognize the power in Tamar’s story and see her incredible strength and resolve as a model for our own agency. Shabbat Shalom, and Ḥanukah Sameyaḥ Yvonne Asher

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