This Week’s Torah Reading “Vayeishev” (Genesis 37:1 – 40:23) Teaches Us That It Is Never Too Late To Take Our Destinies Into Our Own Hands Even When Life Deals Us An Unfair Hand

The parallel stories of Joseph to whom the Blessing is freely given and of Tamar who must risk her life to wrestle it back bracket the human condition

In Aert de Gelder’s 17th century portrayal, Judah looks positively homicidal having learned of Tamar’s trickery
Copyright: Aert de Gelder [Public domain]

It must have been tough to be around Joseph. He was the prototypical teacher’s pet, the original favorite son. Not only was he beloved by Jacob for being his youngest son and the last son of his first love Rachel, he was also bestowed by the Almighty himself with incredible gifts that no mere mortal ever gets. In all of Torah, there are only two such characters, people with whom God himself seemed to have been enamoured, upon whom He bestowed every talent and to whom he could forgive almost any sin: Joseph and David.

There are striking similarities between these two; they are better than everyone else and they make no effort to hide it. In fact, they make a point of telling everyone just how much superior to them they are. One wonders if true geniuses like Mozart, Newton, or Einstein might have been like that. It must be a burden to know everything way ahead of everyone else, to operate on a higher plane.

The story of Joseph, his jealous brothers, and his striped coat is interesting in that at the very end we get a glimpse of the real deal, which is very different and much more human and humane than it is often thought to be. Joseph’s brothers go from an impulsive “let’s kill the bastard”, to let’s throw him in this dry well, to let’s sell him into slavery, but when they return to the well to fish him out, he is nowhere to be found because he was already retrieved and sold into slavery by some other guys.

Reuben, the eldest son and presumably the responsible adult in the bunch goes to retrieve Joseph, ostensibly in order to sell him into slavery, but his reaction when he does not find him tells us something else. It tells us that he went along with his brothers as a lark, as a way to allow them to let off steam and to teach his upstart youngest brother a valuable lesson. Reuben’s devastation when he does not find Joseph is not the reaction of rich guy who lost an opportunity to make a few extra shekels; it is the reaction of an eldest brother who is fully responsible for the likely death of the youngest. Had Joseph not been taken by the Midianites, had Reuben found him, there is no way, we are made to feel, that Joseph would have been sold into Egyptian slavery and our history would have been quite different.

It is well worth reading the denouement of Joseph’s tenure in the hole in Torah’s own words (Genesis 37:28-30. My translation after Chabad):

Midianite men, merchants, passed by, lifted Joseph from the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites who were on their way to Egypt for twenty silver pieces. Reuben returned to the pit and behold: Joseph was not in it. So he rent his garments and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone! And I, where will I go?”

The narrative in this wonderful section of the Torah then splits in two, so now we have not one, but two different plot lines, one taking place in Egypt, the other in Canaan. This duality of locations foreshadows much of early Jewish history. Not only through their forthcoming long sojourn in Egypt followed by the miraculous Exodus, but throughout the First Temple period, the Children of Israel had close cultural, military, and economic ties with the Kingdom of Egypt as it was beginning its long march towards its eventual exit from the world stage.

The twin narratives are far from random not only in their choice of locales, but also in the way they highlight the two modalities of worldly success. Yes, the Torah teaches us, one can be successful by being God’s beloved, by having Him in your corner through good times and bad, by having Him follow you around with his Tabernacle of Peace. This is Joseph’s fate. Even as a slave, he immediately climbs to the top. Even when he experiences the consequences of scorning a woman, his owner’s wife, in an incident that had surely inspired the 17th century English playwright William Congreve to pen the lines, “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d”, even in the jailpit, Joseph is always just fine because God is with him.

But perhaps you aren’t Joseph or David, beloved of God. Perhaps you are a young girl who marries into a rich family only to have her husband die before he could give you that all important male child, an heir to the family’s blessing. Perhaps your husband’s younger brother is so selfish as to deny you his semen, so that his brother’s genes and name could live through him. And then you are banished back to your father’s house in your black widow’s cloak to wait until the youngest son reaches puberty.

Just like with Joseph and perhaps more so, your misfortunes are not of your own doing. It is not your fault that your husband passed away or that one of his brothers, the rather notorious Onan, was too selfish to do his duty to the family. All you know is that rather than being a young wife in a successful household, you now have to go back to your father’s house having failed to fulfil your obligation of bringing honor to the family. You are now a burden, another mouth to feed and you know something else as well. That promise that was made to you, the promise to marry you to the youngest brother? Well, that will never happen. You know that Judah, your father in law, blames you for the death of his first-born and the lousy character of the second, that his sees you as the bearer of a curse, as a woman who is the opposite of blessed and that he wants you nowhere near him or his family.

If you are Tamar, you find yourself in what still must have been her teenage year, doomed to wear black for the rest of your life, to never marry, never have children or grandchildren, never again feel a man’s touch. If Joseph is the Blessing incarnate, you are his direct opposite. Neither you nor him have done anything to deserve your fates, yet here you are. Most people would acquiesce, choose the safe path, try to make themselves useful and find small joys in living out the rest of their days without reward, but also without risk, without responsibility. Most, but not Tamar. Not the woman from whom came the House of David. She chooses a different path.

Hiding her face and sitting at a crossroads near what must have been an altar to one Canaanite god or another, likely the god in charge of fertility, she substantially advertises herself as a ritual prostitute, a vessel through which men can experience the act of fertility, for a price, of course. We let the Torah speak (Genesis 13-30, my translation after Chabad):

It was told to Tamar, “Behold, your father in law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face, and sat down at the crossroads that were on the way to Timnah, for she saw that Shelah (Judah’s youngest son who was promised to her) had grown up, but as for her she was not given to him for a wife. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute because she covered her face. So he turned toward her and he said, “Get ready now, I will come to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter in law. And she said, “What will you give me that you should come to me?” “I will send a you kid from the herd,” he replied and she said, “Only if you give me some collateral until you send it”. So he said, “What is the collateral that I should give you?” And she said, “Your signet ring, your fringed cloak, and the staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and he came to her, and she conceived from him.

Then she arose and she left taking off her veil and donning her widow’s garb. Judah sent the kid by the hand of his Adullamite friend to to collect the collateral from the woman’s hand, but he did not find her. So he asked the people of the place, saying, “Where is the ritual prostitute who was at the crossroads on the way?” and they said, “No prostitute was here.” Then he returned to Judah, and he said, “I have not found her, and the people of the place also said, “No prostitute was here.” So Judah said, “Go back there, lest we become a laughingstock. Tell the people: “Behold, my master sent this kid, but I did not find her”.

Now it came about after nearly three months that it was told to Judah, “Your daughter in law Tamar has prostituted herself and is now pregnant.” So Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” She was taken out and she sent to her father in law saying, “From the man to whom these belong I am pregnant. Please recognize whose signet ring, fringed cloak, and staff these are.” Judah recognized them and he said, “She is right, this is my fault because I did not give her to my son Shelah.” But he never touched her again.

It came about at the time she was giving birth, that behold, there were twins in her womb and one of the babies stretched out his hand., so the midwife took it and bound a crimson thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” As the baby was drawing back his hand, behold, his brother emerged, and Tamar said, “With what strength have you strengthened yourself?” And he (Judah) named him Peretz (one who breaks through). Afterwards his brother emerged, the one upon whose hand was the crimson thread and Judah named him Zerah (one who shines).

Tamar’s story is tragic precisely because, being unblessed and choosing to take the Blessing by force, almost against the will of the Almighty, she pays a high price for her choice. She becomes the forgotten matriarch, a matriarch from whose womb the glory that is David eventually bursts onto world stage, but one who is ever unloved, unwanted, rejected. Unlike the other matriarchs, Sarah, Rebeccah, Leah, and Rachel, she is never mourned. No one, we can deduce, sheds a tear when she lives out the rest of her days alone and when she finally dies. She tricks Judah and one ups him for which he gives her the reward of accepting the sons she gave him as his own, but he never accepts her.

There is not much that is uplifting in Tamar’s story; there is no new-age “if you can dream it you can be it” pablum. What there is, is reality. If your circumstances are not to your liking, you may be able to change them, but only by taking enormous risks and even if you succeed, you may never live to see the fruits of your labors. Tamar gambled with her life to wrestle back the Blessing that was rightfully hers and her gamble paid off, but not without a heavy personal price.

Even as she is about to exit the narrative of the Blessing and hand it over to her progeny, Tamar proves that she is worthy of it when her twins literally fight for primogeniture, for the blessing, inside her. In an amniotic retelling of the story of their grandfather Jacob and his elder brother Esau, Zerah, the new Esau, manages to poke his hand out of the womb first and gets noticed, but to no avail. Peretz, the one who breaks through, pulls him back to emerge first and steal Zerah’s birthright. Tamar may not have been a member of Abraham’s clan like the other matriarchs, but with her ingenuity, tenaciousness, and utter unwillingness to give up she proved herself worthy of the Blessing bestowed upon him by the Lord. Tamar shows us that whining is a fool’s errand, that God often seems unfair because His motives are not ours to discern, but that even the least of us can buck His will, if only we are willing to pay the price.

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