My D’var Torah on Vayeyshev, Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta, November 30, 2018:
Plunked into the middle of the story of Joseph, we have one of the strangest episodes in the Jewish Bible, and one which would surely be censored in an expurgated edition. Joseph’s brothers have sold him down the river, and Jacob is in mourning because they’ve showed him Joseph’s coat soaked in a baby goat’s blood.
Suddenly we are out of the life of Joseph and in the life of his elder brother Judah—Yehuda—who ultimately would give his name to our religion and our people. Judah takes a Canaanite wife and has three sons with her.
When the first one, Er, grows up, Judah makes a shidduch for him with Tamar. But Er displeases God and dies childless, so—following Torah law—Judah calls on his second son, Onan, to do his duty and father children with Tamar.
But Onan spoils his seed on the ground, a slap in the face to his brother, father, and God, so he dies too—not as some think because of the trivial sin of self-love, but because he refuses God’s command to have children with his brother’s widow.
Judah has one son left, not yet grown, but he’s thinking, This gal is bad luck—sort of a Black Widow theory—and he lies to Tamar, saying Wait for the boy to grow up and you’ll get him. But he does grow up and she doesn’t get him.
Meanwhile Judah too is widowed, and Tamar figures she can’t wait forever.
She disguises herself as a k’deysha—you’ll recognize the root of kadosh, Kaddish, and Kidush, but in this case it means a priestess who gives herself to men as part of the Canaanite religion. Tamar offers to give herself to Judah for a price.
It can’t be a coincidence that all this happens at the gate of Enaim—which except for a missing yud is the word for eyes. His eyes stray after her and yet are blind to who she is.
He offers to send her a baby goat—later. But she sensibly demands collateral, so he gives her his seal and staff. He sends the baby goat but no one can find the k’deysha. Soon enough, Tamar turns up pregnant, and for this sin of fornication—perhaps she did it by herself?—he orders her to be burned.
She pulls out his own seal and staff and saves herself. It seem that Judah’s line will continue, but not through any of his sons.
Judah says, Tzadka mimeni—she is more righteous than I, because I withheld my son from her.
Tamar gives birth to twins, one of whom—he is and isn’t born first—becomes the ancestor of David and so of the Moshiach. David for his part accomplishes this through adultery with Batsheva. He is punished with the ultimate collapse of the kingdom, but also rewarded with Solomon.
It’s hard not to think of the hundreds of powerful men who in the last couple of years have been brought low because they abused their power over women. How many of them have said Tzadka mimeni—she is more righteous than I? How many, like David, put on sackcloth and ashes when they were finally called out?
Bible times were different of course, and there was no #MeToo movement. But the best men at least knew when to apologize and when to stop.