By Shlomo Riskin
This week’s portion of Vayeshev introduces us to Joseph, the beloved first-born son of Rachel and Jacob, whose personality will dominate the last five portions of Genesis. Yet strangely, Ch. 38 disrupts the Joseph narrative with an aside about his brother Judah. What does it teach us?
The birthright demands familial responsibility; a commitment to preserving the covenantal charge of transmitting compassionate righteousness and moral justice to the next generations. When Jacob’s sons – including Judah – sell their brother Joseph, the heir apparent, into Egyptian slavery, they are reneging on their primary responsibility to maintain family unity. Judah, clearly the leader, bears the major blame for the sin against their father and their mission. In suggesting Joseph’s sale, Judah has torn the family asunder.
Ch. 38 opens by recording an additional blemish on Judah’s character as he “assimilates” by marrying a Canaanite woman – repeating the transgression of his uncle Esau. Judah’s sins are further compounded when, after the death of his two elder sons, he refuses to allow his youngest, Shelah, to marry their widow Tamar. According to the laws of yibum (levirate marriage), Judah should have encouraged Shelah to marry Tamar in order to provide heirs for the childless deceased; Judah, however, refuses to permit the marriage, rendering all his sons – and ultimately himself – without offspring. Just as his sale of Joseph robbed Jacob of progeny from his favored son, now Judah has robbed Jacob of descendants from himself as well.
Tamar, however, is determined to continue the line. She disguises herself with the shawl of a prostitute (a cloak reminiscent of Jacob’s costume in deceiving his father Isaac, and Joseph’s coat of many colors), hides her face with a veil, and agrees to sell herself to Judah in exchange for a goat (reminiscent of the goat’s blood in which the brothers soaked Joseph’s coat before giving it to their father to identify). As Judah does not have a goat with him, Tamar extracts collateral; she keeps his signet ring, his outer garb, and his staff of leadership – the three external symbols of Judah’s identity. When Judah is told three months later that his daughter-in-law is pregnant, he sentences her to death. But Tamar responds by sending Judah his ring, wrap and staff, telling him to “recognize” his possessions and thereby admit paternity. Judah rises to the challenge: declaring publicly that Tamar is correct, admitting his error in not allowing her to marry Shelah, and accepting fatherhood of the twins in her womb.
The name of the crossroads where Judah and Tamar’s rendezvous took place is Petah Enayim, literally “opening of the eyes.” Perhaps the name symbolizes the clarity that resulted from the encounter. Tamar has taught Judah to own up to his mistakes and fulfill his familial responsibilities; he can now return to Jacob’s family as a son and father, loyal to his past and committed to his destiny.
This interlude about Judah is intimately linked to the story of Joseph. The literary device connecting the two chapters is the repetition of the two Hebrew words haker na (“Recognize now”). The words which the brothers used when they brought Joseph’s bloody coat to their father Jacob for identification (37:32) are the same words that Tamar uses when she forces Judah to recognize the pledges he gave her in lieu of money (38:25). With these words, Tamar teaches Judah to see through disguises. This skill will prove useful to him in later life, when Joseph stands before him dressed in the clothes of the Egyptian grand vizier. According to some commentators, Judah saw through Joseph’s uniform and because he was able to recognize his brother, he was able to speak passionately and reunite the family, thereby atoning for his earlier sins. Judah redeems himself, proving himself truly worthy of the Abrahamic legacy of familial leadership (the bechora). This search for a worthy leader for our people is the underlying theme of the Book of Genesis from the election of Abraham to the death of Jacob.
History repeats itself when the twins born to Judah and Tamar enter the world with the younger (Perez) overtaking the elder (Zerah) – much in the way Jacob overtook Esau by grasping at his heel. The Book of Ruth teaches us that the younger son Perez is destined to be the forefather of King David, progenitor of the Messiah.
Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.