Breaking news: He admitted he was wrong


This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1–40:23.

It reads like a story from the news: A powerful man hypocritically abuses his authority in matters of sex. But then the story of Judah and Tamar in this week’s Torah reading takes a turn that we don’t often see in the news. And in this story, that makes all the difference.

It starts with Judah and his three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. The eldest son, Er, married a woman named Tamar. But then Er died. Judah asked his second son, Onan, to marry Tamar and take care of her, but then Onan died.

By this point, Judah began to think that Tamar was just bad luck. Rather than doing his part to see that his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar was taken care of, Judah sent her to live with her father, putting her off with a vague promise to help her later. Judah left Tamar in economic jeopardy.

Time passed, and Judah didn’t do anything to help Tamar. Some time after Judah’s wife had died, he went on a road trip to celebrate the sheep-shearing with his buddy Hirah. Along the way, he stopped for an encounter with a woman whom he thought was a prostitute, but who was actually Tamar in disguise.

Judah didn’t have any money on him, so he gave her his signet seal and cord — the equivalent of his driver’s license and credit cards — so that he could spend time with her. Then they went their
separate ways.

Three months later, Tamar was pregnant and was accused of sexual impropriety. Using his authority as head of the family enterprise, Judah ordered her punished. The story brims with dramatic irony: A powerful man hypocritically threatens to punish a woman for a sexual transgression of which he himself is guilty.

But before his people could carry out the punishment, Tamar sent word to Judah along with his signet seal and cord, saying: “The man to whom these belong made me pregnant.”

Here’s where the story differs from today’s news: Judah admitted that he was wrong. “She is more in the right than I,” Judah said, admitting as well that he had failed to take care of her as he had promised.

The Torah teaches that the story has a happy ending. Tamar’s son went on to become the great-grandfather of King David, Israel’s most celebrated hero.

And the Talmud teaches that because Judah admitted that he had done wrong, he merited life in the World-to-Come. As well, the Talmud teaches that when Judah’s brother Reuben saw that Judah had admitted his wrongdoing, Reuben admitted the wrong that he had done as well. And the Talmud teaches that Reuben, too, merited life in the World-to-Come because he admitted that he had
been wrong.

None of that excused the wrongs that Judah or Reuben had done. But it does teach how one should conduct oneself if one finds that one did do something wrong.

Too often, it seems, when a person accuses a powerful man of wrongdoing, even when it seems that the accuser has good reason to do so, the powerful man doubles down and attacks his accuser. Jewish tradition teaches that there’s another way. Rather, the way to life is to admit it when one is wrong and try to heal the harm.

Questions for discussion

  • Are there things that are more important than proving that one is right?
  • Are there promises that we have made on which we have failed to follow through?
  • Are there places in our own lives where we can we work to heal any harm that we have done?

Bill Dauster, a Senate, White House and campaign staffer from 1986 to 2017, has written Wikipedia articles on the 54 Torah portions.

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