The hidden chapter of Tamar and Judah

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By Saul Golubcow
Special to WJW

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


Chapter 38 of Parshat Vayeshev, lodged between segments of the Joseph story, is rarely sermonized or discussed. That is unfortunate, because as we read its narrative, we might consider if we recognize emotional aspects of our own lives.

Judah, the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, leaves his family, separating himself from an unhappy mother and a father devastated by the apparent loss of his favorite child (Joseph) in which Judah is complicit. But he also carries examples of righteousness exemplified by his forbearers.

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Similarly, we might inquire, in our comings and goings, what emotional baggage weighs us down? Which items sustain us? Perhaps how well we balance our load is key to how well we travel.

Judah’s eldest son, Er, marries Tamar. But Er is “wicked in the eyes of God,” and God slays him with no explanation as to Er’s wickedness. Have we come across inexplicable evil in the world? How do we recognize it and react? Where is God in our calculus? Where is mankind?


“Yibum,” an ancient commandment, states when a married man dies childless, the man’s brother must marry the widow. Any son of this union becomes the spiritual son of the
deceased. If the brother refuses, he is excused if he undergoes a public shaming. Thus, Judah orders Onan, his second son, to marry Tamar. Onan “spills his seed” because he does not want his child to have his brother’s name. Enraged, God slays Onan. These events may seem archaic and savage, but how do we engage an obligation (mitzvah) that makes us uncomfortable? Onan could have been excused if he had accepted public shaming. Aren’t there times we wish to flee responsibility in anger or repudiation as opposed to seeking explanations or alternatives?

Judah won’t command his youngest son, Shailah, to perform Yibum, fearing that Tamar is a widow maker. He instructs Tamar to return to her family home and wait until Shailah is older. But Judah is being disingenuous.

After Judah’s wife dies, he sets out to do some business. Determined to obtain justice, Tamar learns that Judah will be passing through the town gate, veils herself and awaits Judah’s arrival. Thinking Tamar a harlot, Judah asks, “Are you available?” Tamar agrees to a kid goat as payment and demands security. Judah gives her his signet, cord and staff. The act is consummated, and Tamar impregnated.

Again, we might ask how far we can go in pursuing justice when we feel highly aggrieved. Do our negative emotions or momentary susceptibilities interfere with distinctions of right and wrong?

Judah directs a friend to deliver the kid and redeem his pledge. Since his friend seeks a harlot, he is unable to find Tamar and returns. Judah’s reaction is, “let’s not keep searching since we have a reputation to maintain.” Does our reputation ever depend on deceptive appearances, on power, position or financial standing? Shouldn’t it be linked to meeting one’s obligations and redressing injustices and personal failings?

The townsfolk discover that Tamar is pregnant, and Judah orders her to be burnt as a harlot. Tamar sends the pledge objects to Judah and tells him she is pregnant by the man who owns these items. Tamar is saying, do you recognize who you are? Do you recognize your duty? Judah must choose between condemning Tamar to death or publicly admitting his indiscretion. Judah chooses to acknowledge his pledge and his culpability. The chapter ends with Tamar giving birth to twins.

Have we experienced journeys similar to Judah’s in which we stumbled, learned, righted ourselves and grown, one chapter of our lives at a time?

Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.

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