Commentary for Vayeishev

22 Nov

This week’s parshah and the next two form the story of Joseph. While the lives of most of the other major characters in the Torah appear as a series of smaller, separate stories that can be read mostly independent of each other, Joseph’s story is a single long narrative that must be read from start to finish. The only interruption to this story is Genesis 38, which tells the story of Judah and Tamar.

Judah, Jacob’s fourth oldest son, had three sons of his own. The oldest son, Er, was married to a woman named Tamar. Er did something that displeased God, so God struck him down before head had a chance to have children of his own. This left him with no heirs, and so to both prevent Er’s property from being appropriated by Tamar’s family and to make sure that Er would have a lasting legacy, Judah then wed his second son, Onan, to Tamar, for the purposes of producing a child, who would be Er’s heir. The child would be considered to be Er’s son according to both the common laws of the land and Jewish law. For Onan, this meant that he would no longer be Judah’s principal heir, so he prevented the conception. God was displeased by Onan’s greediness and struck him down too.
Having already lost two sons shortly after they married Tamar, Judah did not want to lose his last son, so he did not marry his last son off to Tamar, and instead he ignored the issue completely. Tamar, realizing the halachic obligation to ensure that her late husbands have heirs, and seeing Judah’s refusal to marry his youngest son to her, takes matters into her own hands. She hears that Judah is coming to town, so she disguises herself as a harlot and convinces him to sleep with her. Judah does not have any money to pay her with, so he leaves her with his seal and cord and staff as a pledge until he can return with payment. When he returns, the “harlot” he slept with is nowhere to be found, and the people of the town tell him that there has never been a harlot there.
A few months later, Tamar’s pregnancy starts to show, and, being unmarried, the people of the town decry her as a harlot. Hearing this, Judah comes to town and when he confronts Tamar publicly, she tells him “’I am with child by the man to whom these belong.’ And she added ‘examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?’ (Gen 38:26)”
Recognizing his own seal, Judah admits his mistake, saying that he put his own desire to not lose his son, whom he mistakenly believe would die as the others had, before both the religious obligation to ensure that his sons had heirs and the financial good of his family. This ability to sacrifice one’s own needs for the good of the family and understanding of key cultural values are necessary qualities for leadership.
Judah’s older brothers, Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, all fail at doing this (Reuven when he shows no concern for anyone but himself with his only reaction to Joseph’s disappearance is to wonder how their father will punish him for not keeping Joseph safe, and Shimon and Levi and Levi when they turn their desire for justice for their sister’s rape into vengeance and kill not only the perpetrator but all of his subjects as well, and act which brings the other peoples of the region close to declaring war on their family). It is because of these failings of his brothers and this own success if his that Judah’s tribe will merit becoming the head of the Jewish people through the Davidic dynasty.

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