Opening our eyes to step forward

Judah’s experience reminds us that there are no easy transformations.

‘WHEN JUDAH hears Tamar is pregnant, he immediately condemns her to death. There is no compassion’: ‘Tamar and Judah,’ Aert de Gelder, 1667. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘WHEN JUDAH hears Tamar is pregnant, he immediately condemns her to death. There is no compassion’: ‘Tamar and Judah,’ Aert de Gelder, 1667.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is possibly the most dramatic narrative climax that appears in the Bible. It is a story that has been building up over several chapters with parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, seduction, near-death experiences, near-redemptive moments and dream sequences. The hero Joseph goes from rags to riches to rags, and finally finds himself second-in-command to Pharaoh. The brothers who have been separated for 22 years are now reunited, but this fact is known only to the reader and to Joseph, who manipulates the playing field for several long chapters. The tension builds as Benjamin is brought down to Egypt and all is almost lost when he stands accused of the terrible crime of stealing Pharaoh’s goblet. We wait with bated breath to see what will happen. And then Judah steps forward.
It is hard to read this story without thinking about Judah’s growth trajectory in the previous stories. At the beginning of the Joseph stories, he seems to be the leader of the pack of brothers, encouraging them to sell Joseph only to avoid culpability in spilling blood but without the compassion of Reuben, who genuinely wants to save his brother. In the aftermath of that incident, Judah separates from his family, choosing to form a strong friendship instead with Hirah, the Adullamite.
He marries a Canaanite woman and has three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. The first two names of his sons signify awakening and strength. Judah is hoping to rebuild himself through his sons. The third son, Shelah, however, is given a more ambiguous name, and Judah is in Kezib – a word that suggests bitter disappointment – when he is born. His disengagement has not led to the redemption he sought when he left his family unit and sought to put the past behind him.
Judah chooses a wife for his oldest son, Er. Tamar’s name foretells ripeness, but she needs a worthy partner. When God smites first Er for his wickedness and Onan for wasting his seed to avoid impregnating Tamar, the ripeness of Tamar is threatened. Judah, in the aftermath of the double loss of progeny, is blinded by his mourning. Instead of recognizing his sons’ wickedness and, perhaps, his own accountability in separating them from his tribe, he blames Tamar and sends her, a, grown woman, back to her father’s house, even though her father is no longer her guardian. Judah, and only Judah, will determine her future. The youngest son, Shelah, whose name literally means “hers,” is to be protected from her, so that he can guarantee the life of his remaining offspring. Ironically, just as he has condemned Tamar to barrenness, he has condemned Shelah to the same fate, since he makes no effort to find him a wife and free Tamar from the levirate bond. Judah’s name is in danger of disappearing.
Years pass. Judah’s wife dies. Stagnation is setting in for Tamar and for Judah. And then Tamar acts. Hearing that her father-in-law is going to shear the sheep, she goes to sit at the entrance to Enaim, literally the opening of eyes. Tamar’s eyes are wide open and so are the reader’s, but Judah’s eyes are closed to the reality he has constructed. Tamar removes her widow’s clothing and puts on the garb of a prostitute, but here she does something bizarre – she veils herself. Prostitutes in the ancient Near East did not veil themselves. They were meant to be identified. Only married women were veiled as a sign of belonging to their husbands. If Judah would open his eyes, he would see something wrong with the encounter; a veiled prostitute is unacceptable in his society. However, Judah does not try to recognize her. When she begins to negotiate her price, she immediately chooses the three things that represent his identity. And Judah willingly hands them over.
Tamar becomes pregnant. In the Book of Genesis, it is clear that God controls the opening and closing of wombs, so we recognize God’s hand in Tamar’s fertility. When Judah hears Tamar is pregnant, he condemns her to death. There is no compassion. He seems to be the same Judah who was willing to sell his brother into slavery. Not even the loss of two sons and a wife has changed him. He is the cruel head of the tribe. His daughter-in-law has besmirched his family’s honor. Tamar is not quite finished with her story, however. As she is being taken out for execution, she sends Judah back his identity, with a message: these belong to the man who impregnated her. Confronted with these signs, Judah finally opens his eyes and becomes the man he is capable of becoming. He credits Tamar with true righteousness and acknowledges the twin sons she will soon bear to him. She has given him back his sense of self.
In last week’s portion, we understand that Judah has returned to the family. He goes down to Egypt with his brothers in search of food. He negotiates with his father in order to bring down Benjamin. It is he who steps forward to plead for the salvation of all of the brothers, offering his whole self to Joseph in exchange. The final line in his impassioned speech shows how deeply entrenched he has become in his family: “For how can I go back to my father if the lad is not with me?” His home is once again beside his father.
It is yet another remarkable story in which the modern reader marvels at the deeply insightful awareness of human nature that can be found in the text. Judah’s experience reminds us that there are no easy transformations. Only after the hard work of opening our eyes, can we begin to grow and transform. Only then can we begin to change. Only then can we step forward.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.