A major theme throughout the latter section of Sefer Bereishit is the emergence of Yehuda as the leader of Yaakov’s 12 sons, as confirmed by Yaakov in the beracha he gives at the end of his life. In fact, as David Schwartz noted in his article in Volume 29 of Hakirah, this episode is the fulcrum of the entire narrative of the first two books for the Torah. How did Yehuda, amongst all the brothers, learn of the dedication and sacrifice required for this position of greatness? Wasn’t Yaakov father to all of them; Rachel and Leah their mothers?
Chapter 38 of Bereishit is the source of how Yehuda’s name becomes perpetuated throughout the generations. Inauspiciously, in the first pasuk, Yehuda descends from the status of brothers and attaches himself to a well-known, named non-Jew, Hirah. As a result, Yehuda first treats marital relationships as impersonal business transactions. He marries someone—but we never find out her name. Her only notable trait is that her father is a merchant—someone who is an expert at buying and selling stuff. After quickly having three sons, she apparently becomes infertile (bicziv), at which point, she disappears from the story until we need to know that she is dead. What type of marriage is this?
Yehuda’s sons evidently pick up on this attitude. After Yehuda chooses Tamar as a wife for his eldest son, she remains fully veiled in her father’s house (Sotah 10b), without a face or voice. Er, the new husband, proceeds to treat her solely as an object of pleasure (Yevamot 34b), not even as a potential mother. This is too much evil for God to take, and as a result, God proceeds to kill Er. Er’s brother, Onan, who is specifically told to marry Tamar to fulfill the yibum requirement to carry on his brother’s name through children, was evidently unaware of his brother’s actions—or unaware that these actions are offensive to God—and proceeds to act just as his brother did, resulting in the same deadly consequence. Afterwards, Yehuda, believing that Tamar was the cause of the brothers’ deaths, then refuses to give the third son as husband to Tamar in order to save his life, leaving Tamar as the original agunah, a woman unable to remarry due to the actions of men. She seems consigned to be a permanent object, sitting (vateishev) in her father’s house forever.
How does Tamar react to her predicament? Action. Upon hearing that Yehuda is coming to her area, she quickly executes a plan to reunite with Yehuda’s family. The Torah indicates her alacrity by using four verbs—vatasar, vatechas, vatitalaf, vateishev—in the first eight words of verse 14 to describe her change in dress and location. After using her wits to extract valuable, personally identifiable objects from Yehuda, she then quickly returns to her previous state—again, four verbs in the eight words of verse 19—vatakam, vateileich, vatasar, vatilbash—precisely reversing the action in verse 14. Her movements are exactly what were necessary to complete her task; no more, no less.
When Tamar’s pregnancy becomes known and Yehuda quickly exercises his right as prince or paterfamilias to execute a presumed adulterer, Tamar then allows herself to be an object, being dragged (mutzait) to the execution chamber. Only at the last minute, and only indirectly, she reveals Yehuda’s personal objects to him to rescue herself. The Talmud sees Tamar’s choice to not embarrass Yehuda, even at the risk of her own life, as the paradigm for proper behavior for all Jews in all times. In the end, Tamar becomes the mother to Yehuda’s progeny and subsequently to the kingship of Yisrael through David.
Tamar begins her story as an object, but then demonstrates her God-given free will to act decisively when necessary—or remain inactive when wise. Learning from Tamar, when Yaakov needs to send his beloved Binyamin to Mitzrayim to get needed food—while Reuven treats his sons as objects to be killed if Binyamin is captured or killed—Yehuda emphasizes quick action. Verse 43:8 has three straight verbs—v’nakuma, v’neileichah, v’nichyeh, let’s get up and go in order to live. He then offers his personal responsibility (hatati lach), the hallmark of free will, if Binyamin does not return safely.
From Tamar, Yehuda learned that leaders must think of themselves and others not as objects to be used and abused, but as holy creatures created in the image of God, with the capacity to act, the capacity to restrain one’s actions and the capacity to decide which is the most appropriate course for the moment. David, Yehuda’s descendant, recognizes the need for precise action when, in his lament over the death of Shaul, says that the sons of Yehuda must learn the keshet, or bow. Just like a bow and arrow must be aimed carefully to inflict its damage quickly and precisely, so must a leader plan carefully, but then act swiftly to achieve his mission, while being concerned for any collateral damage.
May we all learn from the actions of Tamar and treat our fellow humans as created in the image of God.
Hesh Luber lives in Teaneck with his wife and children.