Our new Torah Portion – Vayeshev – opens Joseph’s saga, the last part of the book of Genesis. It starts with the word Vayeshev (hence the name of the Portion), usually translated as “settled”, or “dwelt”: “Now Jacob dwelt in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. In Hebrew, the contrast between Jacob and “his father” here is striking: Jacob is settled in the Land where his father (grandfather, actually) was just a stranger. The word יָשַב (yashav) means something sedentary, permanent, and stable: Jacob belongs to this Land!
In the second verse, we read about the “line of Jacob”. For a moment, it seems very logical: with Isaac dead, Jacob has to become the leading figure of the narrative, right? However, Jacob immediately fades into background, and the verse “this is the line of Jacob”, actually, opens the story of Joseph. We will definitely spend more time on this story soon, I am planning to write a series about Joseph – therefore, today we will focus on another story from this portion.
In Genesis 38, right after the sale of Joseph by his brothers, we read the story of Judah and Tamar. This story, in fact, breaks the flow of the Joseph narrative: instead of continuing to tell us about Joseph’s going down to Egypt, the Torah finds it necessary to interrupt itself with the story of Judah. I had been teaching this chapter for years, and every time I would ask my students: Can you please explain why the story of Judah was placed in the middle of Joseph saga? Why does it interrupt the story of Joseph? So far, I’ve never received an answer to these questions. Most readers think that this story is not connected at all to the sale of Joseph, and its position in the text seems random and strange. Is it really so? Is there some hidden message in this chapter and we simply miss it?
It certainly feels this way unless you understand Hebrew. Let me remind you the narrative. We read about Judah separating from his brothers, about his marriage and the birth of his three sons; about a wife that he is taking for his firstborn and then – the death of his sons.
6 Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. 10 What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also,
After the death of his sons, Judah sends Tamar away promising to give her as a husband his youngest son when he grows up. This promise has never been fulfilled. Then we read that a long time afterward”, Tamar was told: “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” What did Tamar do upon hearing this news?
Let us remember that Tamar was considered engaged to Judah’s youngest son Shelah, and that although “Shelah was grown, she was not given to him as a wife”. After the tragedy she had experienced (twice), it appeared that she would remain childless. However she decided that her father-in-law’s unfaithfulness would not stop her from having children and being a part of God’s family, so she pretended to be a prostitute in order to trap her father-in-law. She “took off her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place which was on the way to Timnah”.
Most translations read that she sat in an open place. Sometimes, the name of the place is transliterated: “she sat down at the entrance to Enaim.” – but it still means nothing in English. However, if we read the story of Judah and Tamar in Hebrew – we are struck by the name of the place: בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם! BePetach Eyanim literally means: “in the opening of the eyes”. These words are incredibly meaningful and really designate what this story is all about—it’s about the “opening of the eyes”. At this point, Judah’s eyes are still closed, but they will not remain so. That’s why Tamar, God’s unexpected and unlikely tool, is sitting at this place – because God wants to open the eyes of Judah’s heart.
When Judah saw Tamar, he didn’t recognize her and took her for a prostitute. She asked for his “signet and cord, and staff” as a pledge – and surprisingly, he gave her these items. We learn that through this trickery, Tamar becomes pregnant by Judah: “she conceived by him”. When, about three months later, Judah was told that “Tamar your daughter-in-law … is with child by harlotry,” Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!” Tamar was still considered engaged to Judah’s son, and as a head of the family, Judah still had judicial powers over her. His decision was both harsh and quick.
But then, something very significant happens. When Tamar brings out Judah’s personal items, she says: Discern, I pray thee – הַכֶּר־נָ֔א. In English, nothing strikes us as unusual in this sentence – however, in Hebrew one sees something that makes the connections between the two stories—the story of Joseph’s sale and the story of Judah and Tamar—absolutely evident. This expression, הַכֶּר־נָ֔א, – “discern, please” – appears only twice in the entire Torah, and can you guess where it is first used? Right in the previous chapter, when the brothers bring Joseph’s coat to Jacob and say: discern please whether it be thy son’s coat: הַכֶּר־נָ֗א – discern, please. Perhaps, Judah himself said these words – he was a leader of the brothers, and his voice was absolutely decisive in the whole story? Then, he was a deceiver, now he is the one deceived. Judah’s deception comes back to him in his very own words – and it is at this very moment, when Judah hears these words, that his heart is pierced by the recognition. Not only by the recognition of his own things, but much more deeply, by the recognition of his own guilt. Now his eyes are opened indeed, and he has a true change of heart. He confessed and repented. “And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I”.
This is a very important point: Judah is the very first Biblical figure who is ready to acknowledge his sin. Instead of saying: ‘she is the one to blame’, like Adam, Judah says: ‘I am the one to blame.’ She has been more righteous than I. Judah is the first person in the book of Genesis – and therefore the entire Bible – to confess his sin, take responsibility for it, and change his behavior: he repents. Moreover, he does not do it under external pressure: her social status was incomparable lower than his —a woman, a widow, and probably Canaanite. If his word were against her word, nobody would believe her. However, God wanted to open the eyes of his heart, and therefore we witness his profound inner transformation. Scripture makes sure we know that the Judah who later comes to Egypt and talks to Joseph, is not the same Judah who sold Joseph: this Judah has gone through a deep transformation—the eyes of his heart are open!
The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher wonderful courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) .