By Professor Stephen Schecter
So much has happened in such a short space of text. After the terrible story of Dinah we learn that Rachel died on Jacob’s way home, giving birth to his youngest son. His eldest then went and slept with Jacob’s own concubine. No sooner had Jacob made his way home than Isaac his father died and Esau came to help him bury him, then left him to dwell in the land of his forefathers. Trouble, however, continued to haunt this family. Joseph, sent on a mission to find his brothers, wound up being sold by them to some Midianite traders who brought him down to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. The brothers, in the meantime, took the multi-colored coat which Jacob had given Joseph, dipped it in goat blood and brought it to their father, who at once jumped to the conclusion that his favorite son had died and sunk into inconsolable grief. Understandably, the reader needs a bit of relief from such high maintenance family drama, and the author provides it in the sidebar of a story of Judah and Tamar. But like all sidebar stories, it has its role to play in the larger saga.
Judah went down from his brethren, the story starts. Considering that he played a crucial role in convincing his brothers to sell Joseph rather than kill him, only to find out later that Reuven had intended to rescue him, Judah must have had enough of his brothers. So he went to seek consolation in a woman’s arms. Consolation and forgetting. He had a friend among his Canaanite neighbors, an Adullamite by the name of Hirah, who hooked him up with a woman who was the daughter of Shua. Judah’s consolation turned out to be more serious than he first thought, for Shua’s daughter bore him three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Family duties took over his life, which enabled Judah to keep his distance from his brothers. But family life in this family was never simple, and trouble soon came knocking at Judah’s door, as it had at his father’s and his father’s father’s door before him, not to mention the turbulent domestic front of the very first patriarch of the Hebrews.
Judah’s eldest son came of age and Judah felt obliged to find him a wife by the name of Tamar. But Er, we are told, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord slew him. One wonders what Er must have done to merit a death sentence, and all the more so given the various heinous acts of his uncles about which we have just finished reading. One can only wonder, though the last time the Torah spoke of such wickedness it led to a flood. And so the reader, like Jacob when told by Joseph of his dreams of grandeur, will bear it in mind for another day. Er having died, Judah then gives his daughter-in-law Tamar his second son, Onan, that he may carry out his late brother’s marital duty and give Er’s wife a son who will bear his name. But Onan did not like the idea of having his seed bear his brother’s name and pulled out before coitus could lead to conception. This too was evil in the sight of the Lord, the Torah tells us, and Onan met a fate similar to that of his brother. This left only Judah’s third son, Shelah, to carry out his levirate duty and give Tamar a child who would carry on Er’s name. But Judah balked at the idea of losing his third son as well. Tamar, he felt, brought with her the kiss of death. Let us wait, he therefore told his daughter-in-law, until he shall be of an age to handle his sexuality properly. Otherwise, he too shall commit some injudicious act and perish like his brothers. So Tamar returned to her father’s house to wait until Shelah came of age.
Time passed. Judah forgot his promise to Tamar. More time passed. Shua’s daughter, Judah’s wife, died and Judah had no one to remind him to fulfill his obligation to Tamar and give her his remaining son as a husband. Judah mourned his wife, mourned her enough to be comforted for his loss, it seems, for the Torah tells us that after Judah was comforted he went up to Timnah with his friend Hirah to shear his sheep. When Tamar was told that Judah had gone to Timnah to shear his sheep, she doffed her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and went to sit by the side of the road on the way to Timnah. When Judah passed by and saw her he decided he needed more comfort, and asked her to grant him sexual favors. She asked him what he would give her in exchange. He told her a kid from the goats in his flocks. And the reader thinks: more goats, which seem to accompany this family’s dealings from one generation to the next, announcing trouble. But you have no goats with you, Tamar remarks. They are up in Timnah, the reader understands Judah to answer, whither I am going; I will soon send you payment. In the meantime, what will you give as a pledge? Tamar asks. What would you have me give? Judah answers. Your signet and cord and staff, Tamar replies. Judah readily consents, gives her the pledge requested, takes her and enters her and Tamar finally conceives, not by the son promised to her but by the father who promised and forgot his promise.
After their sexual congress Tamar leaves, doffs her veil and dons again her widow’s garments. In the meantime, Judah, having reached Timnah, sent the kid from the goats as promised with his friend Hirah. But when Hirah goes to the place where Judah had met Tamar, a place called Eynayim, he could not find her. And when he asks the men of the place where the harlot was who sat by the wayside, he was told there was no harlot there, had never been any. Hirah returns with the pledge and the news that no harlot had ever been there. Judah, feeling bad that he could not fulfill his pledge, tells his friend not to make any further inquiries, lest he be put to even further shame for inquiring about a harlot with whom he slept but no one saw.
The reader, of course, thinks otherwise. Thinks the real shame is that he did not fulfill his original pledge to Tamar, the one wherein he promised to give her his son Shelah when he comes of age. Thinks the even greater shame, and more than shame, is that he did not recognize his daughter-in-law even though he slept with her. Judah may claim she was veiled, just as his father may have claimed when he did not recognize Leah the night Laban sent her to him instead of Rachel. And so Isaac may also have claimed about Jacob when he came to him veiled in his brother’s garments. But the reader remains suspicious about all this veiled defense. Jacob, after all, was so close to Isaac that Isaac smelled him and kissed him and touched him. No way, the reader thinks, could the father have not known it was Jacob who stood before him in search of the blessing. Just as no way could Jacob have not known Leah was not Rachel when he took her and entered her the night of his wedding. How close did he have to be to discern that his bride was not the woman whose every step he had followed for seven years? Likewise, how could Judah not have recognized Tamar for the daughter-in-law she was, unless, of course, he too, like his forefathers, was blinded by the urges which drove him, urges as much emotional as sexual, urges that followed the men in this family like a curse down the generations? And what was the curse if not self-deception that passed itself off as deception, allowing them to fob off their own responsibility on forces outside their control? In fact, however, they simply refused to see what was right in front of their noses. And in Judah’s case, the point is further driven home by the name of the place where he met Tamar – Eynayim – which means eyes in Hebrew. In the place where eyes should see he did not see, evoking the line in the psalm that has entered Jewish prayer liturgy: eyes they have, but cannot see. This is the real source of evil, the Torah teaches: cognitive blindness leads to moral turpitude. Then as now. Always. We should bear that in mind, but like Jacob, we forget.
Judah too forgot. But Tamar was there to remind him. When Tamar showed up pregnant three months later, the men of the tribe hauled her before Judah and accused her of playing the harlot, seeing as she was with child although Shelah had not yet been given her in marriage. Judah answered that she should be brought forth and burned. But when Tamar was brought forth she brought the signet and cord and staff that Judah had given her as a pledge and said: By the man whose these are am I with child. And for the first time in the Book of Genesis did someone say: I am sorry. Judah recognized his error, acknowledged not only that the insignia were his, but also that he had forgotten his promise to give Shelah as husband to his daughter-in-law. She is more righteous than I, he humbly said. Judah finally saw, which is what apology is all about. To apologize is to see what one has done and admit that it was wrong; and it was wrong because one did not see properly. To see is to know, and to see oneself is to know oneself. It is true for individuals and it is true for nations. The inability to see cascaded down the generations in this family, causing the sins of the fathers to be visited on the sons unto the fourth generation. It continues to cascade down the generations of the Hebrew nation even today, where so many Jews delude themselves about the nature of their enemies and the legitimacy of Zionism. Cognitive failure on the part of Jews and non-Jews with respect to contemporary Israel has resulted in the heinous indulgence of Palestinian gangsters and their lies, the most recent case being most of the western world’s condemnation of the American President’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. That the nations of the rest of the world refuse to back Israel is understandable, mired as they are in their kindred dreams of imperial expansion and religious idolatry. That the western nations do not is not only not understandable; it is inexcusable. But they too, the United Kingdom at the forefront, have forgotten their pledge to the Jews and to the democracy and decency to which the Jews and their Torah gave impulse. And they have forgotten that because the road map of the Middle East which they read and have read for a century now is cognitively impaired.
Judah not only forgot his pledges; he forgot his pledge. He redeemed himself by acknowledging it, as President Trump this week redeemed the broken promises of his predecessors. Because Judah acknowledged his own cognitive failure, he could now break his family cycle of pleading ignorance in the face of self-induced calamity. As the story of Joseph and his brothers unfolds, it will be Judah who takes on his father and insists they return to Egypt to redeem the one left behind and, it will turn out, to find the one they had lost. It will also be Judah who takes on Joseph in the most magnificent and stirring apology written in western literature. Thus does Judah’s digression – and Judah went down from his brethren – turn out to be central to the story that will now pick up its thread and turn two parashot hence into its opposite - and Judah came near unto him.