Shabbat Message: Responsibility & Change

Friday, December 10, 2021
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

In this parashah, Judah demonstrates true - Teshuva, repentance and change of character. He was the one who convinced his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:25–27) in order to rid the brothers of their father’s favorite son and make some money.  

In this week’s parsha, facing the possibility that Jacob’s second favorite son will be imprisoned, Judah selflessly offers to stay in Benjamin's place. Judah has developed a greater capacity for love and compassion even if it comes at a personal cost.       

What caused this change in character?  

Naomi Steinberg notes that “while not mentioned in this parashah, Tamar has been a pivotal figure in Judah’s own growth. Their encounter in Genesis 38 best accounts for Judah’s new capacity to sympathize with his father”  

Tamar is Judah’s daughter-in-law who he has relations with as he mistakes her for a harlot. She purposely misled Judah, who after the death of his first two sons while being married to Tamar, refused to allow his third son to marry her.   

For the first time, Judah is confronted with the stark truth that he is acting in a selfish manner – only thinking about himself and his children. By not giving his third son to Tamar he was sentencing her a life of utter loneliness.    

Furthermore, as Rabbi Baruch Gigi points out: “Yehuda should have identified with Tamar's pain; after all, he himself was recently widowed. Since Yehuda too had lost his wife, he should have recognized the distress experienced by Tamar.” But he does not.   

With these words, “ לְאִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁר־אֵ֣לֶּה לּ֔וֹ אָנֹכִ֖י הָרָ֑ה וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַכֶּר־נָ֔א לְמִ֞י הַחֹתֶ֧מֶת וְהַפְּתִילִ֛ים וְהַמַּטֶּ֖ה הָאֵֽלֶּה׃   

“I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”    

Tamar shows the very sensitivity that Yehuda lacked. She did not accuse him, rather, she orchestrated events so that Yehuda would come to admit - צָֽדְקָ֣ה מִמֶּ֔נִּ - “she is more righteous than I.”  

Earlier in the story, when Judah promised Jacob that he would take responsibility to Benjamin he says - אָֽנֹכִי֙ אֶֽעֶרְבֶ֔נּוּ - I will be responsible for him. Then, Judah in his conversation with Joseph (before he reveals himself) says - כִּ֤י עַבְדְּךָ֙ עָרַ֣ב אֶת־הַנַּ֔עַר  - “for your servant made himself responsible for the lad...”    

The words e’ervenu and arav have the same root as the word eravon – pledge, used by Judah and Tamar in their earlier exchange. The use of these similar (and rare – eravon is only used in Gen. 38) terms is surely meant to connect the two stories.  

This act of Yehuda may be the Tikkun  - the repair for the tragic statement of Cain:  הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי - Am I my brother’s keeper?” In this case, Judah emphatically claims that he was his brother's keeper!    

Judah’s change of heart, highlighted by these linguistic and thematic connections, highlights Tamar’s role in Judah’s transformation.   

But, perhaps most notably it features the complicated nature of the human being. Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 176) puts it well when he suggests that the Torah, through the story of the transformation of Judah is asking, “what it is like,,, to be a human being with a divided consciousness – intermittently loving your brother but hating him even more; resentful or perhaps contemptuous of your father but also capable of the deepest filial regard, stumbling between disastrous ignorance and imperfect knowledge, fiercely asserting your own independence but caught in a tissue of events divinely contrived; outwardly a definite character and inwardly an unstable vortex of greed, ambition, jealousy, lust, piety, courage, compassion, and much more?”  

We see in Judah an imperfect character, but one who can inspire as he illustrated the human capacity for change.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Barry Gelman

Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism. 

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