Parshat Vayeishev by Francesca Littman
In Parshat Vayeishev, after Yosef is captured by his brothers and sold into slavery, the Torah digresses to the esoteric story of Tamar and Judah. After the death of Tamar’s husband Er, Judah’s firstborn, she marries Er’s younger brother Oran. When Onan also dies, Judah instructs Tamar to wait in his house before her future levirate marriage to his third son Shelah. Time passes, and upon realizing that Judah will perhaps never permit her to marry Shelah, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. Disguising herself as a harlot, she seduces Judah, and he impregnates her. When Judah learns that his widowed daughter in law, Tamar, is pregnant, he complies with public accusation of Tamar as an adulteress. As Tamar is taken out of her home to be burned, she does not declare her innocence by directly confronting Judah.
It is bewildering that Tamar abstains from announcing her innocence, especially for the sake of her life and unborn child. Rashi interprets her silence as attesting to her piety. Citing Sotah, Rashi reminds us that a person should go to extreme lengths to avoid embarrassing another. In this light, perhaps Tamar chose to sacrifice her dignity to avoid embarrassing Judah publicly. However, I propose that Tamar keeps her secret because she feels frightened that if she tells the truth- a daring move- maybe nobody would believe her. Tamar wisely realizes that pointing out the truth to Judah directly could cause him to deny everything, perhaps out of shame. And without his corroborated testimony, she would be unable to prove her innocence. Afraid of this result, Tamar felt powerless to act.
Modern day juxtaposition to Tamar’s dilemma is our own reluctance to mobilize awareness of injustice in our communities and in Israel, because we feel concerned that doing so might negatively impact public perception of Jews. There are numerous reported instances of Jewish business owners not adhering to ethical labor practices. In Israel, furthermore, there is the egregious reality of human trafficking. These affronts to human dignity stand diametrically opposed to the fundamental ethical principles of Judaism. It can feel difficult to advocate publicly for these victims and demand change in the status quo, because these incidents are not only embarrassing, but also represent a breach of trust in our commitment to live holy lives. This fear for our reputation, but more so, the sense that we feel powerless to create adequate reform, sometimes perpetuates these immoral activities and hinders change.
Ultimately, Tamar does not allow fear to curtail her demand for justice. She arranges to have the objects that Judah gave her when she was disguised as a harlot delivered to him. Upon recognizing them, Judah proclaims ???? ???? ‘she is right, it is from me’, disclosing his feelings of responsibility for her pregnancy. Ramban and Rashbam, however, read these words differently, as ‘she is more righteous than I’. Based on this reading of the text, Tamar ascends to a higher level of righteousness after she reveals the truth. Like Tamar, when we encounter injustice, let us not feel paralyzed by the fear of disclosing these crimes, but instead have the conviction to expose them in order to pursue true justice.
Learn more about how you can advocate for the abolishment of human trafficking in Israel by visiting ATZUM’s Task Force Against Human Trafficking webpage at http://tfht.org/