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Tamar's Twins

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

Among the many events in this week's parsha is the story of Yehuda's daughter-in-law, Tamar, giving birth to twins. The Torah goes into substantial detail about this event (Genesis 38:27-30):

As Tamar is giving birth, the hand of one twin emerges, and the midwife ties a string around it so she will know which child was born first. This baby then draws back his hand and his brother, Peretz, is born. Only then does Tamar give birth to the baby with the string on his hand, who is named Zerach.

All the details about this birth seem unnecessary, especially given that the Torah recounts almost nothing further about Peretz and Zerach. The Torah does not describe the births of Abraham or many other great personalities. What is the relevance of the play-by-play description of the birth of these twins?

The Kedushat Levi provides a metaphorical understanding of this passage that will help us gain deeper insight. The Talmud (Niddah 30b) teaches that every unborn baby has a candle lit at its head, and the baby's soul can see from one end of the world to the other. When the baby emerges from its mother's womb, an angel taps it on the lips, and the baby forgets all the Torah it learned in the womb.

According to the Kedushat Levi, this tap on the lips should be understood not as a punishment, but rather as a Divine gift. This world is filled with temptation, and knowledge is sometimes misused to pursue corrupt goals. At the moment of birth, God takes away all our knowledge so that we will enter this world in a state of purity. The innocence of infancy enables us to begin life with a pure, complete connection to God.

As we grow and mature, God creates a barrier (mechitza), making it more difficult for us to achieve the complete Divine connection that was so natural for us as children. Nevertheless, we can use our mature intelligence to reconnect to God - if we realize that this world is purposeless for its own sake. Our Sages state this idea succinctly: "The more flesh, the more worms" (Avot 2:7). Pure physicality, devoid of purpose, lacks meaning.

This is hinted to in the names Peretz and Zerach: We can choose to use our intelligence to recognize this, and to connect to God by breaking through (paratz) the barrier that our knowledge creates. Once this barrier is broken, God will shine (zarach) a holy light upon us.


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On a deeper level, this is the lesson that the Torah is conveying to us through the story of the birth of Tamar's twins. The paradigm of birth applies to all of us, hinting to our desire to recreate ourselves and grow in positive directions. At the beginning of the passage describing the birth, the Torah tells us, "and he put out his hand" (Genesis 38:28). This can be understood as God extending His hand - a metaphorical interpretation of the Divine assistance we receive at birth when our knowledge is removed, enabling us to begin life in a state of purity without succumbing to temptation.

The next verse, "and he withdrew his hand" (Genesis 38:29), can be understood as God removing His assistance as we mature, since the barrier of knowledge makes it more difficult to connect to the Divine.

When the Torah states, "And behold! his brother emerged," we have a hint to the birth of a child, coming into the world with the potential to come close to the Divine and to reach a state of "brotherhood," as it were, with God.

As we grow up and our knowledge matures, we can make the choice to break (paratz) the intellectual barriers that separates us from God. This makes us worthy of the name Peretz (literally, "breaking"). When we make this choice, God shines (zorey'ach) a holy light upon us, as is indicated by the name Zerach (literally, "shining").

The story of this birth appears in so much detail because it does not refer only to Peretz and Zerach; rather, it hints to the possibilities inherent in every birth. The Torah teaches us that we all have the potential to reconnect to God as we grow and mature.

May we be blessed to use our intellectual capacities to break down all barriers and regain our innate innocence and purity so that God will shine upon us the holy light.

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