Of Second Chances

June 24, 2009

15 min read


Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

This week's Torah portion has two major themes:

  1. The first is the sale of Joseph by his brothers, his arrival in Egypt and the vicissitudes of his life there.
  2. The second is the story of Judah and Tamar.

The sequence in which these two stories are presented is unusual. The Torah interrupts the tale of Joseph, tells us the complete story of Judah and Tamar, and then returns to the interrupted tale of Joseph's affairs.

The story of Judah and Tamar took place sometime during the 22 years during which Joseph was lost to his family. Why not finish relating the tale of Joseph?

Rashi responds to this question in the name of the Midrash:

It was at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned away towards an Adullamite man whose name was Hirah. (Genesis 38:1)

Why does this story interrupt the story of Joseph? To teach you that his brothers demoted Judah when they witnessed their father's anguish. They said, "You told us to sell him. Had you told us to return him to our father we also would have listened to you." (Exodus Raba, 42,3)

Seeing that his brothers cast him out, Judah went off on his own and formed a partnership with Hirah the Adullamite.

The consequence of the sale of Joseph was the loss of two brothers, not just one.

Thus, the consequence of the sale of Joseph was the loss of two brothers, not just one.

Nor were they just any brothers. These two -- Joseph and Judah -- were the ancestors of both lines of Jewish kings. The progenitors of the kings of Judah and Ephraim (son of Joseph) were cast out by the congregation of Israel at the same time, leaving Israel effectively leaderless. What is more, Judah was cast out because he was held ultimately responsible for the casting out of Joseph. The progenitor of David's line was cast out for deciding to cast out the progenitor of Ephraim, his rival's line. There is something quite remarkable about the way the fates of these two Jewish giants are intertwined. We hope to explore the relationship between them in this essay.

Let us begin with the story of Judah and Tamar.


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Nachmanides, basing himself on many Jewish sources, uses reincarnation to explain the commandment of levirate marriage, which obligates a man to marry his deceased brother's wife, and which figures prominently in the story of Judah and Tamar.

Judah had three sons, the eldest of whom -- Er -- married Tamar. When he died, the second son -- Onan -- married Tamar as per the commandment. He also died and at that point Judah stalled in allowing his third son -- Sheilah -- to marry Tamar as he would be required to do.

Let us follow this story via Nachmanides' commentary.

Nachmanides explains that when God sees that a soul is not carrying out the task that it was sent to the world to accomplish, sometimes God will withdraw it and send it down again at a later time, thus allowing it not only a second chance, but one that kicks off with a fresh start untainted by past failure.

Our souls and our bodies (which constitute the souls' physical envelopes) are not accidentally matched. The body is engineered to fit the soul much more closely than a spacesuit is designed to fit an astronaut. Therefore, when you marry your fraternal brother's wife you offer the greatest possible correspondence in terms of physical fit. A man's wife is a part of his physical and spiritual self in the first place as explained in Genesis 2, and a brother is the closest possible genetic match. Thus the child born of the levirate marriage is the most comfortable venue for enabling the departed soul to return to the world.

But Onan knew that the seed would not be his; so it was that whenever he would consort with his brother's wife, he would let it go to waste on the ground so as not to provide offspring for his brother. (Genesis 38:9)

Explains Nachmanides: Onan had been taught the secret behind levirate marriage by Judah; he knew that the child he would bear with Tamar would be the reincarnation of his brother instead of his own child. For his own reasons, he did not want his brother back, and consequently he spilled his seed.

When Onan died, Judah realized that it would be dangerous to submit his remaining son Sheilah to the same test till he reached full maturity and was strong enough to cope with the obvious spiritual pitfalls that marriage to Tamar appeared to present. Consequently, he told Tamar to wait until Sheilah reached maturity.

Tamar did not understand the reason for the delay, so when Sheilah was old enough in her eyes to marry and she was not summoned by Judah, she decided to take matters into her own hands and force Judah himself to carry out the levirate obligation.

Tamar dressed herself as a prostitute and seduced Judah.

She did so by dressing herself as a prostitute and seducing Judah. She became pregnant as a result of the union.

Nachmanides explains: in truth all relatives that are in the line of inheritance are suitable candidates; a brother is merely the most qualified. After the Torah was given and it was forbidden to consort with relatives, an exception was made for only the best possible candidate, the fraternal brother, but at this point in history all relatives were qualified, the closer the better.

Sure enough, the levirate marriage worked. Tamar bore Judah twin sons -- Perez and Zerach -- who were in fact the second editions of Er and Onan, respectively. The second time they came to the world, these souls made it. Perez is the progenitor of David and the great grandfather of the Messiah, who is David's descendant.


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In terms of the theme of this essay we can interpret these events on a deeper level in the following way: Judah fell in the incident involving the sale of Joseph into slavery. His brothers sensed that he was not fit as yet to fill his destined role as their monarch. It was not enough for Judah to merely lead -- he was not only Israel's predestined monarch, he was also its messiah. Besides knowing how to lead them, Judah also had to possess the talent to redeem them and restore to them the spiritual treasures that were lost. They understood from Jacob's anguish that Joseph's loss was irremediable.

All his [Jacob's] sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to comfort himself, and said, "I will go down to the grave mourning for my son." (Genesis37:35)

This is strange behavior for Jacob as it is written:

You are children to the Lord your God, you shall not cut yourselves and you shall not make a bald spot between your eyes for a dead person. For you are a holy people to the Lord your God... (Deut. 14:1-2)

Nachmanides states that this statement "you are a holy people" is a guarantee of the survival of souls in God's Presence. So the verse is to be understood as the statement of an argument: "As you know that you are a holy people, treasured by God, and He will never surrender a Jewish soul; therefore it is inappropriate for you to mourn to an extreme degree even over someone who dies young." The Torah does not forbid tears, as it is human nature to cry over any painful departure of a loved one, even when both parties remain alive. But extreme forms of mourning are inappropriate, as the one who is being mourned is not truly lost. It is more appropriate to think of him or her as merely separated. From this law, our rabbis derived the rule that it is forbidden to mourn anyone an unusual amount. (See Talmud, Moed Katan, 27b.)

Indeed, Rashi was bothered by the phenomenon of Jacob's apparently excessive mourning. He explains Jacob's refusal to be comforted with the aid of the Midrash:

God had given Jacob the following promise; if all his children survived he was guaranteed never to see the face of Gehenom, but if any of his children were lost in his lifetime, this would indicates that the house of Israel had not yet reached its desired level of spiritual perfection, and therefore his mission in life had failed. (Tanchuma, Vayigash,9)

When they witnessed the severity of Jacob's mourning, Judah's brothers understood that they, Israel, could not survive the loss of Joseph intact. Joseph should have been saved, not cast out. Judah was therefore an inadequate redeemer as it was his ultimate responsibility to decide what was necessary to reach the redemption. Having failed, he was demoted.

The brothers were not mistaken in their assessment. Judah's children, Er and Onan, the intended progenitors of the line of the redeemer were both failures. What is more, the crux of their failure was on the very point of inadequate concern for Jewish survival. Instead of thinking of the future and carrying out their responsibility to bring souls into the world who could lead the Jewish people on the march to their destiny, which was their first duty as potential monarchs, they thought only of their present gratification and ignored their social responsibilities.

But here is where Judah came into his own and demonstrated his greatness. He would not give up on them even in death. Nachmanides explains that it was Judah who instituted the practice of levirate marriage in the world. (Breishis raba, 85,6) He was determined to redeem the lost souls by giving them a second opportunity to achieve their potential. In the end he was successful.


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The difficulties that Judah had to surmount on the road to this success provided the key to his own personal redemption. These difficulties on the road were composed of two main elements. One was emotional pain. Judah repeatedly suffered the pain associated with the tragedy of personal loss, the loss of his wife and two of his three children. This pain expiated for his readiness to inflict the pain of such a loss on his father by selling his brother. The second element is more subtle.

Once it was discovered that Tamar was pregnant, she was condemned as an adulteress.

Once it was discovered that Tamar was pregnant, she was condemned as an adulteress since no one knew -- not even Judah who believed he had been seduced by a nameless prostitute -- who was the father of her child. Thus Tamar was sentenced to death.

On her way to her execution, Tamar sent Judah's staff and seal back to him (she had taken them from him at the time of the seduction) and asked him to recognize that he was in fact the father of her unborn children and formally acknowledge her innocence. Judah's response was:

She is right; it is from me.(Genesis 38: 26)

The Talmud breaks this response into two parts: Judah said "she is right"; God said "it is from Me." (Makot 23b). Let us see if we can unravel this a bit.

At the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses blesses the tribes:

May Reuben live and not die and may his population be included in the count. And this to Judah and he said: Hearken O! God to Judah's voice and return him to his people... (Deut. 33: 6-7)

Remarking on the juxtaposition of Reuben and Judah in Moses' blessing, the rabbis offer the following comment:

Moses said to God: "Who caused Reuben to admit his sin? Judah! Therefore Hearken to the voice of Judah." (Talmud, Makot, 11b)

Explains Rashi: "Who caused Reuben to confess that he lay with Bilhah? Judah who confessed to Tamar." The rabbis had a tradition that when Reuben heard Judah declare, "She is right!" he was inspired to declare "I mixed up my father's marriage bed."

It would appear that Judah's confession had the inspirational quality possessed by deeds that embody great demonstrations of moral courage. But it is difficult at first glance to see any moral greatness in Judah's confession. How could he have stood silently and watched Tamar be executed once he knew that she was innocent? After all he surely recognized the articles he had pledged? Would any of us have behaved any differently?

Perhaps we can explain it this way: Judah had had relations with a woman who behaved exactly like a prostitute. What prompted him to engage in such an act, which was surely beneath his dignity and high standing? The obvious answer is that he must have had an irresistible impulse. But what is the source of such an impulse? Joseph had also claimed that he was driven by an irresistible impulse to dream the dreams that he later recounted to his brothers. Joseph's explanation was that every irresistible impulse is Divinely inspired, and thus he argued to his brothers that his dreams were really in the nature of prophecies. But his brothers rejected his argument and maintained that his irresistible impulse originated in his passion for power for the sake of power alone.

But what of Judah's own impulse? If it was a manifestation of his deep sexual frustration then Tamar was just an ordinary prostitute. The fact that she once had relations with him did not prove that the children she was carrying were his. If she had indeed become a prostitute then she had relations with many men. But if his own irresistible impulse was Divinely inspired then Tamar was not really a prostitute at all.

By instilling the irresistible impulse into Judah, God helped Tamar to carry out her design.

By instilling the irresistible impulse into Judah, God helped Tamar to carry out her design to fulfill her role in the levirate marriage that would restore the souls of her dead husbands. On the one hand, why would God choose to infect the progenitor of the Messiah with a depraved desire for a mere prostitute? On the other hand, if his own irresistible impulse was Divinely inspired than so was Joseph's and Judah had misjudged him and thus sanctioned the creation of a major Jewish tragedy.

Weighing these arguments, Judah confessed. The very second he uttered the words "she is right," God immediately confirmed the fact that Judah's impulse to have relations with Tamar was indeed Divinely inspired. The heavenly voice confirmed, "Indeed, it was Me."

Witnessing Judah's moral courage in acknowledging himself to be at fault both with Tamar and with Joseph, Reuben was also inspired to confess his fault.

The story of Judah and Tamar had to be told precisely at this point -- in the middle of the story of Joseph.

Judah is the one who cast out Joseph. First he must realize and acknowledge his own fall and recover himself. Only after his own spiritual awakening would he have the wisdom to accept Joseph back into the Jewish fold. As soon as Judah was spiritually restored, the stage was set for Joseph's success in Egypt and his ultimate restoration to his family. Before Judah's recovery is complete, Joseph's cannot begin.


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The Jewish people have two kings and two kingdoms, because the kingdom of God on earth takes two forms: God is the creator and ruler of the physical world, but he is also the creator and ruler of all souls.

In terms of His kingdom over the physical world, it is our task as His people to establish a physical kingdom that is dedicated to using the physical resources available on earth in His service, so that all human beings can learn the proper way to conduct their lives here on earth as God's servants.

In terms of his dominion over the world of souls, it is our duty to develop the spiritual nuances of all Jewish souls so that no Jew's spiritual potential is allowed to go to waste.

The Jewish people have a tradition of two Messiahs -- one the son of Joseph, and the other the son of David.

The Jewish people have a tradition of two Messiahs -- one the son of Joseph, and the other the son of David.

In his eulogy of Theodore Herzl, Rabbi Kook compared the Zionist effort of reestablishing Israel as a physical state to the work of the Messiah of Joseph.

When Israel has a state, there is a physical part of the earth that has the potential of demonstrating to the rest of mankind how man can conduct his everyday affairs and yet retain the closest relationship with God. This is the provision of "light onto the nations" that is Israel's earthly destiny.

But in order to be able to exploit this potential, Israel must also engage in the effort associated with the Messiah of David.

We must restore the Jewish soul by redeeming Jewish souls from the spiritual damage and exhaustion inflicted on them by the trials and travail of our painful history. Spiritual struggle and turmoil are inevitable in the Jewish state until this task is fully accomplished. Its final step will usher in the arrival of Judah's descendant, Messiah ben David.

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