Awakening Teshuvah

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )


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Teshuvah (literally "return," but often mistranslated as "repentance"), means rectifying oneself and returning to one’s spiritual roots—both to God and to one’s higher self. In many ways, it is the deepest spiritual and psychological process there is. Nothing is more essential to our being than recognizing that something in our outlook or way of life is mistaken, and working on rectifying it.

Consequently, there is something inherently paradoxical about the awakening of teshuvah:

On the one hand, it must start from within. Only the chick knows when to hatch out of its egg. If someone tries to break the egg for it, its growth can be ruined. This is what criticism and rebuke often do: They makes a person shrink back, thereby hindering their development.

On the other hand, because teshuvah entails the unpleasant realization that we’re not living optimally, we tend to react with defense mechanisms. These can manifest as either self-justification or self-flagellation. In either case, the result is the same: We further entrench ourselves in our familiar lifestyle and don't change. Teshuvah therefore needs help from the outside, as the Talmud says, “a prisoner cannot free himself from prison.” For a chick to develop in its mother’s egg, she must sit on it and keep it warm until it hatches.

The Third Person

The upshot of this paradox is that the ability to stir a person to teshuvah is a subtle art. In this week's Torah portion, we see it masterfully demonstrated by Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, in a way that changed history.

Let’s recall the story. Tamar marries Judah’s firstborn son, but he dies because of his sins, leaving her a childless widow. Following the Biblical laws of levirate marriage, she is married to the next brother, but he too sins and dies. Judah is now obligated to marry Tamar to his third son, but, being unaware of his sons’ sins, is afraid that Tamar might have caused their deaths. To buy time, Judah instructs Tamar to wait in her father’s house until the third son grows up.

Time passes, and Tamar sees that Judah is postponing the wedding indefinitely. She then concocts a daring plan: She dresses up as a prostitute and seduces Judah himself at the crossroads. Having nothing with which to compensate her, he leaves her his staff, signet ring, and cloak as a deposit. The next day he sends a messenger to pay her and take back his belongings, but she is nowhere to be seen.

Three months go by, and Tamar's pregnancy becomes apparent. Judah – to whose son Tamar is still officially betrothed – is furious that she has committed adultery, and commands that she be burned at the stake. In response, Tamar sends him the three articles she had received from him, and adds the following key sentences:

From the man to whom these belong I am pregnant… Please recognize whose signet ring, cloak, and staff are these?

Notice Tamar’s words. She could have said, “I’m pregnant from you, and here’s the proof!” Yet she decided to use the third person: “From the man to whom these belong I am pregnant.” Only after this does she address Judah in the second person, and even then in a way that leaves things open: “Please recognize whose signet ring, cloak, and staff are these?”

Tamar’s actions are ingenious. She had planned everything from the outset, and now finds herself poised at the most crucial crossroads: If she remains silent, she would certainly be put to death; but confronting Judah will publicly humiliate him, and then there's no knowing what he'll do. In her wisdom, she chooses a middle path: She presents Judah with a metaphorical mirror, allowing him to recognize his wrongdoings on his own, and repent for them. Judah, in his pride, had climbed up a high tree; Tamar, in her humility, placed a ladder for him to climb down with.

The plan succeeds: Judah admits his guilt and Tamar lives and gives birth to twins, from whom descend no other than King David and the future Messiah.

Two Performances

Tamar’s act continues to reverberate in the annals of history. It’s fascinating to compare two examples of people who, like her, held up a mirror to sinners, but with opposite results.

The first instance is described in one of the most famous literary creations in the world – Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet is a prince whose father the king has died, with the throne passing to the father's brother. One day, Hamlet discovers to his shock that his uncle in fact murdered his father. Lacking proof, Hamlet invites to the palace a group of travelling actors and asks them to put on a play about a king whose brother kills him and takes his place. The performance causes the evil king great distress, but rather than stirring him to repentance, makes him want to kill Hamlet. The end, as expected, is tragic: There’s a confrontation between Hamlet and his uncle, and both die.

Compare this to the Chassidic story about the two “holy brothers,” Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli. For a long time, the two wandered from shtetl to shtetl, staying in inns and encountering many people. With their finely-honed spiritual senses, they could see all the sins that people had committed. When they met a sinner, they would put on a small performance: Rabbi Zusha would tearfully confess before his brother that he had committed the same sin as this man, and his brother would then comfort him and explain how he could gain atonement. Their words would penetrate the sinner’s heart. Confronted with his sin, yet freed from their watchful gaze, he would have the space he needs to reflect upon his deeds and repent for them.

Point to ponder: People awaken to teshuvah – self-improvement and spiritual growth – not when censured or rebuked, but when they are helped to recognize their sins on their own. However, this requires that the helpers themselves be working on their self-rectification. If they degrade the other in any way, they will only hinder their progress; But if they approach them with a pure heart, they will awaken them to true, complete teshuvah.

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