The location of the episode of Yehuda and Tamar, inserted by the Torah in the very midst of the Yosef story, requires explanation. The Torah seems to insist on relating the story of the older brother Yehuda before it has concluded that of his younger brother Yosef. Though well into the story of Yosef, the story line is interrupted and the action suspended with Yosef in mid journey (he has already been sold and not yet reached Egypt), as the Torah embarks upon the story of Yehuda and his sons.
One approach would be to deny our premise that one story interrupts the other, claiming simply that the story of Yehuda and Tamar is the more appropriate episode for the development of the parsha‘s theme. Two possible alternatives suggest themselves to support this line of thought. One option is to regard the Torah as treating the story of the family, with its sibling rivalry, leadership struggles, and cliques (the first half of the parsha) as distinct from the individual histories of the various brothers/shevatim. Though we are accustomed to thinking about “Joseph and his brothers”, making it essentially the story of Yosef (and therefore the Yehuda and Tamar story is an obvious interruption in the flow of the narrative), this is not necessarily the only perspective. Should we view the previous chapter as relating to Beit Yaakov – Jacob’s family as a family and not to Yosef – the story of Yosef in Egypt would no longer be a direct continuation of the sale episode but rather an entirely new chapter devoted to Yosef and what befell him as an individual. Therefore, it need not immediately follow the sale episode. Hence, in the ensuing transition from family to individual history, Yehuda takes precedence over Yosef, either because of his seniority, or because of the brevity of his narrative, or due to the insular nature of his personal history. Be it as it may, the sequence of our parsha is preserved.
Alternately, the parsha could be understood to focus upon the fortunes of Yaakov and his household in Eretz Yisrael. The opening verses of the parsha make it clear that the history of Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael is a unique chapter, distinct from the story of his life in Galut up to that point, and, therefore, only the local episodes are an integral part of this story. Thus, the Egyptian element, which is a galut story, is postponed until after the conclusion of the Eretz Yisrael narrative. Actually, there is not only a geographic distinction between the two, but also a basic difference in personal status; Yehuda is a patriarchal figure, ruling over his family and surroundings, supported by the power of the state, coping with the problems posed by exercise of authority, paradigmatic of Jewish existence in Israel, while Yosef, the “Galus Jew” at the opposite end of the spectrum, without any resources or status must struggle daily for survival, positioned at the lowest possible rung of Egyptian society.
Thus, it is quite possible to view the three stories of Vayeshev as separate episodes, each following the other in sequence as individual units in the saga of Yaakov’s household.
However, the Torah does seem to imply that this is not the case and that there is a connection between the stories of Yehuda and Yosef. The episode of Yehuda and Tamar is introduced by the Torah with the remark that the story of Yehuda is contemporaneous with mekhirat Yosef. Since the time frame of the story stretches over a few years, chronology alone is not the reason for the juxtaposition of the two narratives or the sandwiching of the Yehuda story between the two acts of the Yosef drama. In addition, it should also be pointed out that Ibn Ezra and others are of the opinion that the events actually transpired at a later time, not at the time of Yosef’s sale. Therefore, it seems evident that the Torah is not implying a chronological connection between the two events, but a thematic one. Rather than being two separate episodes occurring to two siblings, they are an intertwined story, one shedding light on the other. Simply put, the Yehuda and Tamar relationship is a sub-plot to the main story, interesting in itself, but also shedding light on the dynamics involved in the big story.
This last point must be emphasized; I am not claiming, as have some of the commentators, that the sale of Yosef caused the relocation of Yehuda and set into motion the chain of events which resulted in the ensuing troubles, assuming a causal rather than thematic connection; our claim is that there are indeed thematic affinities between the two episodes and that our understanding of the one will enhance our appreciation of the other as well.
Let us begin with the Tamar episode. The cardinal sin in these happenings is not the sexual licentiousness of the parties involved, but the treatment of Tamar. Both Yehuda and his sons treat her as an object to be used (or abused) for their own benefit and pleasure, refusing to relate to her as a human being worthy of respect and recognition as such, whose needs, emotional and other, must be taken into account. Initially manifesting itself in the crude and boorish behavior of Er and Onan, it is true of their father as well.
Er and Onan treat Tamar as a sex object. Desiring of sexual pleasure, they are unwilling to assume the attendant responsibility of parenthood nor do they take into account the needs of Tamar, yearning to realize herself as a mother. Their egotism can only view other human beings as means for serving their own needs and cannot recognize their value or autonomy.
This approach, though, does not originate with them, for it is characteristic of their father as well. Yehuda’s response to the deaths of his two sons is to force upon Tamar a waiting period of years, without consulting her or attempting to understand her perspective. Tamar is a woman who has lost both husbands, in need of physical and emotional security and stability, disinclined to marry yet a third brother of the same family while not necessarily interested in a solitary existence as a young and wasted widow waiting for a young child to mature at his father’s leisure. Tamar may indeed have been willing, as Ruth in a later day, to remain faithful to the house of Judah; that, though, is not of any consequence in evaluating Yehuda’s behavior. The crucial point in this regard is Yehuda’s directing her to do so, fully expecting her to comply with his directive. The contrast between Yehuda’s subordination of Tamar to his needs and the deep feeling of gratitude exhibited by Na’omi and Bo’az towards Ruth is a clear illustration of the nature of Yehuda’s actions.[Rashi takes this approach a step further, laying at Yehuda’s doorstep the even more serious allegation that he never intended that Shelah, the youngest son, marry Tamar at all. Yehuda, according to Rashi, is willing to relegate his daughter-in-law to perpetual widowhood in order to preserve his family’s dignity. Whether or not we accept this claim, it certainly reflects the mind-set guiding Yehuda at the time, as understood by Rashi.]
Having accepted upon herself to stay at her parents’ home and wait out of a sense of commitment and duty, Tamar eventually makes a move to force a confrontation with Yehuda over the matter, by engaging him in the episode of her harlotry and the subsequent dealings that ensue.
The client-prostitute relationship is, obviously, the extreme form of using a fellow human being for one’s own needs, each party utilizing the other for its own purposes. The I-Thou personal relationship has been replaced with the I-It attitude towards others, as the most intimate and private act, born of the union of two souls revealing themselves to each other, is transformed into a business transaction. What was intended and described by the Torah as inner knowledge of a close partner is perverted and corrupted into momentary physical contact with a coincidental fleeting stranger, without any lasting obligations or responsibilities.
Yehuda does not understand this and, therefore, misunderstands her intentions when she demands his personal belongings as collateral. From his business-like perspective, the only reason that someone would insist upon belongings of a highly personal nature is that they are an effective means of assuring payment, since there is a very high likelihood that the debtor will indeed return to redeem them. Tamar, though, is interested in these belongings as expressive of personality and as a vehicle for establishing a personal relationship. She doesn’t want money in return for the sexual favor, her desire is for the establishment of a relationship. This is what will legitimize and justify the liaison, not Yehuda’s sending over a fat check. However, Yehuda in his current state lacks the awareness and understanding to appreciate this; therefore, he attempts to redeem the personal possessions which he gave to Tamar by sending a courier with a more valuable object (from a monetary perspective) to replace them. Since it is all about monetary value and not personal contact, there is no problem in having a courier deliver the goat, as long as the price is right. That he himself should come in person and further the relationship never occurs to Yehuda.
However, the harlot is nowhere to be seen and the people tell his messenger that there never was a prostitute. Understood in a deeper sense, they are absolutely right; Tamar was not attempting to compromise or entrap Yehuda, so that she could force him to release or marry her, and therefore acting as a harlot for an evening, only to return to conventional life afterwards; from her point of view, the meeting between her and Yehuda was meant to serve as the beginning of a relationship and therefore even then it wasn’t harlotry. Indeed, if we look closely at the psukim, they never say that Tamar dressed or acted as a harlot, only that in Yehuda’s eyes she appeared as such (39:15).
Yehuda’s response upon hearing that the harlot couldn’t be found is revealing. He instructs his companion to set aside the intended payment “so that we shouldn’t lose face.” It is not the disappointment or the obligation towards the individual which concerns him, but the fact “that it’s bad for the business”.
The climax is reached at her trial. Here, too, Yehuda’s approach is determined by his perspective, the basis of condemnation being her violation of the family’s dignity. [Rashi and Ramban seem to disagree on this point. Rashi’s view is that she was condemned because of the sin of adultery, while the Ramban is of the opinion that the issue is Yehuda’s dignity.] Tamar, though, responds by once more reiterating his personal commitment to her. She produces his personal belongings, emphasizing that to the person whose personality is embedded within these objects and who has been willing to reveal and hand them over to her and to whom she was, and is, willing to establish a deep loving relationship, she is pregnant and obligated. Chazal underscore and champion this quality of Tamar by stating that had Yehuda not admitted his involvement, she would never had betrayed him, even at the cost of death. That is the degree of responsibility towards fellow human beings and the level of commitment towards their needs, even if they have betrayed her, that Chazal attribute to Tamar.
The dramatic display of Yehuda’s insignia and other private belongings, accompanied by Tamar’s impassioned plea that Yehuda recognize his obligations to others and establish personal I-Thou relationships with them, is the climatic point in the clash between the two differing perspectives of Yehuda and Tamar and it achieves the desired effect. Yehuda undergoes a transformation, recognizes the truth of her words and embraces the relationship.
At this point, after having focused the issue of chapter 38 (Yehuda and Tamar) on the interpersonal relationship and the treatment of others, we can readily understand the connection between this and the episode of the sale of Yosef which precedes it. Here, too, Yehuda’s behavior is based upon his inability to treat others as independent autonomous human beings, deserving to be treated as subjects, worthy of respect and relationship, and not as a means to his ends. The sale of a human being as an object is the utter nullification of the human element within him, transforming him from a subject to an object.
The original plan of the other brothers to murder Yosef by throwing him into the pit, while morally heinous, did not treat him as an object. In this regard, the brothers were more respectful of Yosef than Yehuda. They viewed him as an enemy towards whom they felt a need to express their feelings of hatred and jealously; such feelings recognize and respect the uniquely human qualities of the rival, even as they attempt to harm him. Yehuda, on the contrast, treats of Yosef as problem which has to be disposed of. He does not want to exhibit feelings of hatred towards Yosef, nor does he want to force upon himself the need to take a morally committing position. His goal is to remove Yosef from the scene without having to dirty his fingers in the process. He prefers banal, seemingly non-committal evil upon emotional involvement, his perspective being the legal rather than the human aspect of the issue.
This quality of Yehuda stands in sharp contrast with that of Yosef. The act of rebuking his brothers (37:2) while not a popular one, reveals concern for them as human beings whose moral and religious state are important to him. Lest we think that Yosef displays such an attitude only when it is convenient for him, his behavior in respect to Potiphar’s wife should dispel any such thoughts. Though much easier to succumb to her temptations or to attempt other methods of avoiding her, Yosef bases his refusal upon the moral betrayal and breach of trust of the master as a trusting fellow human being.
Thus, the parsha compares and contrasts the attitudes of Yehuda and Yosef to other persons, using the backdrop of the Yehuda and Tamar episode to illuminate this point and to tell us about Yehuda’s teshuva, so full and complete that it will lead to the future king of Israel, through the union the offspring of Yehuda and Tamar with Ruth the Moabite whose altruism follows and complements that of Tamar.
This essay originally appeared on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and is republished here with permission.