The Self-Help Book

Parashat Vayigash attempts to deal with the subject of closure.

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There is No Self-Help Book

The answer cannot be found in any self-help book. Judah most certainly did not take an instant course in "Five Steps to Become a Mensch." Instead, we can conclude that Judah is able to stand up to Joseph-the Vizier's demand because he himself had gone through a painful, embarrassing experience of growth, one made possible through the courageous and determined intervention of his daughter-in-law Tamar.

Reflecting the Torah's brilliant narrative strategy, the story of Tamar appears right after the brothers have lied to their father Jacob, trying to make it appear as if Joseph has been killed. Jacob rends his garments, puts on sackcloth, and goes into mourning: "His sons and daughters endeavored to console him, but he refused to be consoled, saying, 'No, in mourning shall I go down to my son to Sheol!'" (37:J5). No sooner does that happen than there is a break in the story, a seeming excursus: the scene switches to the tale of Tamar.

"Around that time," says the text (38:1), Judah marries the daughter of a man named Shua, and she then bears three sons. The oldest, Er, marries Tamar.

Er dies, with no indication of an emotional reaction from Judah. Following Israelite law, he sends his second son, Onan, refuses to marry Tamar, but Onan to impregnate her and he, too, dies. The law dictates that the third son, Shelah, should now marry Tamar but Judah delays fulfilling this law, afraid that Shelah too, will die. Indeed, he waits so long that Tamar, hearing that he is going to a sheep-shearing, presents herself as a harlot on the road. He "couples" with her, not knowing who she is.

When rumor later reaches him that his daughter-in-law is pregnant, he demands that she be taken out and burned. Only when she is brought to him and shows him the signet and staff that he had left with her in lieu of payment, does he realize what has transpired. He then admits: "She is more in the right than I, for certainly I did not give her to my son Shelah" (38:26).

Tamar's achievement lies in more than insisting that her father-in-law right his wrongdoing. Her act also becomes the galvanizing force that enables him to face, and thus finally overcome, the trauma of losing two of his sons and the paralyzing fear that he would lose his third, just as his own father Jacob had feared sending Benjamin to Egypt because he was the only son of Rachel left (42:38). Through the intervention of Tamar, Judah's heart is "tenderized" by his recognition of the wrong that his inchoate fear of loss had caused. That is why he is now able to plead for compassion before the seeming might of Egypt.

Judah's experience illustrates that there are no instant transformations, no Five Easy Self Help Steps to Wisdom. Instead, the Torah teaches that only by fully confronting ourselves--by being open to what we learn from one another-do we grow; only thus are we truly able to change.

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Miriyam Glazer

Miriyam Glazer, professor of literature at the University of Judaism, is author of Dancing on the Edge of the World: Jewish Stories of Faith, Inspiration, and Love and Dreaming the Actual: Contemporary Fiction and Poetry by Israeli Women Writers. She is studying for the Conservative rabbinate. She married again in September 2003.