Parashat Vayeshev: Finding Light, Making Change

This Torah portion tells the story of Tamar, a woman who saw the possibility of new life where others saw only death.

What does it mean to make space in the world for something that might not be able to exist otherwise? Parashat Vayeshev contains a story of a person who did just that. 

The story concerns Judah, the fourth son of the patriarch Jacob. Judah sees a woman, Tamar, and takes her as a wife for his son, but the son does evil in the eyes of God and God kills him. The laws of the time required that the brother of a married man who dies without offspring should marry his widow so their offspring could inherit the deceased’s property. But in this case, the brother refuses to complete the sexual act, and he too is killed. 

Another brother remains. His name, Shelah, means “hers” in Hebrew, the Torah’s way of indicating where he belongs. But Judah tells Tamar that Shelah needs to grow up before he can marry her, though really he is terrified of what this woman has done to his other two sons. So in a society where women have little overt power or legal recourse, Tamar returns to her father’s house.

Until the time of the sheep-shearing, when she hears that Judah and his buddy Hirah will be passing by Timnah. Tamar removes her widow’s garments, covers herself with a scarf and sits at the crossroads on the way to Timnah. The Torah calls this place Petach Eynaim — literally “opened eyes” — which signals to readers that something will happen here, though we are not sure what exactly. 

Judah, in a good mood after the successful sheep-shearing, sees Tamar and assumes that since he can’t see her face, her identity is unimportant. But Tamar has placed herself there for a sexual transaction, and negotiate she does, asking him, “What will you give me?”(Genesis 38:16) Once they complete the negotiation and she receives three items that she can hold until he pays up, they consummate the transaction. 

Tamar gets what she wants – she becomes pregnant. She and Judah then return to their lives as they were — she puts her widow’s garments back on and he tries to send payment to the “cult prostitute,” as he euphemistically calls her. But since there had never been such a prostitute, the bill remains unpaid.

Three months later, Tamar’s pregnancy is showing and rumor reaches Judah that his daughter-in-law is pregnant through harlotry.  He responds that her punishment should be death. As she is being led away, she sends the three items Judah gave her and tells her father-in-law that these are items the father of her baby should recognize. To his credit, Judah fesses up and says, “She is righteous. It is from me.”

This whole interaction is based on mistaken use of physical evidence. Judah mistakenly concludes both that Tamar is a prostitute and, once she is pregnant, that she has behaved improperly. And it’s not the only time in this portion this has happened. 

Earlier in Parashat Vayeshev, Jacob looked at the multicolored coat he made for his son Joseph; seeing it soaked with blood concludes he has been eaten by a wild animal. And the Egyptian official Potiphar decides that since Joseph’s coat is in his wife’s hands, Joseph deserves prison time. Neither of these are in fact true: Joseph remains very much alive, having been sold into slavery by his brothers. And it was Potiphar’s wife who had tried to seduce Joseph, not the other way around.  

But of these three, Judah is the only one who is willing to confront the evidence and substantively change his behavior. Judah is finally able to understand what he sees in looking at the items and admit that he has fathered a child with his daughter-in-law. 

When it comes time for Tamar to give birth, more mistaken evidence is in play. Tamar has twins, and when the first hand comes out, the midwife attaches a scarlet cord to it, stating, “This one came out first.” Yet only the baby’s hand has emerged, and then reverses course and regresses into the womb so that his twin comes out first, leading the midwife to declare “how you have breached forth a breach.” This child, Peretz (literally “breach”), turns out to be an ancestor of the Davidic line and the progenitor of the messiah.

None of this would have come about had Tamar not thought about how she could bear a child with a man of her late husband’s family, how she could follow the law when her father in law had no incentive to. Judah’s concern was for the life of his youngest son, but Tamar saw not death, but the possibility of new life.

Parashat Vayeshev is frequently read in close proximity to the holiday of Hanukkah, where we spread light by starting with one candle and building up to eight.  Even the smallest amount of light and hope can make change. Tamar started by opening her eyes and changing her clothes and ended by being an ancestor of the messiah. 

Hers is a powerful example in times when it’s hard to see beyond the world as it has been. Yet as her example manifests, it is possible to imagine a time in the future when the space for all of us in the world will be of a breadth we look forward to envisioning.

Read this Torah portion, Genesis 37:1 – 40:23 on Sefaria

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About the Author: Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and editor of anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.

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