The Self-Help Book

Parashat Vayigash attempts to deal with the subject of closure.

Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Americans live in the kingdom of self help books: Five Steps to Overcoming Fear and Doubt; Five Steps to Emotional Healing; Five Steps to Spiritual Growth. Every self-help book is marketed as the “ultimate one,” or even as “the last self-help book you’ll ever need.” Over 300,000 self-help books are on the market. Typically, they promise a neatly outlined plan for self-transformation, for becoming free of a rooted sorrow or of deep-seated fears. They encourage the reader to believe that suffering is not worth the trouble, and gaining self-knowledge a routine affair-easily available for anyone with access to and a credit card.
women's torah commentary
Thanks to the “self-help” industry, Americans–in particular–flee from mourning. We talk of going through the “grief process” until we experience “closure,”   as if we ourselves roll along an assembly line of emotion until we get to the final station: the packaging of our sorrow, the sealing it tight, the storing it away.

Closure is an Illusion

But the very notion of “closure” for grief is an illusion. Instead, there is only the tentative recognition that our anguish is endurable, that–despite ourselves– life goes on and engages us with new emotions, new situations and images, new challenges and changes. The remembrance of the people we miss gets tucked into our hearts to be revisited-perhaps when we least expect it. As for the process of true inner change, true self transformation, we learn to forgive ourselves for the mistakes of the past by not making them again. If we are lucky, life “tenderizes” the heart, gives us hearts not of stone but of flesh.

Vayigash powerfully addresses this more authentic model of true emotional change via the character of Judah. In its very opening lines, we find Judah in the midst of responding in an impassioned voice to the demand of the Egyptian vizier that the youngest of Jacob and Rachel‘s sons, Benjamin, be left behind in Egypt. Not knowing, of course, that the forbidding vizier is none other than Rachel’s other son, Joseph whom Judah and his brothers threw into a pit years before–Judah pleads with him to change his mind.

Losing Benjamin would break his father’s heart, already broken because he believes his beloved Joseph is dead, says Judah. He begs to be kept behind in Benjamin’s place. And then he speaks the most plaintive words of all: “For how can I go home to my father if the lad is not with me?” (44:34, my translation).

These words finally break Joseph’s heart-and continue to reverberate through the ages. They signal to Joseph that he can finally trust his brothers, that there has been a profound sea-change in their character, that he can finally reveal himself to them. And so we need to ask ourselves what, in fact, has enabled Judah to come forth in this way? What has enabled the change?

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.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit

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