Male characters and voices dominate biblical literature, yet the near-absence of female characters is particularly striking in Parashat Va-yeishev. Here is the story of Jacob (his wives don’t appear) and his 12 sons (his daughter doesn’t appear) exploring the world of men—in the field, on the road, in the city, and in prison. These narratives are rough and even violent, and this tone carries over to the two stories in which women do appear: Judah’s coarse treatment of Tamar and Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s unnamed wife, who physically accosts him.
The Torah sets up the story of Joseph by observing that he was “well-built and handsome” (Gen. 39:6). But it is not only on the outside that Joseph looks good. His resistance to the seductions of Mrs. Potiphar shows strength of character, as does his pious explanation that he is obliged to keep faith with both Potiphar—his master—and with God. In this story, Mrs. Potiphar lacks character (in both senses of the word); she is merely a foil to showcase the virtue of Joseph. He is no longer the spoiled boy prancing about in his fancy clothes and boasting of his dreamy destiny. Joseph has become a cool and collected man; he is now an efficient manager of other people’s concerns.
If Joseph looks exceptionally good in chapter 39, this impression is magnified in contrast to the view that we have just been shown of his brother Judah in chapter 38. Judah repeatedly makes desperate decisions that result in catastrophes. It had been his idea in chapter 37 to sell Joseph into slavery; the traditional commentaries plausibly attribute to Judah the plan of dipping the tunic in the blood of a kid and presenting it to Jacob. In chapter 38, Judah “goes down” from his brothers, and the descent is figurative as well as literal. He subverts the levirate marriage of his daughter-in-law Tamar by denying her access to his youngest son, Shelah, even when the boy comes of age. In this way Judah harms not only Tamar, but also the memory of his first son, his lineage, and his reputation.
If Joseph looks good due to his sexual self-restraint with Mrs. Potiphar, Judah’s hiring of a woman whom he assumes to be a prostitute looks terrible. The younger brother Joseph, alone in the world, has learned to master his urges and thus his surroundings. The older brother acts from fear, loneliness, and lust.
Additionally, Judah is faulted for the inconsistency of his actions regarding Tamar. As a widower, he feels justified employing a prostitute, but the moment he hears that his widowed daughter-in-law has “whored” and become pregnant, he condemns her to be burned to death. Ramban is puzzled by the severity of this response and finally concedes that Judah must have been following a local code that is not consistent with the Torah.
Moreover, Tamar conducts herself with extraordinary courage and sensitivity even under the most trying of circumstances. As she is being led to the stake, she manages to inform Judah of his culpability without embarrassing him. She says, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” (Gen. 38:25). In the Talmud (Sotah 10b), Tamar’s example is cited to make the point that “it is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than humiliate his neighbor.” The Rabbis admire Tamar’s willingness to die rather than accuse Judah in public. They also notice a literary cue in Tamar’s request that Judah “examine these (hakeir na).” It was with this same expression that Judah and his brothers presented Jacob with Joseph’s bloody tunic. Rabbi Hama says, in the name of Rabbi Hanina, “With hakeir na [Judah] informed his father; with hakeir na he was informed [by Tamar].” In the former story, Judah uses the expression to deceive his father; in the latter story, Tamar uses the phrase to disillusion Judah. There is poetic justice at play here.
Rabbi Barukh HaLevi Epstein expands on the Talmud’s attention to the literary cue hakeir na, noting (in the footsteps of Bereishit Rabba and Rashi) that both stories involved the prop of a goat (Torah Temimah to Gen. 38:25, note 30). He observes that this is an example of the rabbinic maxim middah k’neged middah (measure for measure). God’s justice is demonstrated when a person is punished (or rewarded) in a way that mirrors their initial act. Rabbi Epstein observes that the two stories share an additional connection: in both cases the end result of the ugly incident is positive and even redemptive. Joseph needs to be enslaved in order for Israel to relocate to Egypt and eventually be redeemed. Tamar needs to conceive a child through Judah in order to start the line that will lead through her son Peretz down to King David. Thus two redemptive events are set into motion by shameful incidents. Does the fact that Jacob’s family needed to end up in Egypt and that Tamar’s descendant would become the quintessential king of Israel excuse the horrible family transgressions that set these events in action?
Let’s rephrase the question: if you could accomplish a great result for your people but only by acting in a morally repulsive fashion that would be recorded and read aloud every year in every Jewish community for the rest of our history, would you do it? Probably not. Still, our final judgment of Judah must include his moral growth over the course of the parashah. To his credit, Judah admits error at the last moment and even praises the righteousness of Tamar. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes, “Judah applauds Tamar’s action, and God rewards it” (Reading the Women of the Bible, 274). This new Judah will continue to act responsibly for the rest of Genesis, and will eventually demonstrate complete repentance in Parashat Va-yiggash when he offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin. One possible translation of the name Judah, or Yehudah, is “the one who admits error.”
Parashat Va-yeishev focuses on the maturation of two brothers, Judah and Joseph. Although women are not the primary focus of this narrative, it is hard to miss the role of Tamar as the catalyst for Judah’s moral growth and for his subsequent change in behavior. She refuses to sit by passively as the men of her family act irresponsibly and destructively. Her brave actions transform Judah and, through him, the entire extended family of Israel. It is not too much to claim that Tamar’s confrontation with Judah teaches him how to reconcile with Joseph. Tamar emerges from the shadowy morals of our parashah to become a principled guide, a mother, the ancestor of David, and the matriarch of the messianic line.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.