How are we to understand the bizarre encounter between Tamar and Judah in Genesis Chapter 38?
("Oh Mildred, it's just another of those whack-a-doo Bible fables. It don't mean nuthin'.") Is it, though?
The essential facts are these: Judah's oldest son marries but dies, leaving behind Tamar, a childless widow. Judah instructs his second son to fulfill the obligation of levirate marriage with Tamar, and he too dies. Judah sends his daughter-in-law packing, still childless and still in her mourning clothes, back to her father's house, with vague promises of an eventual levirate marriage to Shelah, Judah's last remaining son, as soon as he is old enough to do the deed.
She waits. And waits. And waits. She waits for years. She waits until it is self-evident that Judah has (rather conveniently) forgotten her. So she cooks up a plan to entrap Judah in a tryst that would result in her long-desired pregnancy. The trap works. Judah reluctantly acknowledges paternity, and this union is sanctioned in Heaven; indeed, the Davidic/Messianic line is to ultimately come this most unlikely liaison.
At first blush, this story seems more suited for the Montel Williams Show than the Torah. It certainly does not cast Judah in a positive light. Why is this story presented here, embedded in the saga of the selling of Joseph; indeed, why is it related at all? What is the deeper lesson of Tamar & Judah?
Judah was the ringleader in selling Joseph into slavery, at a time when slavery meant probable death. Once the cash was counted and the gravity of his act begins to press upon him, Judah, like Lady Macbeth, freaks out. He flees, trying to outrun his guilty heart. And where does he go? To a place called Adulam, which in Hebrew sounds like Ad Olam, "to the end of the earth." And he befriends a fellow named Hirah, which sounds a lot like the Hebrew word Herut, which means freedom.
So he runs away to re-invent himself, someplace where he and his famous family are unknown. He wants to be free of his past. He throws off his true identity. He tries to bury the cry of his guilty heart with booze, with showgirls, with diversions of every type. He gains a reputation as a rake, as a party animal's party animal. He was the kind of guy who couldn't take even the shortest drive in the car without the radio blaring, because he dreaded the whisper of his soul that could be discerned in the cavernous emptiness of his heart.
Does any of this sound even vaguely familiar? How many Jewish teens run off to college to re-invent themselves, to gain distance from their family, to party hard, to forget their past (there's plenty of time to worry about the future later...) I remember working with the Hillel advisor at the University of Maine, where there were hundreds of Jewish students, but only three or four active in the Hillel. When I asked him about this, he said, "Jewish kids come up to UMaine from all over the country precisely to forget that they're Jewish."
And what of Tamar? In contrast to Judah, Tamar knows exactly who she is, and where her destiny lies. She is determined to graft herself into the Abrahamitic line, and in so doing contribute to the greater destiny of the Jewish people. But despite repeated attempts, her ambition is thwarted. She understands that the key to solving her problem lies with Judah. So she has to come up with a plan.
What plan is most likely to succeed? She knows Judah's nature all too well. She doesn't come around disguised as a seller of holy books; no, her best chance of cornering Judah is as a fille de joie, the tawdry underbelly of life that she knows Judah is not unfamiliar with.
And so Tamar seduces Judah on his way to Timnah, to the county fair, for the annual sheep-shearing. The county fair! Just think how much trouble you can find there if you're looking for it! And for Judah, the party starts early. As they negotiate a price, Judah pledges his signet ring, a p'til and his staff as guarantee of payment after the fair. The Kli Yakar, R' Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, points out that these three items represent his rejected former life. The signet ring ('chotam') symbolizes the Covenant of Abraham (circumcision); p'til recalls the p'til t'chelet, the blue thread of the tzitzit which we wear precisely to remind ourselves not to engage in improper behavior; and his staff represents his position of leadership within the clan of Jacob. By giving them away, he was saying, in essence, "I would gladly trade these symbols of my former life, which I despise, for a few minutes of pain-numbing intimacy with you."
And what is the significance of the place-name Timnah? Three generations earlier, a woman named Timnah wanted desperately to join the clan of Abraham, but for whatever reason, Abraham rejected her as a convert. Ultimately she fulfilled her goal by becoming a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau's firstborn son. So Timnah and Tamar were soul-sisters on a certain level.
When Tamar identifies the father of her baby with the pledges, Judah is absolutely gobsmacked. He is put on the spot, and he has to make a choice: continue the lie that is his new life and deny paternity, or admit to it, and in so doing, admit to all of it - who he really is, and finally deal with the consequences of his choices.
In that instant Judah has a blinding flash of clarity and purpose. Tamar's behavior teaches him something fundamental: although we may run, we can never hide from our true identity, from our true destiny, from our true selves. Gcd's Will in the world will be accomplished with or without our help. In admitting paternity of this child (twins, as it turns out) he takes back his pledges, the symbols of his real life; he spares an innocent woman her life; and he resolves to return home and rebuild his shattered family.
He now confronts the painful realities he has been avoiding for years. In that instant, his path is laid out for him, and he realizes what he must do. Perhaps he cannot undo the selling of Joseph, but he can re-unite with his remaining brothers and make peace among them. The time for petty rivalries is long past; the survival of the Abrahamitic mission is very much in jeopardy. Reuben, who is well meaning but a little soft in the head, is not up to this task. Shimon and Levi will always be suspect by their father after their bloody over-reaction to the rape of Dinah. Judah is the next in line. If he doesn't step up, who will? So here we see the emergence of Judah's role as leader, and ultimately king, of Israel.
Every one of us is put on earth for a reason; every one of us is intended to partner with Gcd to help perfect the world He started. It is our job to define the mission of our lives and execute on it. We all have to make Judah's decision for ourselves. We can run for a while, but we cannot hide forever. If we refuse the mantle of leadership, the nations of the world will force it upon us: "Ten men from each of the Seventy Nations will grab the Jew by the hem of his garment and say, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that Gcd is with you.'" (Zechariah 8:23)
Especially today, in the troubled times in which we live, the world needs the message of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob more urgently than ever before.