This week we read the story of Tamar, a young woman who found herself widowed and childless. During Biblical times, the laws of Leverite marriage were practiced which entitled Tamar to attempt to conceive a child with one of her dead husband’s brothers. If successful, any resulting child would be considered the child of Tamar and her deceased husband, Er. Er had two brothers, and Tamar was given to the oldest, Onen. Onen realised that if he and Tamar produced an heir, all his brother’s property would pass to the child and not to him. So he surreptitiously arranged that she could not conceive with him. As a result of this behaviour, his life is taken by God. This leads Judah, Onen’s father to become concerned for his youngest son. Two of his children had already lost their lives and he was not willing to hand over his remaining son to Tamar to fulfil his obligation.
After a time, it becomes apparent to Tamar that Judah has no intention of handing over his son to her and so she takes matters into her own hands. She disguises herself as a prostitute and waits by the side of the road for Judah to pass by. She offers him her services and he readily agrees.
They contract a price of a goat, which Judah does not happen to have with him. Tamar says she will provide her services but he must leave a pledge with her so that she can be assured of payment. Judah gives her his seal and a cord.
A number of months later, the widowed Tamar is clearly pregnant and news of her condition reaches Judah, her father in law. He demands that she be punished for her transgression and for conceiving a child outside of wedlock. At this point in the story Tamar has a number of options available to her; she can accuse her father in law of withholding his son from her, she can produce the items and publicly shame and humiliate Judah. But she does neither of those things.
Instead she sends a messenger to Judah with the seal and the cord, saying ‘the owner of these items is the father of my child.” When Judah saw his seal and cord he realized immediately that Tamar was the prostitute on the side of the road and that she was driven to such action as a result of his wrong behavior. Immediately he calls Tamar to him and he asks her forgiveness. She provides it and the children, twins, who are the progeny of their union are brought into the family and raised as children of his dead son. And it is from one of those children that King David is descended.
Many of the commentators asked what it was about Tamar which made her worthy of King David being descended from one of her heirs. Tamar was not an Israelite, she was a foreign woman, a widow, without children, one of the most vulnerable members of the society and it is from her that one of our greatest kings is descended. So why was she given such an elevated status?
The commentators answer that it is the way that she confronted Judah with her innocence and his sin. Tamar could have publicly shamed him, she could have held him up for all to see as the man who did not fulfill his obligations, but she does not. Instead, she sends him the identifying items and leaves him to work it out and come to her. This led to Judah readily admitting his guilt and a good outcome for all of them. From her actions the Talmud derives the very important principal: “it is better to be thrown into a fiery furnace than to shame ones neighbor in public.” The tradition recognizes the power of words to hurt and heal, their ability to cause irreparable damage and this incident with Tamar reminds us of how important it is to be vigilant about what we say.
The internet has made our ability to affect the lives of others with our words so much more powerful and possible. Judaism has always taught that a hateful word uttered in Jerusalem can kill in Rome. What was once a metaphor for the power of words to hurt has actually become a reality. And unfortunately when we are sitting alone in front of a computer, the checks and balances provided by face to face contact are not present, making it more likely that we will not censor ourselves as we should. We are also often unaware of the consequences of our actions. And mistakes so often happen. We have a powerful weapon with the internet and we must be even more careful and vigilant than we ever were when using words of any kind, not to shame or embarrass our neighbor. Tamar has a poignant message for us all; to always look out for the well being of others and to treat one another with kindness and gentleness.