In this week’s parashah we begin the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, who was given the famous multi-coloured coat. The portion starts with Joseph being presented with the coat, he then has dreams of grandeur, which he recounts to his brothers, and they throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. At this point in Joseph’s tale, the Torah diverts to a completely unrelated tale about Judah, one of Joseph’s older brothers, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. It is a curious episode and, after its completion, the portion picks up with the story of Joseph again. As a result, the story of Tamar and Judah is often overlooked and its lessons not discussed.
Judah has a son Er, who is married to Tamar. Er dies without any children and, as was the custom in those times, his brother Onen is given to Tamar to produce an heir for Er. Onen manipulates the situation and does not fulfill his obligation to Tamar and his brother and, as Divine punishment, he dies. There is one son left to Judah, Shelah, but he is too young. So Tamar waits for Shelah to grow and help produce an heir for her dead husband. But Judah, perhaps our of fear – after all, Tamar has been with two of his sons and they both died – does not allow Shelah to be with Tamar. So Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, is intimate with Judah and conceives a child. When he cannot pay for her services, she asks him for objects she can hold in trust until he provides her with the money he owes. He gives her his seal, cord and staff, and goes on his way.
Sometime later, when she is obviously pregnant, Judah calls Tamar before the community and accuses her of adultery — a crime punishable by death. Tamar admits to being pregnant and declares that the father of the child she is carrying is the owner of certain objects, which she then produces. Judah recognizes them as his own, and realizes that Tamar is far from the adulterous woman he suspected. In fact, she has fulfilled the obligation to Er which Judah, Er’s own father, had not. Judah declares “she is more right than I”, and acknowledges that Tamar has done nothing wrong, in fact the opposite.
So what lessons can we learn from this tale? There are many, but the one I believe is most poignant today is what Tamar teaches us about shaming and embarrassing others. She could easily have announced to everyone that Judah was the father of her child. She could have produced his items and shamed him in front of the community, but she chooses not to. Instead, she ensures that he receives the message without forcing him to acknowledge his wrongdoing in front of others.
Tamar is an exemplar of how we should behave towards others. Large tracts of Talmud and other sources are written about how to ensure we never shame another person. Maimonides creates a ladder of tzedakah, different levels of giving based on doing all we can not to shame someone who needs to ask for financial help. Maintaining their dignity is paramount. Some even say that if you shame another while giving them tzedakah, it negates the mitzvah of giving. Further, the Torah teaches that we must rebuke another when we see them committing a wrong. But the Talmud elaborates in great depth about how we can do that without bringing embarrassment to the person to whom we are speaking. Commentators suggest that Korah’s great wrong was not that he challenged Moses’ leadership, but that he did it in public when he should have gone to him in private and had a conversation.
In our world of instant communication, we are called upon to be even more vigilant about our behavior towards others. So much is now public and we can easily do great damage with an unthinking push of a button. It is possible to debate, discuss and find just solutions, without shaming or embarrassing others and without making personal attacks. But too often we see the opposite: in politics, on blogs and social media. More than ever, we need to remember Tamar and her actions, and the importance of protecting the dignity and self worth of others.