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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayeshev
December 13, 2014 – 21 Kislev 5775

Annual (Genesis 37:1-40:23): Etz Hayim p. 226; Hertz p. 141
Triennial (Genesis 38:1-38:30): Etz Hayim p. 233; Hertz p. 145
Haftarah (Amos 2:6 - 3:8): Etz Hayim p. 247; Hertz p. 152

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Jacob gives Joseph a colored coat to show that he is Jacob’s favorite son. Joseph tells his brothers of dreams that his family will serve him. Enraged, the brothers plan to kill Joseph, until Reuven pleas for clemency; instead, they sell Joseph into slavery, and tell Jacob that Joseph had been killed by an animal.

Judah refuses to have his third son marry Tamar after his first two sons who had been married to her, die. Tamar dresses as a harlot and seduces Judah. When Tamar is discovered pregnant, she is saved from execution only after Judah is revealed as the father.

Joseph, now in Egypt, serves Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph; when he refuses her advances, she accuses him of rape. Joseph is imprisoned. While there, Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker. But while the baker is executed, the butler forgets Joseph once he is restored to his post.

Theme #1: To Er is Human?

Judah got a wife for Er his first-born; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Join with your brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law, and provide offspring for your brother.” But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and He took his life also. (Genesis 38:6-10)

The deaths of Judah’s older two sons leads him to suspect that Tamar is to blame -- setting into motion his extraordinary encounter with her that follows.

Like his brother Er before him, Onan has offended YHWH, and he loses his life. But this time the text declares up front the reason for the divine sanction: “What he did (that is, preventing Tamar from getting pregnant) was evil in YHWH’s eyes …” But the evil deed is more than a creative and illicit method of birth control. By withholding “seed” from Tamar, Onan is in effect squandering the family’s future. …. Likewise, YHWH’s role in the deaths of Er and Onan in the Judah-Tamar story is scarcely incidental; it serves to remind the reader of a lurking providence. -- Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider

[The history of Jewish law] has developed throughout the millennia to incorporate new insights and moral vision, while expressing God’s commitment to compassion and justice. … In Hittite, Assyrian, and Nuzi law codes … [levirate marriage,] yibbum asserts the ownership of the woman by the husband’s family. She is to be inherited like any other property. Jewish law seems to start with that assumption as well. … The rabbis of the Talmud had qualms about this forced marriage, however, particularly since Talmudic law permits marriage only with the woman’s consent. … In 1950, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel made yibbum illegal. What originated as a way of ensuring family continuity became objectionable because the ancient notion of women as chattel was replaced by a growing recognition in rabbinic Judaism of women as responsible adults. -- Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah

The matter of seed runs through the scriptures in a very literal and explicit fashion. It should not be turned into a pale metaphor. The references are directly biological and have to do with human reproduction. This is most clear in the story of Onan … To a modern reader this decision [by Onan to practice coitus interruptus] seems reasonable, but Yahweh saw the sperm being spilled and it “displeased” him. … Manifestly, seed refers to biological reproduction and it is through the seed in the biological sense that the corporate existence of the Chosen People is achieved generation after generation. Biology is central to the definition of the Chosen People. -- Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder

Questions for Discussion:

Spina notes that while the reason for Er’s death is not specified, the reason for Onan’s death is spelled out in the text. Why might have Er died? Is it likely that the actual reason for his death is related to the reason of Onan’s death? Why would the text be comparatively mysterious about Er’s death? Might it be because, as sensitive as Onan’s sin is, Er’s may have been even more sensitive?

Artson gives us a modern perspective on the law of the Levirate marriage, a notion that is at the heart of Onan’s refusal to provide Tamar with a child. Numerous biblical stories are thought to be examples of why a law exists today the way it does. Does this story properly explain the potential problems with Levirate marriage? Or should it be seen as an example of one person’s rebellious defiance of an otherwise reasonable rule?

Akenson reminds us the ultimate importance of biology to Jewish identity. Today, those who are born Jewish always are considered Jewish regardless of how observant they might be. What message do we send fellow Jews when we tell them they are always welcome in the community, no matter what? How does that impact the way we treat our fellow Jews?

Theme #2: Taking Matters Into Her Own Hands

About three months later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child from harlotry.” “Bring her out,” his Judah, “and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again. (Genesis 38:24-26)

Judah finally is forced to confront the unfairness with which he treated Tamar and exonerates her from wrongdoing.

Having known her once, he never abstained from her again. -- Talmud Sotah 10b

Once the widow is pregnant, the levirate is over. The laws do not specify that the woman should continue to be the wife of the levir. Sleeping with a daughter-in-law becomes an incestuous act, and the story hastens to assure us that Judah never slept with Tamar again. -- Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible

Tamar seized this one prime moment for action, securing her, our, destiny. In any case, whether she was a common prostitute (zonah), or a sacred priestess (kedeshah), or temporarily pretending, her daring dance with illicit sex is surprisingly seen by our tradition as just, moral, and ethical. She is a woman who resorts to desperate measures, and in doing so, she shows Judah’s lack of commitment, at least to levirate marriage. -- Rabbi Geela-Rayzel Raphael, “Power, Sex, and Deception,” from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, ed.

Questions for Discussion:

Contrary to the Torah text, the Talmudic tractate of Sotah claims that Judah continues to be intimate with Tamar after her sons are born. What do you think Judah’s relationship with Tamar is like at this point? Does he treat her with the level of affection due to a wife? Does he truly mean it that she is more righteous than he is, and approach her accordingly? Or, is does he take part in the relationship with awkwardness or even anger?

Contrary to the account in Sotah, Frymer-Kensky goes with the original meaning of the text, that Judah never is intimate with Tamar again. Which commentary is more believable?

Raphael celebrates Tamar’s proactive role in this story. Tamar named alongside numerous like-minded women, including Rebekah, Hannah, Deborah and Esther. How are today’s egalitarian communities a celebration of women like them?

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