Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) Ends and Means? Conforming to Tradition…My way?

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            Once again in this week’s portion we are presented with a variety of issues. As the favored son of Jacob’s old age, Joseph emerges as a major player. He dreams of power over his brothers and, through interesting circumstances, finds himself in Egypt and a strange encounter with Potiphar’s wife. The role of dreams is central to these chapters as the psychological interpretation of Joseph as the ego driven teen is present in a variety of commentaries. No doubt many of you will delve into these early chapters of the portion this Shabbat.

            However, I want to raise another passage with you this week. The question is how far will one go to seek a rightful place in society or to achieve what one thinks is right? Take a look at Genesis 38. Inserted in the Joseph cycle is this chapter featuring Tamar, the daughter in law of Judah who is widowed. Torah culture demanded that the brother of her husband marry her to extend the line. Yet, this does not happen. A promise is made that eventually she will become the wife of another brother-in-law, Shelah, who was not ready to be a husband/mate. Tamar, tired of this, left to return to her father’s home. Tamar, in 38:14ff, “plays the harlot”, sleeps with Judah, and becomes pregnant. The end of the chapter recounts this vivid drama in which Judah is exposed by Tamar’s trickery and survives rather than being killed. She gives birth to twins, who struggle in the womb.One of the children born becomes a precursor of the Davidic line, so a classic interpretation is that behind all of this is the “hand of God”. When you read the story, that theological foundation may seem a reach, but tradition always seeks a reason why a story appears in Torah.

            Tamar, in keeping with the Leverite marriage customs, should have waited for Shelah. But she decided not to conform, rather, she decides to be herself, get what she wishes and break from conformity. “Tamar actively takes steps to change her destiny, by an act that defies the patriarchal order, in the interest of allowing her, ultimately, to fulfill herself according to its terms.” (Leila Leah Bronner quoted in” Biblical Women in the

Midrash”. Naomi M Hyman. P.73). So, a question for this Shabbat; how many of us have had moments in life when we were faced with a choice of “play by the rules” or do what we must, to follow our heart and what we feel is right? Is Tamar a heroine?  How much courage did it take for her—or for us—to follow our heart rather than always following the rules? I suggest, if you go to Torah study this Shabbat, that a conversation about Tamar may be very relevant.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Richard F Address

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