Immediately after Yosef is sold to the Midianites, the Torah interrupts the main Yosef narrative to tell us the story of Yehuda and Tamar. This story is often understood to be Yehuda’s story, and could be entitled “The Moral Education of Yehuda.” Yehuda was a person with true leadership potential. As the story of Yosef bears out, he had a good moral compass, and knew the difference between right and wrong. He was able to stand up to his brothers and prevent the death of Yosef. But he still fell short. He stopped the brothers from killing Yosef, but not from selling him into bondage. This story, then, is where Yehuda, with everything to lose, admits that he is the father of Tamar’s child. He has learned to take full responsibility for his actions, and to have the courage to stand up for what is right, regardless of the cost.
But this story is also Tamar’s story. It is the story not of a leader, not of a person in a position of power, but of someone powerless who barely has a voice. It is the story of how a woman in a patriarchal society is able to exert her will, able to right the wrongs that have been done to her. It is the story of how such a woman is able to have, if not power, then at least influence, influence on the outcome of events and influence on the people who hold the power.
The way Tamar exerts such influence is not by directly challenging the powers that be. The powerless cannot directly take on those in power. When Yehuda tells her, after the death of his second son, that she must wait until he is prepared to remarry her to his youngest son, Sheila, she is silent and raises no objection. This is not because she thought she was being treated fairly. We are told that Yehuda was not being honest with her – “for he said, lest he die just like his brothers” (38:11) – and we can assume that she was not totally fooled by this. But what could she do? He was the man and the head of the family, so she had to take him at his word. So she goes, silently, she leaves, she sits, and she waits: “And Tamar went, and she sat in her father’s home.” (38:11).
If she cannot succeed by the direct approach, then an indirect approach – deception – is called for. Thus, when many years have passed and there is no question as to Yehuda’s shirking of his responsibility, she takes advantage of Yehuda’s state of sexual neediness, dresses up as a prostitute, and acts – through this deception – to right the wrong.
Now, we are familiar with the putting on of another’s clothing to misrepresent oneself, to deceive a powerful figure. Rivka put Esav’s garments on Yaakov so that Yaakov could deceive his father into thinking that he was Esav. But while that deception led to great suffering – Yaakov’s exile, his suffering and being deceived at the hands of Lavan – this deception not only leads to a positive result, but actually to the pronouncement of Tamar’s righteousness: “She is more righteous than I!” (39:26). What is the difference between these two deceptions?
In many ways, the Torah encourages us to see parallels between these two cases. In each case, the key woman in the story gives birth to twins, with the two sons fighting in utero for who gets to come out first and who will be the true firstborn son. In both, clothing is used to deceive someone who could not see the other’s face – either because he was blind or because the other’s face was hidden behind a veil. In both, a kid goat is used to effect the deception – the hair to stand in for Esav’s hairy neck and arms, or the promise of it to secure Yehuda’s signet ring, staff and cloak. In both, the key word – yakeir, to recognize – represents the turning point (as it also does in earlier and later stories in this narrative). Regarding Yitzchak we are told, vi’lo hi’kiro; he did not recognize Yaakov, and thus he blessed him. In parallel, we are told that at the critical moment va’yakeir Yehuda, that Yehuda recognized and acknowledged his cloak and staff, and that he owned up to being the father of Tamar’s child.
The purpose of these parallels, however, is not to tell us that this is the same story. Quite the opposite. It is to encourage us to see the differences between these two parallel stories, to understand why one ended in misery and one in gladness. It is to encourage us to see the difference between Rivka and Tamar, to see how Tamar is, to use later terminology, the “tikkun” of Rivka.
Let us start with the last point – the language of recognition. In the Rivka story, the presence of the kid goat is used to deceive, and as a result, there was no recognition, vi’lo hikiro. In the Yehuda story, in contrast, the absence of the kid goad was used to secure the cloak, the staff, and the signet ring – that is, the markers of the person’s true identity. It was these markers of true identity which, when they were later produced, led to determining true identity – the father of the baby and the acceptance of responsibility, va’yaker Yehudah.
The question is how this indirect, perhaps less than fully honest, approach is being used. Is it being used to deceive and lead astray, or is it being used to educate, enlighten, and encourage someone to live up to their commitments and responsibilities? Sure, Rivka did what she did because she thought it was right. But she did it despite Yitzchak, with disregard for Yitzchak’s desires. And Yitzchak was doing what was the norm, fulfilling his obligation – to give the blessing to the firstborn. The dressing up of Yaakov caused Yitzchak to act against his wishes, to give the blessing to Yaakov thinking he was Esav.
This is not so in Tamar’s case. Tamar did not only what she thought to be right, she was also coming to educate Yehuda to do what he himself knew was the right thing to do. The same societal norms that dictated that the blessing go to the firstborn also dictated the obligation of the levirate marriage, that Tamar, on the death of her husband, be married to another member of the family. And while she dressed up as a prostitute, it was Yehuda who decided to sleep with this “prostitute”. Tamar’s dressing up allowed him to do what he did desire – to sleep with another woman. And in so doing, he also did the right thing, fulfilling his obligation to his daughter-in-law.
The contrast goes even deeper. Rivka, motivated by her own sense of rightness, was not just acting against Yitzchak’s wishes, she was also taking away what belonged to one brother to give it to another. Tamar, on the other hand, was reversing just this type of injustice. The act of the levirate marriage was an act of self-sacrifice of one brother for another. The living brother knew that “the seed would not be his,” and he nevertheless was called upon to have a child to carry on his dead brother’s name. Onan would have none of this, and Yehuda was perpetuating it. It was only Tamar who was prepared to step in, remind Yehuda of his obligation, and ensure that what was due to this brother would be given to him.
Rivka’s deception caused an already blind man to be put more in the dark. Tamar’s actions, in contrast, led to the restoring of Yehuda’s moral sight. It is thus no accident that when Tamar dresses as a prostitute, she sits b’petach einayim, in the “open place,” but also, more literally, at the “opening of the eyes.” Her covering herself up, with the clothes of a prostitute, with a veil, led not to a hiding of the truth but to its revelation. She sat bi’petach einayim and this opening of eyes that she effected led to Yehuda being able to finally see clearly, va’yaker Yehuda.
The contrast of these two stories shows us that doing what is right can also be doing what is most effective. Tamar, as a powerless woman in a male-dominated society, could not take the direct approach. She could try – as Rivka had – to use subterfuge to impose her will on Yehuda, but that is a path that is doomed to failure. Rather, both the right thing to do, and the most effective thing to do, is to lead Yehuda, lead the person who holds the true power, to a different path, to lead him to see the light. It is not just to save Yehuda from embarrassment that Tamar does not point an accusing finger at him when she is being taken out to be burnt. If she had done that, he would have denied it, and she would have been killed. Tamar, rather, knew that by placing the items in front of Yehuda and then removing herself, Yehuda would be given the space to accept responsibility and do what is right. She helped Yehuda see the light, and then Yehuda was able to see, va’yaker Yehuda.
The story thus ends with a different version of the younger and older brother. Yaakov was the younger brother who was always struggling – often by deceit – to become the older brother, a position he believed to rightfully be his. Peretz, on the other hand, was able become the older brother fair and square. Sure there was a struggle, but in the end, he came out first. Peretz resulted from the union of Tamar and Yehuda – a mother who knew that one must do what is right even when without power, and a father who was taught that when one is in power, he must not allow the power to blind him to what is right. This is how one gets ahead, and how one has the courage and the strength of character to remain honest and fair when he gets there. Peretz is the symbol of this honest and courageous leadership, and it is from his line that, through King David, the future monarchy of Israel is established.