Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Vayeishev 5782

Parashat Vayeishev 5782

November 26, 2021

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeishev
By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (’11)

The story of Tamar is sandwiched between two momentous scenes in the Joseph saga:

The first scene: Joseph dreams some dreams, whose interpretation infuriates his jealous brothers, who sell him to Egyptian slavers. The second scene: Joseph lands in the house of Potiphar, where he is harassed by Potiphar’s wife, resists her advances, and is then thrown into jail based on her lies. In jail, he interprets dreams of Pharaoh’s servants.

In the middle we have Tamar. Around the time that Joseph is sold into slavery, Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, has settled himself as a shepherd of his own flocks in Canaan. He has three sons, and marries off his first son, Er, to a local woman named Tamar. Er displeases God for some reason, so he dies. According to the practice of levirate marriage, Er’s brother must marry his widow so that she can bear sons who will carry on Er’s name and inherit his property.

But Onan refuses to have children with Tamar, which angers God, and so he also dies. Tamar is bad luck, so Judah sends her away and promises, I’ll let you marry my third son, Shelah, when he’s old enough. So she waits.

When years have passed and she isn’t remarried, Tamar devises a plan. She dresses as a prostitute and stations herself at the crossroads, in a place literally named “Opening of the Eyes” (פֶּתַח עֵינַיִם). Her goal is to open Judah’s eyes. Judah comes by and sees her and he negotiates with her for her services, not recognizing her as his daughter-in-law.

While waiting for the goat he pledges to her for her services, she holds his signet seal, his cord, and his staff – symbols of his wealth, nobility, and leadership of his tribe. When he sends a friend with the kid and to retrieve his possessions, the friend finds no prostitute. The friend asks around, has anyone seen a prostitute here? No, there’s been no prostitute here, there never has been.

Tamar gets pregnant. When her pregnancy is revealed, she reveals that her pregnancy is due to Judah, whose eyes have truly been opened. Judah proclaims that it is Tamar who is more righteous than he.

Tamar subverts the norms of her community in ways that might have ruined her. Yet, she is the one deemed righteous at the end of the story. She has executed justice against Judah. This courageous act of hers allows the line of the future king, David, to come into being.

A careful reader might come to the story of Potiphar’s wife and immediately hear the echoes of Tamar’s story. Here is another seductive woman. After Tamar, we know that seductive women have a role to play in the survival and strength of the Israelite people. We might expect to hear the text argue that she acted in righteousness, even when it is obvious from the context that there is no righteousness behind her actions. Despite attempts by the rabbinic tradition to rehabilitate the character of Potiphar’s wife as a visionary hurrying along the story to Joseph’s eventual redemption, this small story, and the parasha itself, ends in a place of complete degradation, a place mired in injustice. Tamar acted in righteousness, righting a wrong that was done to her. Potiphar’s wife commits her own wrong, and Joseph finds no justice within the frame of the parasha. Tamar, as a woman without apparent options, is a marginalized character who somehow finds redemption. Joseph, marginalized by his identity as a Hebrew and further marginalized by his class position, finds no redemption or truth here.

I cannot help but to recognize the quantity of degradation and injustice that fills our world. Like Tamar, I do not immediately see a way through from a place of entrapment to a place of ease and comfort. Like Joseph, I know that too often the victims are punished instead of the wicked. Like the wife of Potiphar, I recognize that I am often the beneficiary of a system which oppresses those who are already marginalized.

Yet I also know that in the most difficult moments, light can be found. Like Tamar, those who are trapped often know best the outlines of their own degradation. Tamar’s salvation comes only when she is fully seen, and fully honored in her righteousness. Like Joseph, those who are falsely imprisoned are often denied a path to proclaim their own truth, but they are not voiceless, and can still be heard, when we are willing to listen. As the delicate candles of the Chanukah menorah teach us, the lights of truth and courage remain the best way to illuminate the darkness.

Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.