Visible symbols of authority can also seduce you, and others, into forgetting the difference between one’s public identity and one’s personal, inner self. The Torah addresses this problem in the first two Torah portions that tell the story of Joseph and his brothers: Vayeishev (“And he settled”) and Mikeitz (“In the end”).
The Story of Judah and Tamar
In this week’s portion, Vayeishev, one of Joseph’s older brothers, Judah, convinces the others to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt instead of killing him outright. (See my post Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy on why Joseph’s brothers hated him.)
Then Judah moves away from his family and starts a new life. He becomes a prosperous shepherd with his own household, including three sons. Judah marries his oldest son, Eir, to a Canaanite woman named Tamar. Eir dies soon after, and Tamar is not pregnant. So according to the custom of yibum, or “levirate marriage”, Eir’s brother (or closest male relative) must impregnate his widow. If her baby is a boy, he will inherit her late husband’s property, and she will be have economic security and status through her son.
Judah sends his second son, Onan, to Tamar. But Onan refuses to do his duty; why should he mess up his own inheritance? Then he dies, too.1
Judah superstitiously delays giving Tamar his youngest son, Shelah. He uses his authority as the head of his household to return Tamar to her father’s house. Here she must live as a widow who cannot remarry as long as the yibum is pending.
Tamar waits for years. Shelah grows up, and Judah’s wife dies. Judah finishes mourning for his wife, and heads off to the annual sheep-shearing. Tamar slips away from her father’s house, dresses as a veiled prostitute, and sits by the road where Judah will see her. Not recognizing her, and feeling festive, he propositions her.
When Judah promises her a kid goat in payment for sex, Tamar demands a pledge to keep until the goat is delivered.
And he said: “What is the pledge that I must give to you?” And she said: “Your chotam and your cord and the matteh that is in your hand”. And he gave them to her, and he entered her, and she conceived. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:18)
chotam (חֹתָם) = a seal. (A common kind of seal in the Middle East was a carved cylinder worn on a cord around the neck. To authorize a document written on a damp clay tablet, a man rolled his seal over the clay as a signature.)
matteh (מַטֶּה) = a staff, a walking stick, the symbol of a tribe or clan or its chieftain.
Tamar is asking Judah for the symbols of his public authority—his signature (which is how a seal was used) and his corner office! And he loans them to her, as if he were using a credit card to buy sex now and pay later. It does not occur to him that this veiled woman might use his seal and staff to run a scam or to blackmail him. He is so accustomed to ruling his extended household, and to judging and sentencing anyone under his control, it does not occur to him that anything could jeopardize his position.
Later, Judah’s best friend and confidant searches for the “prostitute” to give her the kid goat and retrieve the seal and staff. But she has disappeared. Then Judah gets nervous about losing status in the community, and he asks his friend not to tell anyone that he left his seal and staff with a prostitute.
Eventually Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant. He knows that his son Shelah is not the father, so he calls her a harlot and sentences her to burning. As Tamar is taken away, she sends Judah his pledge with this message:
I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong. Please recognize who owns these, the chotam and the cord and the matteh. (Genesis 38:25)
At that point, Judah says: “She is more right than I am” (Genesis 38:26), thus becoming the first person in the Torah to admit he is wrong.
Judah is acknowledging both that he is the father, and that he was wrong to thwart Tamar’s right to get pregnant by a relative of her late husband.
This story also demonstrates that Judah’s personal desires—to protect his last living son, and to enjoy sex after his own wife is dead—are in conflict with his duty as a clan leader. But he is so accustomed to his position of power, he does not at first realize there is any difference between his private desires and his public role. By taking away the symbols of his public authority, and then returning them at the crucial moment, Tamar shocks Judah into seeing the difference.
When he takes back his chotam and matteh, Judah also commits himself to doing the right thing as the man in charge—even if his private wishes are different. This is a major step forward in ethical development.
The Story of Joseph and Pharaoh
Meanwhile, in next week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, Judah’s little brother Joseph is transformed in one day from an imprisoned slave to the viceroy of Egypt.
The pharaoh has two troubling dreams that his own wise man cannot interpret. His butler mentions a dream interpreter he met when he was in prison awaiting trial, a slave from Canaan. Pharaoh commands that Joseph be brought to him. He is impressed with Joseph’s divinely inspired interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams as warnings about a coming seven-year famine, as well as with his proposal for solving the problem—so impressed that he puts Joseph in charge.
And Pharoah said to Joseph: “See, I have placed you over all the land of Egypt!” And Pharaoh removed his taba-at from upon his hand and he put it on Joseph’s hand, and he clothed him in linen garments, and he put the gold collar on his neck. And he had him ride in the merkavah of his second-in-command, and they called out before him “Avreikh!”; thus he appointed him over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:41-43)
taba-at (טַבַּעַַת) = a signet ring. (A king’s ring in Egypt was a signet ring with the king’s seal carved into it. Like the cylindrical chotam that a Canaanite man such as Judah wore on a cord, the signet ring was pressed on a damp clay document as a signature of authorization.)
merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה) = chariot.
Avreikh (אַבְרֵךְ) = (Translation disputed. It might be an unknown Egyptian word, or “I command kneeling!” in Hebrew.)
The pharaoh is smart enough to realize that Egyptians will not treat a foreigner and ex-slave like a viceroy unless he has plenty of visible symbols of his new public identity. Pharoah also gives Joseph an Egyptian name and a high-ranking Egyptian wife. Joseph’s word is then taken as law, and he successfully prepares Egypt for the coming famine.
But Joseph loses some of his own personal identity when he gains these symbols of his new public identity. When his first son is born, Joseph says: “God has made me forget all my hardship and all the household of my father.” (Genesis 41:51) He retains his religion, but otherwise he speaks and dresses and rules as an Egyptian. He never writes home. He is happy to live his role—until his ten older brothers come to him to buy food during the first year of famine.
Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. He speaks Egyptian, dresses as an Egyptian, has an Egyptian name, and wears the gold collar and taba-at of the pharaoh. His public role completely hides his private identity.
Inside, Joseph bears a personal grudge against the brothers who sold him into slavery, and he cannot forgive them until he knows whether they have changed. I can imagine him wondering whether he should take them aside, drop his mask, and confront them directly; or stick to being the Egyptian viceroy, and simply sell them food along with all the other purchasers from Canaan. Then he thinks of a way to test them.
Joseph invents a charge against his brothers, accusing them of being spies, and throws them in prison for three days. He retains one brother, and sends the rest home with an order to bring back their youngest brother, or else. (Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin, was a child at home when Joseph’s older brothers sold him into slavery.) When starvation forces them to return with Benjamin, Joseph inflicts more tests on his older brothers, all while maintaining the persona of an Egyptian ruler. Although he hides his personal identity, his private past affects his behavior as a public official.
Judah is able to step up and speak to the Egyptian viceroy because, thanks to Tamar, he has already recognized and addressed the conflict between his personal feelings and his public role. He has repented of both selling his brother and denying his daughter-in-law. He has dedicated himself to justice and compassion.
Hearing him, Joseph weeps and reveals his personal identity—after sending away his Egyptian servants to make sure they will not lose respect for his authority. He never apologizes for testing his brothers by lying to them; nor does he explain to them why he did it. He does send for his whole extended family, introduces a few of them to the Pharaoh, and arranges for them to live in Egypt, where there is food. But he makes these arrangements as the gracious viceroy of Egypt, without every admitting he was wrong about anything.
Perhaps he cannot integrate an old private identity that he hates (persecuted son of Jacob) with his new public position of authority (viceroy of Egypt). But those who adopt their public roles as their only guide to behavior cannot have a change of heart.
- Genesis 38:8-10.
- Genesis 44:1-34.