by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
The last four Torah portions in the book of Genesis/Bereishit tell the story of Jacob’s two most dynamic sons: Joseph, who changes from a foreign slave into a viceroy of Egypt; and Judah, who changes from an amoral egotist into a man of integrity. This double post looks at Judah’s transformation in the first half of the story: the Torah portions Vayeishev and Mikeitz, and Judah’s speech at the beginning of Vayiggash.
(My next post, on later events in the portion Vayiggash, will appear two weeks from now.)
Vayeishev (“And he stayed”)
The story begins when Joseph is seventeen. He tends the flocks with his ten older brothers, who are in their twenties, and brings his father bad reports about them. Jacob dotes on Joseph, since he and baby Benjamin are the sons of his second and most beloved wife, Rachel, who died when Benjamin was born. Jacob gives Joseph a fancy tunic or coat. Then Joseph has two dreams in which his brothers are bowing down to him, and he makes the mistake of telling them. Naturally, his older brothers hate him. As soon as they get a chance, they seize their obnoxious little brother and throw him into a pit.
First they argue over whether to kill him. Then Judah persuades the others to sell Joseph to some slavers heading for Egypt. The brothers dip Joseph’s fancy tunic in goat blood and bring it to Jacob, saying: This we found; hakker na, is it your son’s tunic or not? (Genesis/Bereishit 37:32)
hakker (הַכֶּר) = recognize, identify.
na (נָא) = please.
The trick works; Jacob concludes a wild beast has killed his favorite son. He goes into inconsolable mourning. And Judah suddenly moves south.
Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that Judah’s brothers blame him for selling Joseph and tricking their father, and claim that if Judah had proposed a better course of action, they would have listened to him. So Judah moves to get away from his father’s grief and his brothers’ resentment—the reminders of his own guilt.
Judah starts a new life by marrying a Canaanite woman and having three sons with her: Eir, Onan, and Shelah.
Judah took a wife for Eir, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. And Eir, the firstborn of Judah, was bad in God’s eyes, and God made him die. Then Judah said to Onan: Come into the wife of your brother and yabeim with her, and establish offspring for your brother. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:6-8)
yabeim (יַבֵּם) = impregnate the childless widow of one’s deceased brother or close male relative. (Yabeim is an imperative verb; the noun for the act is yibum, also called levirate “marriage”.)
According to the law of both Canaan and Israel, a son born from yibum receives the inheritance of the deceased man. Without a son from yibum, the inheritance goes to the man’s surviving brothers.
Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so when coming into the wife of his brother, he wasted his seed on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And it was bad in God’s eyes, what he did, and [God] made him die, also. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:9-10)
Judah’s remaining son, Shelah, is not yet old enough to impregnate Tamar. Judah uses this as an excuse to send her back to her father’s house.
Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up. For he said [to himself]: lest he dies, also, like his brothers. And Tamar went, and she sat in her father’s house. (Genesis 37:11)
Judah has no intention of letting Shelah yabeim with Tamar. He assumes that she, not God, somehow caused of the death of Eir and Onan. Determined to protect his remaining son, Judah dooms Tamar to the disgrace of returning to her father’s house, and to the limited life of a woman who is legally forbidden to remarry, have a child, or do anything without her father-in-law’s consent.
Shelah grows up, but Judah does not send him to Tamar. Judah’s wife dies, and after he has finished mourning for her, he heads to a sheep-shearing festival in Timnah to have a good time. Tamar decides to risk her life in an attempt to win a new life.
She took off her widow’s clothing and she covered herself in a shawl and she wrapped herself, and she sat at petach eynayim, which is on the road to Timnah… And Yehudah saw her and he considered her a prostitute, for she had covered her face. (Genesis 37:14-15)
petach eynayim (פֶּתַח עֵינַיִם) = the entrance to a pair of wells; the opening of the eyes.
Prostitutes in Canaan did not cover their faces; Tamar’s face-covering merely prevents Judah from recognizing her. He assumes she is a prostitute because she is sitting by a public road, where no woman except a prostitute would linger. She may also have wrapped herself in clothing typical for a prostitute.
At petach eynayim, Tamar’s eyes are open behind her shawl; she sees that Judah will never give her Shelah. Judah’s eyes are still closed. Not only does he fail to recognize his daughter-in-law; he cannot see his own past behavior clearly. He propositions the woman sitting by the road.
And she said: What will you give me if you come into me? And he said: I will give a goat kid from the flock. And she said: If you give an eiravon until you send it. (Genesis 37:16-17)
eiravon (עֵרָבוֹן) = guarantee, security deposit, pledge.
And he said: What is the eiravon that I shall give you? And she said: Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand. And he gave them to her, and he came into her, and she conceived. (Genesis 37:18)
Important men in ancient Canaan wore seals on cords around their necks. A seal was a small (about an inch long) cylinder carved with a name or a design indicating the owner’s identity. At that time, documents were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. In order to sign a document, a man rolled his seal along one edge of the clay tablet while it was still wet.
A man’s staff was the emblem of his authority over his own household, clan, or tribe. Thus Judah hands Tamar the symbols of his personal and social identities. When he gets home, he sends his friend to find the prostitute and exchange a goat kid for the eiravon, but she cannot be found.
A few months later Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, even though she is not allowed to have any sex outside of yibum. This flouting of society’s rules requires the man in charge of Tamar to take immediate action. Judah might be secretly relieved that now he can order Tamar’s death, and save Shelah for good.
Judah said: Take her out and she shall be burned. Taken out she was; and she sent to her father-in-law, saying: By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant. And she said: hakker na, whose are this seal and cord and staff? Judah recognized them, and he said: She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah. (Genesis 38:25-26)
Judah is shocked into facing the truth by the sight of his own guarantee. On a literal level, these objects prove he is the father, and Tamar’s sexual encounter with him was for the sake of the yibum he had denied her. On another level, the symbols of identity make him see who he really is: not the righteous ruler of his household, but a man who circumvented the law and ruined an innocent woman’s life.
Tamar’s expression hakker na (“Recognize please” or “Identify please”) surely reminds Judah of when he and his brothers showed Joseph’s bloody tunic to their father and said hakker na. So Judah must also face his identity as the ringleader who sold his little brother and tricked his father.
Recognizing your own bad behavior is painful; staying in denial is much more comfortable. In my own life, I have reacted to the realization that I did something wrong in two different ways: Either I feel irrevocably guilty and unable to change into the person I want to be; or I forgive myself for the past but know that I can, and therefore must, behave better from now on.
Judah starts down the second path, publicly admitting his wrongdoing and vindicating Tamar. She returns to Judah’s house, and gives birth to twin sons.
Mikeitz (“In the end”)
When we next see Judah, he has rejoined his father and brothers. There is a famine in Canaan, but Egypt has grain for sale—thanks to the advance preparations of Joseph, the Pharaoh’s new viceroy. He has risen from rags to riches due to his good attitude, management skills, and a God-given gift of dream interpretation.
Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, keeping only Benjamin at home. The loss of one of Rachel’s sons has made Jacob determined to keep the other one safe.
The ten more disposable sons of Jacob bow down to the viceroy of Egypt without recognizing him; Joseph was a teenager when they sold him, and during the last twenty years or so his face and voice have changed, he dresses like an Egyptian nobleman, and he speaks Egyptian. Joseph, however, recognizes the brothers who sold him into slavery. He accuses them of being spies, the first crime that comes into his mind. They protest that they are honest men, and all brothers. Joseph repeats his accusation, so they elaborate, saying they are twelve brothers, but one is gone and the youngest is home with their father.
Joseph imprisons them for three days, keeps one of them (Simon) as a hostage, and sends the rest back to Canaan under orders to return to Egypt with their youngest brother. He also supplies them with grain, and hides the silver they paid inside their packs.
The nine brothers who return to Canaan explain the situation to Jacob, who responds: As for me, you have deprived me of children! Joseph is gone, and Simon is gone, and now Benjamin you would take! Upon me everything happens! (Genesis 42:36)
As Jacob complains that they have deprived him of children, Judah could not help but remember that for years he also deprived Tamar of children.
Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, replies: My two sons you may kill if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will personally return him to you. (Genesis 42:37)
Jacob refuses the offer, perhaps because Reuben’s guarantee is so unappealing, and Reuben does not speak again in the Torah. The famine continues, and when the extended family has eaten the last of the grain from Egypt, Jacob tells his older sons to go back to Egypt to buy more food. Then Judah steps forward again as a leader.
The first time Judah speaks in the Torah, he arranges for the brothers to sell Joseph as a slave instead of killing him. He speaks often during the story of Tamar, giving orders, haggling with the woman he takes as a prostitute, and admitting his own wrongdoing.
Now Judah points out that the Pharaoh’s viceroy will not let them return to Egypt without their youngest brother, Benjamin. Then, after Jacob has complained, Judah takes another step down the path of transformation, saying:
Send the youth with me, and let us get up and go, so we will live and not die: we and also you and also our children! I, personally, ervenu; from my hand you may seek him; if I do not bring him to you and set him before you, I will be guilty before you for all time. (Genesis 43:8-9)
ervenu (אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ) = I will guarantee it. (From the same root as eiravon = a guarantee.)
Earlier in the story, Tamar asked Judah for a guarantee consisting of the physical emblems of his identity as the ruler of a household. Now Judah offers his father a guarantee based solely on his own commitment to do the right thing. And Jacob accepts it.
In Egypt, Joseph treats Benjamin better than his brothers. Then he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack, and has the brothers stopped on their way out. When the goblet is “discovered” in Benjamin’s pack, they all return to the viceroy’s house, and Joseph declares Benjamin must stay as his slave. This is his final test of his brothers; will they enslave Benjamin, as they once enslaved him?
Judah, the leader, speaks for his brothers. He acknowledges that they cannot defend themselves against the charge of theft, and therefore they are all slaves to the Pharaoh’s viceroy. But Joseph insists that only Benjamin will be his slave.
Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)
The next Torah portion opens with Judah stepping closer to the viceroy and delivering a passionate plea to let Benjamin go home with his brothers. Otherwise, he says, their father will die of grief. Judah concludes:
So now, please let your servant stay instead of the youth, as a slave to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers. For how could I go up to my father when the youth is not with me, and see the evil that would come upon my father? (Genesis 44:33-34)
Then Joseph finally breaks down and reveals his own identity. The whole family is reunited in Egypt.
Why did Judah volunteer to take the punishment for something he did not do? He guaranteed he would not return to Jacob without Benjamin, and he is determined to be true to his commitment— even if it means losing his position as a free man and household ruler, losing his seal and his staff for good. And although he is not guilty of theft, he knows he is guilty of other bad deeds: selling Joseph into slavery, tricking their father into thinking Joseph is dead, and abusing his power over Tamar.
Judah chooses to be an honest and compassionate slave, rather than an independent agent who is selfish and eternally guilty. By making that choice, he also becomes a man of integrity, and an impressive ancestor for the tribe of Judah and its eponymous kingdom.
We are all born into certain identities, and assigned others by our own society. Not everyone gets a seal and a staff. But we all make moral choices, even though we do not always know we are doing it.
May we all become able to recognize ourselves and identify our own behavior, good and bad. May we become able to consciously choose our moral identities, and may we be inspired to make the right choices.