Fathers-in-Law

February 5, 2021 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Vayeishev, Yitro | Leave a comment

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving you.  (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

This is the fifth of the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  You can read my blog post about it here: Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents.

The portion Yitro also gives us a portrait of an eponymous father-in-law well worth honoring.  Yitro visits his son-in-law Moses in the wilderness around Mount Sinai, where Moses he has led the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.  The two men exchange greetings, with Moses bowing to the ground to honor his father-in-law.1  Yitro, a Midianite priest, rejoices over the good things that Moses’ God has done for Moses’ people, without showing a hint of jealousy.2  Then he makes an animal offering to God, and all the elders of the Israelites join him in the ritual meal.3  Finally, Yitro observes Moses wearing himself out by serving as the only judge for all his people’s disputes, asks him the reason, and then suggests a system for delegating authority.4  He leaves his son-in-law in a better position than when he arrived.

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As I continue to write my book on morality in Genesis, I am now wrestling with the story of a less admirable father-in-law.  Judah, who once arranged to sell his brother Joseph as a slave,5 has three sons.  He chooses Tamar as a wife for his oldest son, Eir.6  But Eir dies after the wedding.

According to the law of yibum (also called levirate marriage), a woman who is childless when her husband dies must be given a place in the household of the deceased through an arrangement in which the dead husband’s brother or nearest male relative impregnates her, and when she has a son her boy inherits her dead husband’s portion of the family wealth.  Without yibum, the widow has no rights.

Judah dutifully sends his second son in to Tamar’s bed, but he refuses to perform, and shortly dies.  Now Judah has only one son left, young Shelah, and he is afraid that Shelah will also die if he gets near Tamar.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: “Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 38:11)

Tamar waits a long time in limbo, and then finally takes the yibum into her own hands.  When Judah goes to the annual sheep-shearing, he spots someone at a crossroad whom he assumes is a prostitute waiting for a customer.  It is Tamar, dressed like a prostitute and veiled so he does not recognize her.  She asks him to give her his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge until he can pay her.  When Judah sends his friend with the payment, no prostitute can be found.  A few months later, when it becomes obvious that Tamar is pregnant, Judah condemns her to death for prostitution.  After all, she was supposed to remain chaste until he arranged yibum for her again.

At the last minute, Tamar sends Judah his own seal and staff with the message:

“To the man whose these are his I am pregnant.”  And she said: “Recognize, please: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”  (Genesis 38:25)

At that moment Judah changes.  He is the first person in the Torah to admit he was wrong.

And Judah recognized, and he said: “She is more righteous than I.”  (Genesis 38:26)

He becomes an honorable father-in-law, returning Tamar to his household, where she has twin sons.  Judah also becomes an honorable man, who eventually offers himself as a slave to protect his innocent brother Benjamin.7

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Not all parents-in-law, or all parents, are worthy of being honored.  But we can still treat them with respect, for being fellow humans and for who they might become.  The example of Judah reminds us that human beings can change.

  1. Exodus 18:7.
  2. Exodus 18:9-10.
  3. Exodus 18:12.
  4. Exodus 18:13-26.
  5. Genesis 37:26-27.
  6. Genesis 38:6.
  7. Genesis 44:32-33.

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