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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Vayeshev

From Lyin’ To Lion

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Sometimes the slightest statement in the Torah can carry the greatest meaning.

In the story of Yehuda & Tamar, the Torah tells us that after Yehuda discovers that the woman he has impregnated is his daughter-in-law Tamar, he "ceases to be intimate with her anymore." Why, exactly, do I have to know this? Is it crucial to the story? And is Yehuda to be praised for this?!

Let’s back-track a bit. Parshat Vayeshev is really a story-within-a-story. First, there is the tale of the tragic jealousy & quarrel between Yosef & his brothers, who end up throwing him into a pit, & then into slavery.

Then there is the saga of Yehuda & Tamar. After Yehuda’s 2 eldest sons, Er & Onan, refuse to have relations with Tamar – fearing this would mar her beauty – Yehuda promises to give Tamar his 3rd son, Shelah. But he actually had no intention of honoring that promise, & so, after Yehuda’s wife dies, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute & seduces Yehuda, resulting in the birth of Peretz & Zerach.

What is the link between these 2 seemingly diverse stories?

The answer can be found in the verses that open two chapters: "At that time, Yehuda went down from his brothers….;" and, "Yosef was brought down to Egypt."

While Yosef’s descent was a physical one, Yehuda’s was a moral, spiritual decline. Yehuda had had the chance to save Yosef, but he chose to advise selling him, instead. He also allowed his father to believe that Yosef was dead, causing him untold grief. As the natural leader of the family, he abdicated his responsibility, & so he declined in stature & self-bearing, until he was finally reduced to consorting with prostitutes.

Yet at the very same time that Yehuda was acting morally degenerate, Yosef was going in the exact opposite direction, holding fast onto his own moral character. He befriended the baker & wine steward, listening kindly and patiently to their tales of woe, & then he refused the illicit advances of Mrs. Potiphar. So while the king, Yehuda, became slavish to his urges, the slave, Yosef, maintained a royal bearing.

But then Yehuda’s tryst was uncovered, & he had to make a decision. Would he hide his indiscretion & let Tamar die, or would he step up and confess to his actions? He chose the right path, admitting that Tamar was more righteous than he.

And then adds the pasuk, "He ended his intimacy with her." Technically, he could have continued, say Chazal. But having relations with one’s daughter-in-law - even before the Torah was given, with its rules of who one may or may not marry - was odious. And so Yehuda did the right thing. And this started him back on the road to redemption. For admitting a sin is just the first step; resolving never to repeat it, refusing to commit that sin again, is the real test of strength.

Yehuda stopped the lyin’ & reverted back to Yehuda the Lion.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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