“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayeshev 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha
“The Prostitute and the Messiah: Redemption from the Most Unholy of Unions”
“The Prostitute and the Messiah: Redemption from the Most Unholy of Unions“
A desperate woman dresses up as a prostitute and seduces her unwitting father-in-law in order to conceive and bear the child that he had promised. Genesis 38:14-19
This most unlikely of unions produces a succession of generations that leads to King David, and from him, the Messianic line. Genesis 38:29 and Ruth 4:18-22
How could this be, that our redeemer is the result of such an encounter? It sounds more appropriate for a reality show than a Biblical narrative.
And yet it is right here, in Parshat Vayeshev where the Torah interrupts the telling of the selling of Yosef with this saga, the Torah’s roadmap towards Jewish redemptive destiny is told.
What is the message?
First, let’s understand how this narrative fits into the life of the aforementioned father-in-law: Yehuda, son of Yaakov.
Remember, Yehuda’s brothers had banished him from the family after the sale of their brother Yosef, when they saw that the ruse he concocted brought such devastation to their father, Yaakov. Rashi to Genesis 38:1
Estranged from his brothers after that epic failure of leadership, Yehuda begins a new life, getting married and raising a family. Genesis 38:2
But tragedy visits him again – his wife passes and when his eldest son, Er, dies, his second son, Onan, marries Er’s widow, Tamar. Genesis 38:12,7,8
But he, too, dies, leaving Tamar twice-widowed and childless. Genesis 38:10
Yehuda pledges his third and final son Shayla to marry Tamar so that the family line could continue. Genesis 38:11
But Yehuda is afraid that Tamar is doomed. He tells her to return to her family until Shayla is of age – but in reality, as the text mentions. he has no intention of letting Shayla marry her.
When Tamar realizes this and is bound not to marry anyone else, she engineers a ruse that fools even Yehuda.
Dressed like a prostitute, she is visited by Yehuda, who as a down payment surrenders to her his signet ring, his walking staff and his outer cape: all symbols of leadership. Genesis 38:14-18
In mentioning these specific items, the Torah beautifully weaves together the symbolism and tragedy of Yehuda, highlighting his lack of leadership in both the sale of his brother Yosef, and his deception of his daughter-in-law, Tamar.
But this time, when confronted with the fact that Tamar is pregnant, Yehuda publicly acknowledges: “צדקה ממני”, indeed, “Tamar is more righteous than I”. Genesis 38:26
This is a turning point in Yehuda’s life.
For the first time, he acknowledges that he is the cause of human tragedy.
And with his acceptance of his responsibility, leadership and redemption is possible.
That is why the progenitor of the Messiah is born from this inappropriate rendezvous.
The Messiah that will bring the Jewish people and all of humanity from darkness to light.
When we recognize the course corrections that we can make to our behavior, even in the depths of the darkness, the redemptive light is uncovered.
How appropriate that this story is read on Chanukah!
On Chanukah, at the darkest time of the year, we kindle the flames, reminding us that even at the most challenging of times, the ability to state צדקה ממני and recognize our wrongs can give birth to hope and even change the course of history.
This is the Torah’s roadmap of Jewish destiny and of humanity at large.
And this is the opportunity that each of us has in helping to redeem ourselves and the world around us.
Chanukah Sameiach & Shabbat Shalom.