Torah from Around the World #144

By: Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum, rabbi of

String of Pearls

– Jewish reconstructionist congregation of Princeton, NJ, and member of JWI’s Clergy

Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community

Recent Issues

Who grows and changes most in the Joseph saga? The last four


of Genesis – beginning with this week’s parsha,


– are sometimes called the world’s first novella, with Joseph as its protagonist. But in these four sections (








) we also witness the remarkable evolution of Judah, the fourth of Joseph’s brothers. In the space of these final chapters of Genesis which culminate in the descent of Jacob’s entire clan to Egypt, we follow Judah’s growth from callousness to compassion. Judah becomes, in a word, a mentsch.

Is it possible that the moral development of Judah (


in Hebrew) from which come ‘Judaism’ (


) and ‘Jewish’ (


), is equal in significance to Joseph’s journey? If so, then the presence in this week’s parasha of the story about Judah impregnating his daughter-in-law Tamar is no interruption of the main narrative. Instead this episode may be seen as the actual moment when the heart of this family cracks open, letting compassion in. Compassion will ultimately lead directly to the survival of the clan.

Rashi suggests that Judah, although a natural leader, is no hero when the episode with Tamar begins: ”

And it happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers…

(Gen 38:1).” According to Rashi, the Torah intends for us to understand not that Judah went down to a particular place but rather that he went down in his brothers’ esteem for failing to lead them to a more humane conclusion after trapping Joseph in the pit many years before. “You told us to sell him,” Rashi imagines the brothers saying. “If you had told us to send him back to our father, we also would have obeyed you.”

Nor does Judah’s life turn around some time later after his widowed, childless, and now desperate daughter-in-law Tamar disguises her true identity with a veil so that her father-in-law will lie with her and impregnate her. Judah not only mistakes her for a ‘


‘ (usually translated as harlot or cult prostitute), but he pledges to her the ancient equivalent of a wallet full of credit cards when he finds himself short of cash to pay for her services. Three months later, when Judah discovers that Tamar, the widow of two of his sons, is suddenly pregnant, he demands that she be burned to death – until she produces his own pledges (seal, cord, and staff) proving that he is the very man who lay with her. In spite of (because of?) this humiliation, Judah then manages to say to Tamar – presumably in public – “you are more in the right than I am (Genesis 38:26).” Only after this admission does Judah begin to demonstrate something he has not shown before: empathy for the suffering of others. (He also gains a new son, Peretz, whose descendant, Boaz, will marry Ruth, a Moabite woman. Together Boaz and Ruth will have a child who in turn will become the great-grandfather of King David).

After this week’s Torah reading, we see Judah continue to grow in


, becoming not only a decent human being but also a true leader. With his new concern for others, he will be the brother who negotiates the difficult conditions imposed by the vizier of Egypt – their own brother Joseph as yet unrevealed. In next week’s reading,


, we find Judah trying to convince his father Jacob to let Benjamin go down with his brothers on their return trip to Egypt as the vizier (aka Joseph) has demanded. ”

Anochi ehERVeinu

” – I will be responsible/I myself will become a pledge for him,” Judah tells Jacob. Interestingly, the root E-R-V is only used in one other place in Torah: when, in this week’s parsha, Tamar demands a pledge,


, from Judah as temporary payment for sex.

In the next to last parsha in Genesis, named for the key verb of its first verse


(“and he went up”), the subject is, fittingly, Judah, not Joseph. Judah has now taken it upon himself to go up to the vizier (Joseph again) to offer himself as a pledge so that their youngest brother Benjamin, who has indeed come down to Egypt this time, needn’t  be left behind as a ‘deposit’ when the other brothers return home with food. The change in Judah now seems to be complete. His inner work done, he merits attention in the last parsha of Genesis only when his dying father Jacob declares, “Judah, your brothers will praise you (Gen. 49:8).”

Judah’s transformation can remind us of one sought today by Dr. Jackson Katz, known for his pioneering work on notions of masculinity. Katz observes, “The climactic scene in

The Wizard of Oz

where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a nervous, tragic man pretending to be the Great and Powerful Oz represents more than just a classic moment in American cinematic history. It is also a powerful metaphor for looking at masculinity in a new way: not as a fixed, inevitable, natural state of being, but rather as a projection, a performance, a mask that men often wear to shield our vulnerability and hide our humanity.” (“

Men, Masculinities, and Media: Some Introductory Notes

”, by Dr Jackson Katz, in

WCW Research Report

, Spring 1999).

This year, the reading of VaYeshev falls within the

16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence

, a global movement. These sixteen days began on

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

. With violence against women currently on the rise, now is surely a fitting time to look for models of growth in empathy and humanity wherever we can find them. Surely Judah’s story offers us one such model.


Rabbi Kirshbaum, rabbi of String of Pearls, a Reconstructionist congregation in Princeton, NJ and member of JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, is the lead author of three holiday guides produced by JWI:  “Rethinking Purim/Shavuot/Sukkot: Women, Relationships, and Jewish Texts.”

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