Va-yashev (Genesis 37:1- 40:26)

Va-yashev (Genesis 37:1- 40:26):

Recognizing the Intention to Transgress

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“I am with child by the man to whom these belong….
Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”

Genesis 38:25

She said to him: “It was I.”

He said to her: “But in any case, my intention was to transgress.”

B. Kiddushin 81 b

On the agenda this week for my welcoming Jewish study group, Beit Kulam, now in its third year, is a Talmudic tale about a long-married, Jewish couple [1]. Over the years, their marriage has faded from romanticism to a purported asceticism in the name of holiness.  In other words, sexual relations are no longer part of their marriage. One day, as the wife goes out to market on Mondays and Thursdays, the husband, wailing aloud, begs God to repress his “evil impulses.” When the wife, returning to pick up a forgotten object, overhears him, she devises a scheme to attract him. Dressing like a prostitute, complete with disguising heavy makeup and jangling bracelets, she attempts to seduce him in the garden outside their home, and he propositions her. After their encounter, she demands that he prove himself by bringing her a pomegranate (the sign of his attraction) from the top of a tree, which he does. Then, once more dressed as his wife, she re-enters their home and lights the oven, but she is taken aback when husband immediately sits inside its fiery heat as penitence. As she attempts to reassures him that she, his wife, was the seductress – “it was I” – he still groans under the weight of his guilt. “But the intention to transgress was mine,” he answers.

At least, unlike some others who transgress in public life today, he can admit that he was wrong. (And she has the pomegranate to prove it, although that fact is implicit, not expressed, in the terse Talmudic story.)

There are some similarities in this Talmud story to the interaction between Tamar and Judah, one of the major stories (Joseph is the other protagonist) in our Torah portion this week, Vayashev. “Judah is the first person in the Torah explicitly to admit he was wrong,” writes my favorite Torah commentator, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “…[T]his seems to be the moment at which he acquired the depth of character necessary for him to become the first real baal teshuvah” [2].

What happened in the Torah’s story to lead to this moment? Tamar, who was not Jewish, had been previously married to two of Judah’s sons, both of whom died. Er, the firstborn,it seems, was a sinner, while the second son Onan (bound by the custom of levirate marriage to marry his widowed, childless sister-in-law) did not want to have children and wasted his seed. Thus Tamar was unable to have a child to honor her first husband’s memory, especially since Judah hedged about letting his third son, Shelah, marry her – even though Shelah was actually bound by Jewish law to marry his brother’s widow.

Tamar was not going to put up with this evasion. So she took the only recourse open to her in biblical times: seduction. Disguising herself as a prostitute and putting herself in Judah’s direct path as he went to the sheep-shearing, you can guess what happened. He engaged her “services.” Not only did they have intercourse, she became pregnant.

When Tamar (as the prostitute) demanded payment for her “services,” Judah said he would send it to her, and when she asked something tangible as his pledge, he handed over the cord and seal proving his identity (a proof more significant than the simple pomegranate demanded in the later Talmudic Kiddushin story).

When Judah learned about Tamar’s pregnancy, however, he was furious. Of course, he didn’t realize that his son’s widow had disguised herself as a prostitute, and that he, her father-in-law, was the one who had impregnated her. So he demanded that she be put to death for adultery. But Tamar held the winning card: she produced Judah’s cord and seal to prove that he was the father. Why had she done it? To perpetuate the memory of her husband [3].

And so Judah admitted his transgression. He was indeed the father, and his son’s memory would forever live on. In addition, both Tamar and Judah ended up being remembered in Jewish history as courageous (she for attaining her goal through clever deception, he for confessing his error). Admittedly, Tamar used the only weapon she had, her sexual self, to attain her aims, but I have to keep reminding myself to see the story through the lens of biblical times (heroic Tamar forces powerful but honest Judah to tell the truth) and not from a contemporary perspective (it’s time sexual predators of both genders changed their behavior).

The Tamar and Judah story is also a good reminder to get promised payment for business transactions in writing!

[1] B. Kiddushin 81 b. Retold by Ruth Calderon, “Libertina,” A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales, trans. Ilana Kurshan (Philadelphia: JPS, 2014), 39.

[2] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Heroism of Tamar,” www.Covenant and Conversation, (Vayashev 5775, Dec. 8, 2014).

[3] It is ironic that Tamar, along with the now famous Moabite woman called Ruth, both originally non-Jews, was to become an ancestor of King David.