Yosef and Yehuda

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Yakov Ellenbogen

The Gemara in Makkot 23b quotes Rabbi Elazar as saying that:

בג’ מקומות הופיע רוח הקודש: בבית דינו של שם, ובבית דינו של שמואל הרמתי, ובבית דינו של שלמה

בבית דינו של שם, דכתיב: ויכר יהודה ויאמר צדקה ממני

?![מנא ידע? דלמא כי היכי דאזל איהו לגבה, אזל נמי אינש אחרינא [לגבה

…יצאת בת קול ואמרה: ממני יצאו כבושים

In three places the Holy Spirit was manifest: In the court of Shem, and in the court of Shmuel of Ramah, and in the court of Shlomo.

In the court of Shem as it says “And Yehudah recognized them and said ‘She is more right[eous] than I.’”

How did he know [that she was right]? Perhaps just as he had come to [sleep with] her, someone else had come to [sleep with] her!?

A heavenly voice went out and said “(These) hidden things came from me.”

This midrash seems to address the relatively straightforward problem of how Yehudah was able to declare confidently that Tamar was righteous – how could he know that she had slept only with him? However the midrash also deals with two much broader issues in the story.

  1. It clarifies the ambiguous moral stature of Yehudah and Tamar. Yehudah, who had sold his brother into slavery, kept his daughter-in-law from marrying in accordance with the law, and, thinking she was a prostitute, slept with her – turns out to be a prophet. Tamar, whose only real action in the story is to dress up as a prostitute and trick her father-in-law into sleeping with her, has G-d Himself vouching for her character.
  2. It inserts G-d into the story at a point where He otherwise seems absent. The reader is very aware of G-d’s presence early in the story, as He kills Yehudah’s sons Er and Onan. However, after that He does not figure overtly. Additionally, it is unclear whether Yehudah and Tamar themselves are aware that Er and Onan died as punishment for their sins. Yehudah’s decision to not marry Tamar to his third son Shelah may have been an attempt to protect Shelah from making the same mistake they did,[1] or because he assumed that Tamar had caused her husbands’ deaths, and he was trying to protect Shelah from her, not from G-d’s wrath.[2] Our midrash reinserts G-d into the story, but does not tell us when Yehudah and Tamar became aware of His role throughout.

The ambiguity of how people viewed G-d’s role may be purposeful. Rashi’s first comment on the story of Yehudah and Tamar asks why this story is placed in the middle of the story of Yosef.

?”ויהי בעת ההוא” – למה נסמכה פרשה זו לכאן והפסיק בפרשתו של יוסף

ללמד שהורידוהו אחיו מגדולתו כשראו בצרת אביהם. אמרו: אתה אמרת למכרו, אילו אמרת להשיבו היינו שומעים לך

And it was at this time– Why was this story placed here [where it] interrupts the story of Yosef? [This story was inserted here] To teach us that his [Yehudah’s] brothers lowered him from his high position when they saw their father’s pain. They said, “You said to sell him. Had you said to return him, we would have listened to you.”

Rashi reads the story of Yehudah and Tamar as a response to the sale of Yosef. However, the story can also be read in light of the next part of Yosef’s story, when he is in Potiphar’s house. In that section, Yosef is constantly aware of G-d’s role in his life. The Torah says that his success is from G-d, and that even Potiphar was aware of that. Later, when he is challenged sexually, he refuses to “sin to G-d”.

By placing Yosef’s story within Yehudah’s, the Torah contrasts the two brothers, and teaches us that the difference between them was not G-d’s role in their lives, but whether they recognized it.  Hopefully, we should emulate Yosef in this regard, as Yehudah finally came to realize.

Yakov Ellenbogen (SBM 2013, 2014, 2015), a native of Sharon, MA, is a Junior at Yeshiva University. He previously attended Yeshivat Petach Tikvah, Yeshivat Sha’alavim and Yeshivat Har Etzion.

[1] This is in line with Ramban’s comment on 38:11

[2] This is in line with Rashi’s comment on 38:11

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