Shame Without Sin

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Michael Pershan

The story of Yehuda and Tamar is truly a bombshell: a tale of death, sexuality, deception and contrition. It’s a difficult perek, made more difficult by its insertion in the middle of Yosef’s saga. What is this story about, and what is it doing here?

For both Yehuda and Tamar, this is a story about embarrassment and shame. Yehuda ends up in a compromising situation. After extensive negotiations with a prostitute (which, in retrospect, should have been his first warning sign), he finds himself unable to find her and pay for her services. At the cost of his collateral, he decides not to prolong the search, “lest we become a laughingstock.”

Yehuda doesn’t know the half of it, though. The “prostitute” was Tamar, his daughter-in-law, and she has become pregnant, and she has proof that the child is his, in the form of the seal she cleverly took as collateral. Yet, when her pregnancy becomes known and Yehuda sentences her to burn, she remains publicly silent, keeping the scandalous information to herself — and to Yehuda, whom she tells discretely.

The gemara makes much of this: “Better for a man to let himself be cast in flames than not shame another.” We learn this from Tamar, who kept quiet even as disaster neared.

One puzzle the mefarshim grapple with is why Tamar remained silent during the first three months of her pregnancy, before the pregnancy became noticeable. Why not bring the seal to Yehuda right away?

The Torah is not explicit as to Tamar’s motivations in meeting Yehuda out on the road. According to the Sforno, though, Tamar didn’t seek the father; she sought the son, Shelah, who she had been told to wait for. All she wanted was to dress up nicely, to remove her mourning clothes, and make a clear impression. That would show Yehuda that she was ready to emerge from her grief and marry his third son.

Instead, her father-in-law asks to sleep with her. Rashi on Yehuda’s proposition to Tamar: “hava na: Prepare yourself and your mind for this.”

Tamar needs to prepare psychologically because this was not what she thought would happen when she encountered her father-in-law. Still, she accedes to Yehuda’s call of hava na. (I wonder, did she know that Yehuda couldn’t recognize her?) Three months later, her pregnancy becomes obvious. Word passes to Yehuda, who sentences her to be burned. And still, Tamar remains silent.

“Better for a man to let himself be cast in flames than not shame another.” But what about shaming yourself? The key to understanding Tamar’s silence could be the shame she feels for herself — especially if, as Sforno says, her intent had not been to sleep with Yehuda. Perhaps, even as the father of her children sentences her to death, Tamar is still hoping there’s some way, any way, to avoid revisiting this episode in public, for her own sake.

Following Yehuda’s actions, he and Tamar are both left feeling ashamed of themselves. And yet Yehuda seems to be without sin. Yehuda was widowed when he propositioned Tamar, he didn’t really owe Tamar his third son in marriage, and he didn’t recognize Tamar when he propositioned her.

But whether or not, in a technical sense, Yehuda sinned seems besides the point. Yehuda came to be ashamed of his actions, and caused Tamar to become ashamed of herself. People don’t feel like that when they act righteously; he must have done something wrong.  

What was Yehuda thinking, when Tamar handed him his seal and cord? Can we imagine what was passing through his mind in that moment? Did he feel defensive? Protective? Angry? Scared?

Maybe, in that moment, Yehuda thought of his brother, the one whose sale he’d arranged in the story surrounding this one. That had been a difficult situation too, even more than his current predicament. And he’d found an elegent way out. The others wanted to kill him, after all, so Yehuda had done the right thing. Yosef was still alive.

He had done the right thing, hadn’t he? But then why, as Yaakov wept, did the others look at him with disgust? What right did his brothers have to be upset with him? (Rashi: “And Yaakov descended – they took him down from leadership.”) Rationally, the brothers had no right to judge Yehuda.

But when it comes to ethics, emotion is sometimes a better barometer than reason. Yehuda was embarrassed by what he’d done — what he’d done to Yaakov, Yosef, his brothers and to Tamar — and he finally knew what he had to do: “Yehuda recognized and said ‘She is right,’” and his teshuva began.


Michael Pershan (SBM 2009) teaches math at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn.


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