In Parshat Vayeshev, one man succeeds in paving the way towards two of the most important times in Jewish history. One would expect the actions that merited such monumental influence to be inspiring at least. This is not so.
This week’s Parsha gives the reader a glimpse of a very disturbing side of Yehudah, the son of Yaakov. First, we read about the sale of his brother Yosef to travelling merchants, a plan suggested by Yehudah. His language is even more unsettling as he states personal gain as a reason for selling Yosef into slavery. He states “Mah Betza Ki Na’Harog Et Achinu” “What would be the gain of our killing our brother.” Immediately following this event, there is a break in the Yosef story, and the narrative shifts to the tale of Yehudah and his affair with Tamar, his daughter-in-law. Even of one holds the taking of a prostitute to have been socially acceptable during that time (Yehudah slept with Tamar under the assumption that she was a prostitute, see Bereshit 38:14-15), Yehudah’s refusal to marry Tamar to Shelah, his son, left Tamar helpless. She had been promised a husband in Yehudah’s third, and therefore could not marry another.
Many commentaries link the two stories. For example, many criticisms of Yehudah can be derived from the opening words of the story with Tamar, “Va’Yehi Be’et Ha’hi Vayered Yehudah Me’et Achiv” “And it was, at that time, that Yehudah went down from amongst his brothers.” For example, the Targum and Mizrachi comment that this Yeridah is describing Yehudah’s loss of influence amongst his brothers. Sforno goes so far as to say that the two stories are juxtaposed to one another because the incident with Tamar is punishment for Yehudah’s key role in the sale of Yosef.
I believe that there is a link that more deeply connects the two accounts. Each one of Yehudah’s mistakes leads to a period in Jewish history which begins briefly in happiness and honor, slides into a long stretch of difficult times, and eventually ends (or will end) in a wonderful redemption. The two time periods that I am referring to are the Jewish descent to Egypt and the Davidic dynasty.
By sending Yosef ahead to Egypt, Yehudah ensures a period of wealth and security for the Jews as they transition to their predestined fate of Galut Mitzrayim. When Yaakov and his family arrive in Egypt, after a very emotional family reunion, they are immediately given a special place to live in Goshen, and for some time their needs are taken care of. After this short time, a long slavery ensues, followed by the miraculous exodus from Egypt.
The Davidic dynasty descends from the relationship between Yehudah and Tamar. The story of the kings is not unlike that of the Egypt story in its core structure. It begins with a short period of power as David and later his son Shlomo rule the Jews under one unified kingdom and eventually build the first Beit Hamikdash. However the kingdom splits after this time into the Kingdoms of Israel and of Yehudah, a rule comprised of mostly bad kings. This time period eventually ends in the destruction of another Beit hamikdash, and until today leaves us in a long exile which will one day culminate in a grand redemption with the coming of Mashiach.
People are not perfect, and the Torah recognizes it. Many of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people, including Yehudah, went through times in their lives where they sinned. However, they also knew how to eventually acknowledge their wrongdoings and repent, as Yehudah did in the story of Tamar when he outwardly exclaimed “Tzadkah Mimeni!” “She (Tamar) is more righteous than I!” (Bereshit 38:26). So, too, the Jewish people will always have an opportunity to repent, better their lives and the lives of those around them, and eventually bring the coming of Mashiach.
Girl Studying Migdal Oz