In the Torah this week there we read about the story of Joseph sold into Egypt and what happens to him there. After Joseph is sold into slavery, we immediately shift scenes to what seems to be an interruption of the narrative, to Joseph’s brother Judah leaving and going away, where he gets married and has three sons. When the oldest reaches age, Judah finds a wife for him named Tamar.
I think most of us are familiar with the story: God gets peeved at the first brother Er, and he dies, then Judah tells Onan to go do levirate marriage with Tamar so that Er would have an inheritor, but Onan refuses because then Er’s inheritor would get the largest share of Judah’s inheritance (as the son of the first born son) so he spills his seed on the ground. This peeves God, and Onan dies, too. Judah doesn’t realize that God is killing his sons for their wickedness, and thinks it’s somehow due to Tamar, so he sends Tamar back to her father’s house and says he’ll eventually send his third son to her. However when that son reaches the proper age, and Judah doesn’t do anything, Tamar realizes that she has to take matters in her own hands, so she veils herself and goes to a cross roads and acts as a prostitute taking signs from Judah for later payment. She conceives an inheritor for her late husband and goes away. Judah is mystified when he tries to pay off his debt and the prostitute is gone. About three months later, Judah discovers that Tamar is pregnant and he orders her to be killed, but she sends him the signs that he left her, he figures out her ruse to get her levirate offspring ad admits that she is righteous (Indeed he says “She is more righteous than I”). At the end of this section Tamar bears twins.
We then return to our regularly scheduled programming. Joseph is bought by an officer of the pharoah’s named Potiphar. And we all know what happens next: Potiphar’s wife makes a play for Joseph. He rebuffs her, and she cries rape. Very retrograde.
However, the juxtaposition is not accidental! As we know, the Torah does nothing accidentally, and this is no exception. Tamar and the wife of Potiphar are direct contrasts to one another. Potiphar’s wife is married, she lives in the lap of luxury, the powerful wife of an important man; she lacks for nothing. Tamar is the widow of the son of a man in a strange land. As a widow she ranks among the class of the extremely powerless in society. Not only that, but her father-in-law, who is supposed to arrange her security through the levirate marriage, sent her back to her father’s home. Nevertheless, Tamar acts with creativity to ensure her future. She acts, not precisely outside the law, but bends the rules to make them work for her. She is an actor, an agent – she takes her fate in her hand and does what she needs to do.
The great commentator Rashi notes that Where the Torah says, “When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law saying: By the man whose these are am I with child, and she said, Recognize, please, whose are these, the signet and the cords ad the staff?” the reason that the wording is so tortured is that she did not want to shame Judah in public, and so instead of saying, “Judah is the father,” she said to herself, “’If he will confess by himself, let him confess, and if not, let them burn me and not put him to shame,’ and on the basis of this our rabbis said that a person should rather have themselves thrown in a fiery furnace than put another to shame in public.”
How different is that than the wife of Potiphar who tries to convince Joseph to betray his master who treated him well, to sin against God, and when he didn’t do as she wished, she manipulated the situation, telling different versions of a lie to the other people in the house and to her husband to accuse Joseph of rape. Just the opposite of Tamar, the wife of Potiphar doesn’t act assertively, but manipulatively, lying and putting other people in danger to get her way, and when that fails, to take revenge on the one who refused her. It is no accident that Tamar has a name – the Tamar is the date palm – the extremely productive fruit tree, one which is also a symbol of Israel versus Potiphar’s wife, who has no name, no inner self.
Instead of –like Tamar- not putting someone to shame on pain of death, she falsely accuses. Where Tamar uses sex as a tool for building, Potiphar’s wife uses it as a weapon to destroy.
But that’s simply the surface context. There is another as well. Tamar is one of three women who contribute to the ancestry of David, the house of the Moshiach. The first is an unnamed girl – Lot’s daughter, who became the mother of the nation of Moav, by getting her father drunk and having sex with him when she thinks there are no other people left in the world. Okay, not too savory, but aside from making what seems to be a bit of a snide joke about the ancestry of the Moabites, the Torah doesn’t appear to disapprove of the behavior. In fact, if anything it seems to mildly praise it as a valiant effort, if mistaken. But the more interesting parallel to Tamar is of course, Ruth.
Like Tamar, Ruth is a widow. Like Tamar, she is one of the powerless of society – even more so than Tamar since she voluntarily left her home where her family could protect her, to go with her mother-in-law to a land where she knew no one, and where her mother-in-law, too, was powerless. But like Tamar, she’s assertive: she and Naomi hatch a plan to redeem her late husband’s land by marrying Ruth off to the nearest male relative – the levirate marriage that Tamar was working for as well. And what is this plan – well, Ruth discovers that she is gleaning the fields of Boaz, who just turns out to be the second nearest of these possible marriage partners. He treats her kindly, and so she goes at night and uncovers his feet – a euphemism for some unspecifiedly sexual act. That is, like Tamar, she plays the whore – a risky venture. But one which pays off for her. Boaz, much older, is grateful for Ruth’s attention, and he arranges to meet with the only other possible levirate partner, who realizes that he can’t afford to marry Ruth and turn over the land to her former husband’s inheritor, conceived with Ruth by him, and so gives up the land – and Ruth- to Boaz. Ruth marries Boaz, and the child they have -Oved – is referred to by the neighborhood women as Naomi’s child, and they say of Ruth that she is better to Naomi than seven sons – and Oved becomes the grandfather of King David.
There is a covert connection between this portion and the underlying movements and necessities of Israel’s future redemption. Widows are widely recognized in the Torah as a class of extremely powerless people, and yet they are also, among women, the free-est. Generally in Israelite society, the patriarch had ultimate power in the home and wives were relatively powerless people. Only those women who outlived or were divorced from their husbands had a measure of freedom to at that other women in society lacked. The subtext of Tamar and Ruth is a strange one: it is only when we are most powerless that we are able to act assertively and with strength. The son of Ruth is Oved - "servant." That is, God's servant, ancestor of David. It is from two widows – generally thought of as in the Torah’s language, dried out and without fruit- that comes the family which will redeem Israel. If Israel is Tamar and Ruth, then our message is that if we want redemption, we can’t necessarily look either to the way things have always been done, nor to those who traditionally are the powerful and the fruitful; no, it is the unusual, the creative -and the so-called "powerless" who have within them the seeds of the future.