In the talmud, we read a story about one of the rabbis and his wife:
Mar ‘Ukba had a poor man in his neighbourhood into whose doorstep he used to throw money every day. Once [the poor man] thought: ‘I will go and see who does me this kindness’. On that day [it happened] that Mar ‘Ukba was late at the house of study and his wife was coming home with him. As soon as [the poor man] saw them moving the door he went out after them, but they fled from him and ran into a furnace from which the fire had just been swept. Mar ‘Ukba's feet were burning and his wife said to him: Raise your feet and put them on mine. As he was upset, she said to him, ‘I am usually at home so the poor have easy access to me; while you give money to the poor which they must then go and buy food with, I cook food for them which they can eat right away, thus my merit is greater than yours.". And what [was the reason for] all that? — ... Better had a man thrown himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame. Whence do we derive this? From [the action of] Tamar; for it is written in Scripture, When she was brought forth, [she sent to her father-in-law].
The story of Yehudah and Tamar is a strange interlude in the otherwise unbroken story of Joseph. Judah's son Er, has married a woman, but God becomes angry with him and he dies. Through levirate marriage, his brother, Onan ought to marry Tamar to produce an heir, but because he dislikes the idea of his own child being an heir to someone else, he spills his seed on the ground to prevent Tamar from conceiving. This annoys God, and he dies as well. Tamar is now beside herself: the youngest son, ought to now be married to her, but Judah is worried that Tamar is a sort of black widow, and doesn't really want her to marry him, so he puts her off. Tamar, after some years, seeing that Judah has no intention of giving her his last son, takes matters into her own hands, seducing Judah by the roadside, taking only a few markers to prove that he was the one who was with her. When she became pregnant, Judah is outraged, and allows her to be condemned to death, yet she sends to him the possessions that she had taken from him as collateral for his payment of the woman he supposed was a prostitute, and asks him if he knows whose they are. He recognizes them, and acknowledges them, saving her life, and admits, to boot, that she is more righteous than he for taking matters into her hands to produce an heir for his son.
Many of our commmentators have asked why this interlude was dropped into the middle of our portion, and what is it about? The midrash explains that we can take two lessons from the story of Tamar and Yehudah.
The first is that it is better to burn alive than to shame another human being. The second is that God returns what we do to one another midah kneged midah - measure for measure:
The midrash suggests that it is because of Yehuda's dying the coat of Yosef in goat's blood to fool his father into thinking that Yosef was dead that Tamar used the expression "Recognize" that she used when presenting Yehuda's signet and cloak to him to save herself from being burnt to death.
According to the midrash:
Beresheit Rabbah 85:11
[Tamar] SENT TO HER FATHER-IN-LAW, SAYING: BY THE MAN, WHOSE THESE ARE, AM I WITH CHILD. He wished to deny it, whereupon she said to him: ‘Acknowledge thy Creator in these, for they are thine and thy Creator's.’ RECOGNIZE, I PRAY THEE, WHOSE ARE THESE, THE SIGNET, etc. R. Johanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Judah: ‘Thou didst say to thy father, [Do you]Recognize[ this garment?] [know] I pray thee (Gen. XXXVII, 32); as thou livest, Tamar will say to thee, RECOGNIZE, I PRAY THEE.
Midrash tanchuma also connects this measure for measure punishment more directly, saying that the reason that Yehuda's son Er died, it was God saying to Yehuda, "When you showed your father Yosef's garmnt dipped in blood, you did not take into consideration the pain that a father feels at the loss of a child. You too, will lose your wife and bury your children, to experience the pain of losing children.
Thus when Tamar said to Yehuda, "Recognize these please," he experienced the shock of recognition for his past sins in selling off Yosef and letting his father think that Yosef was dead.
In fact, the Talmud hammers at this point with another passage about King David.
Baba Metzia 59a
Better it is for man to cohabit with a doubtful married woman rather than that he should publicly shame his neighbour. Whence do we know this? ...David exclaimed before the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! You know full well that had they torn my flesh, my blood would not have poured forth to the earth. Moreover, when they are engaged in studying "Leprosies" and "Tents" they jeer at me, saying, "David! what is the death penalty of him who seduces a married woman?" I reply to them, "He is executed by strangulation, yet has he a portion in the world to come. But he who publicly puts his neighbour to shame has no portion in the world to come."
King David underscores that one who shames another is among the worst of sinners. But the reverse is true as well. One who honors other human beings by taking extra care not to shame them is honored.
And so the Talmud rewrites the story so that we understand that the true ending of the story is Judah recognizing Tamar's righteousness, but also that Judah's public acknowledgement of Tamar's righteousness - thus restoring her honor- in turn restores him in God's eyes.
...Better for a man to cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his fellow in public. Whence is this? From Tamar.
Discern, I pray thee. R. Hama b. Hanina said: With the word ‘discern’ [Judah] made an announcement to his father, and with the word ‘discern’ an announcement was made to him. With the word ‘discern’ he made an announcement — Discern now whether it be thy son's coat or not; and with the word ‘discern’ an announcement was made to him — Discern, I pray thee, whose are these. The word ‘na’ [‘I pray thee’] is nothing else than an expression of request. She said to him, ‘I beg of thee, discern the face of thy Creator and hide not thine eyes from me’.
And Judah acknowledged them, and said: She is more righteous than I. ...
And so why do we find this story in the midst of the story of Joseph? The two themes of measure for measure and honoring one's fellow humans mirror each other.
It is said that refraining from evil speech is the hardest of the mitzvot.
Speaking ill of others - even when one tells the truth, which is what we call lashon hara, let alone when it is false - motsi shem ra - literally giving another a bad name- together in the category of evil speech, they are shaming a human being and are considered akin to murder. The rabbis call it whitening of the face. Literally, think of what happens when you embarrass someone - sometimes they blush, but when you really humiliate someone, if you've ever seen this, humiliation causes the blood to drain from a person's face, and they look, momentarily, like a corpse drained of blood.
So actually, these two themes are really one: we are looking at a story in which we are dealing with words that cause utter disruption. The point of the story of Joseph being paired with that of Judah and Tamar is to tell us that speech is not idle: ones' words lead to action. Lashon haRa, evil speech, like the musings of the brothers on how much they hate Joseph, leads them to commit an action that only narrowly avoids being murder outright. Conversely, Tamar's incredible bravery and refusal to engage in lashon hara even at the expense of her own life, brings not only honor to her, but forgiveness to another. Judah sees her righteousness and publicly admits it.When this happens, he is himself forgiven of his own sins, and it is at that moment when he truly becomes an adult. Of the twelve brothers, although Joseph is the more or less prodigal son, it is the descendants of Judah who recieve the honor of having a a kingdom named for him.
And why is Judah given the opportunity for such a glorious repentance? Remember that it was he who saved Joseph from death - through the power of his words. He was the one who suggested that there was no profit in murder, and suggested selling him to the Ishmaelite caravaners. Okay, this is perhaps not the greatest act of heroism that we have ever encountered, but it is the mark of at least an ability for rational thought to overcome pure hatred.
And so we're meant to be left with a message: even the smallest act can be returned to one. Our language is not empty. Every word is full of meaning, as full of meaning as a dream. In tractate brachot of the talmud, there is a very lengthy story about two rabbis. One was sort of a cheapskate, and he and this other rabbi had a dream - in fact they both had the same dream. Each in turn went to a dream interpreter, who offered them a meaning. The one who paid well, he gave a wonderful interpretation to, and for the cheap rabbi, he interpreted the dreams as full of horror and terrible outcomes. Both of these rabbis came back to the interpreter having had identical dreams for many nights running, yet the interpreter continued to give them differing interpretations.
Finally, after the cheap rabbi had been bereft of his business, his family and his health, he discovered a book of interpretation which suggested that dreams come true according to how they are interpreted. That is to say: if the dream interpreter had given him a positive outcome for his dreams, his family would still be living and healthy, his job still safe and his health still good. His response was to forgive the interpreter of everything except the death of his wife, for which I cannot blame him.
But the talmud's point is particularly meaningful in the story of Joseph, which is also full of dreams and their interpretations. Speech is a powerful tool, and a holy one: after all, God spoke, and the world was created.
Too, when we speak, worlds are created, and so it is especially important for our speech to be holy. Not just in shul when we come and speak the words of prayer to God, but at at every moment, our words create worlds, our interpretations make people's lives better, or disastrous. Our visions can build lives or destroy them. And it is up to us to make sure that we pay atttention to the words we speak, so that our words may lay the path to redeem us from exile, not to sell us into slavery.