This week’s parsha introduces us to Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) favourite son, Yosef (Joseph). However, as happens, to the befuddlement of commentators, a numbers of times in the Torah, his story is cut cleanly in two, and a chapter about one his eldest brothers is placed in the middle. Yehuda (Judah) does not have a happy family life, we learn. After finding a wife and having three sons, two of them die for a sin committed before God, due to some connection with their wife Tamar (the eldest marries Tamar, and dying, leaves her to his younger brother as per the laws of levirate marriage). Understandably reluctant to release his youngest and only remaining son to the same (potential) fate, Yehuda sends his daughter-in-law back to her father’s house to wait until his son grows up. Next we hear, Yehuda has lost his wife as well, and, after mourning her, fatefully meets with a companion near where Tamar is staying with her father. The rest of the story is quite famous – Tamar disguises herself as a harlot, Yehuda sleeps with her, she extracts proof that it was Yehuda who slept with her (his ring, cloak and staff), which she uses to publicly avoid punishment due to the rumour that she had become a harlot, and Yehuda is (further) shamed.
Much of the debate in this chapter is how to assign blame. Is Tamar wrong for acting the part of the harlot, for sleeping with her father-in-law, for not being patient? Did Yehuda lie to Tamar about his youngest son, or did he really intend to allow him to marry Tamar after he was grown up? What did the eldest son do to deserve death (it is clear that the middle son spilled his seed, which was his sin – see Genesis / Bereishit 38:9-10)?
In reading the parsha this week, I noticed a detail that exonerates Yehuda, possibly pointing to his sincerity. That detail is the fact that his wife passed away in the midst of all of this. The text says “And the days lengthened and the daughter of Shua, the wife of Yehuda died, and Yehuda was consoled…” I do not see this as the action of a manipulative father trapping his daughter-in-law, but rather as the most logical reason to withhold his last immediate family member from a future that Yehuda worries may be short. Arguably, his wife had gotten old, and was losing her health for a while before she passed away. Yehuda then grieved for her for a time, and only after that had he even resumed normal relationships with his friends. It is at just such a time – and not before – that he would have been ready again to consider marrying his youngest son off to Tamar. Instead, through a disturbingly incestuous act, Tamar shows her frustration at being disregarded for so long, seemingly unaware of the fact that her father-in-law has seen three-quarters of his immediate family die in a fairly short period of time, and needs time to recover.
Grieving takes time
Knowing that life must go on
Grieving takes time