Friday, December 7, 2012

Vayeishev - The Scandal of Judah and Tamar

In Parshas Vayeishev we encounter the difficult story of Judah and Tamar. The verses (Genesis 38:15-16) state:
ויראה יהודה ויחשבה לזונה וכו'  ויט אליה וכו'
“And Judah saw her and thought she was a harlot… and he veered to her…”
The Midrash states:
אמר ר' יוחנן, בקש לעבור וזימן לו הקב"ה מלאך שהוא ממונה על התאוה. אמר לו, יהודה היכן אתה הולך? מהיכן מלכים עומדים? מהיכן גדולים עומדים? מהיכן גואלים עומדים? "ויט אליה אל הדרך" - בע"כ שלא בטובתו. (בראשית רבה פח:ח)
Rabbi Yochanan said, “Judah wanted to pass by, but God sent the angel who is appointed over lust. The angel said to him, “Judah! Where are you going? From where will kings come? From where will great men come? From where will redeemers come?” – “And he veered towards her on the road” – Forced against his goodwill.
The Rosh
Traditional Depiction
The union of Judah and Tamar created the ancestor of King david and, ultimately, of the messiah. We find shockingly embarrassing incidents repeatedly in the ancestry of the Jewish monarchy  – stories like that of Judah and Tamar, Lot and his daughters, Ruth and Boaz, and David and Bathsheba. Many commentators (שפתי כהן, דעת תורה, ועוד) note that, for very deep reasons, it is important that the messiah come from a family that is subject to scandals. Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh, d.1327) (ספר הדר זקנים) explains this based upon a Talmudic teaching (Yoma 22b):
אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יהוצדק: אין מעמידין פרנס על הציבור אלא אם כן קופה של שרצים תלויה לו מאחוריו, שאם תזוח דעתו עליו ־ אומרין לו: חזור לאחוריך.
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzedek, “We do not set up an authority over the community unless he has a heap of sheratzim (crawling creatures) hanging from behind him [Rashi explains, “family disgrace”], so that if his pride begins to rise over him, we say to him, ‘Look behind you!’”
It is important that a leader not think himself to be of a superior class over his people. Thus, it is best if a leader has embarrassing events in his family background, so that he does not become too arrogant. The same is doubly true of the kings of the Jewish nation. In fact, the Talmud also comments:
אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל: מפני מה לא נמשכה מלכות בית שאול ־ מפני שלא היה בו שום דופי.
Rav Yehuda said, “Shmuel said, ‘Why did the kingdom of Saul not persist? Because it had no [family] disgrace.’”
This teaches us the extreme importance of humility in a true leader.

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