Greatness Born of Humility

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


Greatness Born of Humility

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This week’s portion is the first of three portions which discuss the saga of Yoseph (Joseph). [We will discuss the relationship between Yoseph and his brothers in two weeks.]

After Yoseph’s brothers sell him to a caravan, a different  episode is related.  The story  of Yehuda (Judah) and Tamar.  This is one of the most misunderstood pieces in the Torah.

Let us look at the sequence of events.  Yehudah’s son, Er, marries a woman named Tamar.  Er soon dies because, rather than impregnate Tamar and perhaps mar her beauty, he chooses to spill his seed.  Yehudah’s son Onan then fulfills yibum and marries Tamar (Yibum is a levirate marriage: if a man dies with no children, his brother and widow marry — willingly of course — in order to have a child and perpetuate the deceased brother’s name). Onan, alas, also spills his seed, but for a different reason: he knew that the child would be in merit of his brother, so instead of grabbing this tremendous opportunity to perform chesed — lovingkindness — Onan also strikes out.

At this point Yehuda wrongly blames Tamar and sends her away, as he does not want to give his third son, Shaloh, to her. Tamar dresses herself like a harlot and waits for Yehudah on the side of the road. Yehudah then consorts with her, not knowing her identity, as she is veiled. (The commentators discuss why Yehudah would perform such an act.  As we have seen in the previous weeks regarding the lives of our ancestors, they were sometimes “pushed” into seemingly undesirable situations in order to test their mettle.)

When it comes time to pay her, Yehudah strangely finds himself with no money. He gives her his signet ring and staff as collateral.

Later, Tamar returns and soon shows the signs of pregnancy. She is taken to court on grounds of harlotry. Sitting on the court were Yehudah, his father Yaakov (Jacob), and his father Yitzchok (Issac). Refusing to name the father, Tamar only says the man who gave her the signet ring got her pregnant.  Only now does Yehudah realize that it is he who is the father.  Yehudah then stands up in front of his father and grandfather and admits it is he who impregnated Tamar: “She is right; it is from me, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen. Ch.38 V.26).  From this pregnancy twins were born: Peretz, who would be the forebear of the Messiah, and Zerach.

It is through this act of greatness (admitting that he was the father) that the seeds of the Messiah—the Jewish redeemer, whom would come from the tribe of Yehudah — were planted. The reason for this is that one of the prerequisites of the Jewish king was humility.  Because a Jewish king, unlike his non-Jewish counterparts, is not infallible.  He answers to G-d.


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