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Vayeshev -Tamar – the women who changed Jewish History

How many of us today would face a brutal death in order not to shame another?

We live in a culture that all too often feeds on gossip and rumors about famous people, scandal, conjecture and selfishness. Our media revels in the coverage of celebrities and reveals far too much about them, not allowing them privacy and demonstrating their faults for all to see, shaming them and thus tarnishing and debasing them in the eyes of others.

The public shaming of another human being brings to mind a section often overlooked, in the weekly Torah portion, Vayeishev: the story of Judah and Tamar. Following the deaths of Tamar’s husbands, Judah’s two elder sons, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute in a scheme to force Judah to honor the tradition of levirate marriage. She, a widow, is discovered to be pregnant.  Sentenced by Judah to a horrible death for being pregnant out of wedlock, Tamar does not choose to save herself by publicly identifying him as the father, thereby causing Judah shame, disgrace and humiliation before his community. Tamar chose not to save her own life by destroying, even metaphorically, that of another. In Bereshit 38:25 Tamar sends Judah a discreet message, “‘The man to whom these belong made me pregnant. Acknowledge whose signet seal, cords, and staff these are!’” In so doing, she dares him to be truthful, to do the righteous thing and save her and the child that she will bear, thus continuing the line of Er.

 

We learn from our Sages “It is better that one cast oneself into a fiery furnace than to shame another in public. Whence do we know this? From Tamar” (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 43b).The term for shaming a person in public is “hamalbin (causing the blood to drain from a persons face, making it white) pnei chaveiro b’rabim”: people blush when embarrassed and blanch when humiliated. The rabbis saw in this sudden loss of blood, a type of public death: the person who inflicts public humiliation is, metaphorically, a murderer.

 

In the end, Judah steps up, accepts responsibility and declares, “She is more in the right than I” (Genesis 38:26). Tamar survives and is blessed with twins, beginning the family tree that generations later produced King David.

 

In her quiet way, Tamar is the model of righteousness and her influence changes the history of the Jewish people.

The Gemara in Kesubot (67b) relates the following story. Mar Ukvah used to secretly support a poor man in his neighborhood. Every day he hid four zuzim (a silver coin) in a hole in the door of the poor man’s home. He kept his identity anonymous so as not to embarrass the poor man. One day, the poor man decided to go out and see who was giving him this money. That day, Mar Ukvah happened to be walking home with his wife, from the Beit Midrash. Together, they stopped by the poor man’s home to hide the money. Suddenly, the poor man stepped out to see who was giving him the money. Quickly, the Ukvahs ran away in order to keep Mar Ukvah’s identity secret and spare the poor man from the shame of knowing his benefactor. Eventually, their escape necessitated taking cover in an oven whose coals had been removed, but which was still burning hot. Mar Ukvahs feet burned.  They chose to enter a burning oven rather than embarrass a pauper. The Gemara explains that they learned to do this from Tamar.

Apparently, the lesson from Tamar to give up our lives before publicly humiliating another is meant to be taken quite literally and is not merely an exaggerated incentive

 

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