Shabbat VaYeshev: Justice by the Light of the Hanukkah Menorah

You may very well be wrong in your first impression – Love, Tamar

In the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading, we find that the focus of the parashat hashavua (“Torah reading of the week”) is the story of Tamar in Bereshit, also called Genesis, in chapter 38. After the strange silence imposed upon Dinah in last week’s parashah, the narrative of a woman who succeeds against misogynist assumptions and coercion is all the more striking.

One need not be female-identified to empathize with Tamar’s predicament. She is married in to the family of Judah ben Leah v’Jacob, to his oldest son Eyr. When Eyr dies suddenly and inexplicably, the Israelite tradition expects her to be married to Eyr’s brother Onan – who also dies. Alarmed, assuming the worst about Tamar, Judah does not fulfill the legal expectation that the next (and last) son Shelah be now joined with Tamar. Having no way to force the issue, Tamar is relegated back to her family of origin. Her life is now on hold, and over time it becomes clear that Judah has no further thought of her. She is treated unjustly, and has no recourse within the system.

Because the law gives her no place to stand, Tamar goes around it in order to achieve justice. It requires courage and strength of will, but more, she has to act in ways that bring about condemnation from those who believe that acting legally is the only correct way to behave – even when there is no justice forthcoming.

Tamar forces the issue and achieves justice, but the oh so human story is messy and upsetting. It proceeds from injustice to injustice and from assumption to assumption until finally the truth is forced forth, and Judah recognizes that he was wrong.

The only way Tamar could get justice was to go outside the law in order to force the issue. The words of the second Hanukkah blessing come to mind: bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, “in those days as in these,” the situation is no different in our own days. Those who have no recourse within the system, who are held down and oppressed by it, will go around it to seek justice, if they have the courage and strength of will.

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My beloved companions in Jewish learning, I believe in the power of Torah study to help us understand the lessons of every modern story we learn. Tamar’s story offers insight into our own Jewish struggle against generations of oppression, which have brought about a certain wariness about government authority not only in Exile but in Israel. As surely as if she was lighting a Hanukkah menorah, Tamar can also shed a necessary, holy light upon the struggle of Portland Oregon anti-government activists such as those protesting gentrification at the Red House.

Please see the link below to the recent coverage by OPB, the best explanation I have seen of the situation. Use your Torah study skills; read closely.

To be a Jew is to ask questions beneath the surface of a narrative. Such digging is called midrash in Torah study; let it guide our reading of the newspaper as well. Jews, more than any other culture, know that the surface story is only the simplest, most misleading aspect of any narrative. Remembering Tamar and her wisdom as we try to make sense of the struggle for justice in our own day, and even the nature of what people define as justice, is not just useful. It is the Jewish path, and it is the only path to the wisdom of Judah, who when presented with the fuller story realized that he was wrong. It is the greatest courage of all to be open to learning when we already know we’re right, and to learn how to say “no, she is right and I am wrong.”

Or, as I am fond of quoting the Rambam, Maimonides, “teach your tongue to say  I do not know and you will learn.”

By the light of Hanukkah may we all see the path to justice for ourselves and our community.

Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah sameakh!

Rabbi Ariel

see: Understanding the Eviction Blockade

Shabbat VaYeshev: What Do You See in the Light?

One of my favorite English lines from an old siddur is from a Kaddish meditation: “in light we see; in light we are seen.” This kind of light is not only visible, of course; illumination can also be of the “aha” kind, when something suddenly clarifies in the mind. The universal illustration for that at one time was a light bulb suddenly illuminating over one’s head. Suddenly, that which was hidden is visible. We can see, and we are seen.

This week the parashat hashavua is called VaYeshev, “dwell”. It is the last time that the name of the parashah will be taken from a story about Jacob’s life; now the acts of his children become central. The narrative for the year of the Triennial Cycle begins with a story that seems tangential to the action, but has great power to illuminate:

Judah, son of Jacob, has a daughter in law, Tamar; she has been promised that she will marry Judah’s son, but Judah avoids fulfilling the promise. Tamar is hidden away in the tents of the women, where he can pretend not to see her. Recently after being widowed, he travels to Timnah for the sheep-shearing. By the side of the road he sees a veiled woman – the convention of the time was that prostitutes veiled themselves. He sleeps with her, unaware of who she is, gives her his signet and his staff, and then he travels home again, and continues with his life. 

Three months later Tamar is accused of having sex outside of marriage (an offense punishable by death for a woman in certain circumstances). “Let her be brought out and burned,” (Gen.38.24) says her father in law. “Wait a minute,” she says. “The father of the baby is the man who owns this signet and this staff.” And Judah admits that “she is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to Shelah my son.” (Gen.38.26) 

Judah hides from Tamar by pretending he cannot see her, and rationalizing that she’s probably fine.

Tamar hides from Judah by veiling herself, and the two darknesses kindle a great light, one that would have destroyed her if she had not been clever enough to grab that signet of his.

But the fire that he would have kindled against her becomes the catalyst for a moment of illumination. In it, he sees himself in disgust and her act as brave.

“In light we see, in light we are seen.” It may not be easy to like what we see, and there may be that which is immolated in the moment of truth – but in that moment we will also, inevitably, see the necessary way forward on the path of our lives more clearly, more honestly, and more meaningfully. We cannot always dwell in light; the clarity would be overwhelming for us, as the Zohar teaches. In the future, that great light – from which we will feel no need to hide – will once again shine on the righteous, and it will include us all. That’s the promise of the light that we yearn for, even as we flee, sometimes, from what it shows us.

Hanukkah is a time of light; may it also be a time of illumination, of clarity, and of understanding for you.