Most of the second half of the book of Genesis is about Yakov’s children, with a strong focus on Yosef. Yet, right in the middle of the Yosef narrative, the Torah interrupts with a cryptic parallel side story about Yehuda. It’s commonly glossed over as it’s content is perhaps a little awkward.
Yehuda has a son who displeases God and dies. Presuming some form of levirate marriage, wherein marriage outside the clan is forbidden, Yehuda’s second son marries Tamar, but refuses to do his duty and have a child with her, so he dies as well. Fearing that Tamar was somehow killing his sons, Yehuda withheld his third son from her, leaving her in limbo as the first chained woman – aguna. The story continues that she pretended to be a harlot to seduced Yehuda, and became pregnant.
When word spread that Tamar was pregnant, the natural presumption was that she had violated the prohibition of staying within the clan, and she ought to be executed. Only at the last minute, she revealed her ruse, and Yehuda admitted fault.
What is this story doing in the middle of the Yosef story?
R’ Jonathan Sacks observes that this story mirrors the Yosef story, and illustrates that Yosef and Yehuda had a parallel rise and fall.
Both stories involve deception through clothing – Yosef with his blood-stained tunic, and Yehuda with Tamar’s seductive disguise.
The way the Torah begins this narrative is that Yehuda was isolated:
וַיְהִי בָּעֵת הַהִוא וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו וַיֵּט עַד־אִישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִי וּשְׁמוֹ חִירָה. וַיַּרְא־שָׁם יְהוּדָה בַּת־אִישׁ כְּנַעֲנִי וּשְׁמוֹ שׁוּעַ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ – And afterward, Yehuda descended from his brothers and camped near an Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and lived with her. (38:1, 2)
Yehuda’s descent was both literal and figurative – וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו – the Midrash teaches that the remaining brothers held Yehuda responsible for their father’s misery. He separated himself and did what no one else in the family had done – he married a Canaanite.
The turning point in this story is powerful, where Tamar reveals that she fulfilled her duty to the clan when the family would not fulfill theirs:
הִוא מוּצֵאת וְהִיא שָׁלְחָה אֶל־חָמִיהָ לֵאמֹר לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־אֵלֶּה לּוֹ אָנֹכִי הָרָה וַתֹּאמֶר הַכֶּר־נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה הָאֵלֶּה. וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי־עַל־כֵּן לֹא־נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי וְלֹא־יָסַף עוֹד לְדַעְתָּה – As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Judah recognized them and said, “She is more in the right than I since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again. (38:25,26)
As surely as Yosef and Yehuda hit their rock bottoms, they could both rise again.
Admitting his wrongdoing, he could now make amends, and the man who had proposed murdering Yosef could find his way back to become the man who would volunteer to stand in for Binyamin when Binyamin was in danger.
Parenthetically, it is worth noting that Tamar took an enormous gamble to avoid embarrassing Judah. Chazal hyperbolically liken humiliating someone to murder. R’ Jonathan Sacks quips that we cover bread at the Shabbos table so that we don’t embarrass the bread when we make kiddush first; if only we would be so careful with people with feelings!
R’ Jonathan Sacks notes throughout the Yosef story that it contains the first instances of teshuva – repentance and forgiveness, healing what would otherwise lead to permanent fractures in family relationships. Yakov’s family could find their way back once they could admit their mistakes to themselves and each other, and so can we.