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Torah Commentary
Vayeishev (December 5, 2015)

Sherry Nehmer,


ONCE AGAIN, this week’s parashah contains a story where, although the main character is male, two women have their brief moments in the sun. As in Parashat Pinchas, we have one woman who flaunts her sexuality for no good purpose, but also, unlike the five sisters in Pinchas who demand their rights to own land, here we have one very bold woman who uses sex to achieve a point of Hebrew law.

Vayeishev is the story of Joseph, from his conflict with his brothers, to being sold into slavery, to his rise to power in the court of Pharaoh. He grows from an inconsiderate, spoiled youth who shares with his brothers dreams in which they bow down to him, into a good man, the confidante of courtiers, beloved of everyone, including God.

One of those who instantly are smitten with Joseph is the wife of Potiphar — Potiphar being the courtier who buys Joseph as a slave and installs him as his personal attendant in charge of the entire household. After a long description of Joseph’s duties, the text notes almost as an afterthought, “Now Joseph was well built and handsome.”

Hmm. His good looks are not lost on the unnamed wife of Potiphar. “Lie with me,” she urges him — over and over again. Day after day the woman presses him to lie with her. It’s sexual harassment, and it might work on someone of a lesser character, but Joseph won’t betray his master.

Like the lustful Cozbi of Pinchas, Potiphar’s wife wants what she wants when she wants it, and Joseph’s refusal to comply turns her lust into a desire for revenge. When she clutches at Joseph’s garment one day during an attempted seduction and he makes an escape, her need for revenge at this rejection encourages her to cry attempted rape, using his cloak as proof. (Joseph seems to have a lot of clothing-related problems.) Potiphar has Joseph thrown in jail, where, yes, God is with him and he prospers. Joseph — nearly murdered, thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, accused of assault, tossed into jail — comes out smelling like a rose. His virtue and natural talents triumph over adversity.

This incident with Potiphar’s wife may seem a familiar trope to anyone who’s ever watched TV dramas, especially daytime TV: the spurned woman using a cry of assault as revenge. It’s a repellent tactic, and I cringe whenever I see such a portrayal. It’s also almost always a female revenge scenario, and it’s embarrassing and offensive, especially as we know there are women who actually are real victims of sexual assault.

While all of this is going on, Vayeishev takes a side trip away from Joseph, to the story of Joseph’s brother Judah. Having had a hand in the selling of Joseph as a slave, Judah moves away from his brothers, settling down with a woman who bears him three sons. His oldest son, Er, takes a wife, Tamar. But unlike Joseph, who prospers because he is beloved of God, Er is “displeasing” to the Almighty, and he dies.

By Hebrew law, a brother is supposed to marry his deceased brother’s wife, which is what second son Onan does with Tamar. He also is supposed to provide offspring for his dead brother. It’s an interesting and somewhat perplexing law. How can the child of a second marriage be deemed the child of the first marriage? Still, a woman’s place in society at the time was dependent on her having children, just as each brother’s line will continue only if he has children, even if the children are not actually his.

Onan is not pleased by this turn of events and, as you may know, “spills his seed” rather than attempt to impregnate Tamar. This also is displeasing to God. Hence, Onan dies, too.

There’s a third brother, Shelah, but he is young, so Judah advises Tamar to move into her father’s house and remain a widow until Shelah is old enough to marry her. That, after all, is the way things are supposed to proceed.

It’s perplexing why Judah does not follow through on this plan. Shelah matures, and yet Judah will not marry Tamar to him. There’s an implication in the text that Judah fears God will take Shelah as well if he marries Tamar. (The Black Widow?) Perhaps Judah should look to his own actions, including the attempted murder of his brother, if he’s searching for reasons God would be cursing his family.

Years pass. Tamar, chafing at her continued widow status, hears that her father-in-law will be sheepherding in her neighborhood. And so she hatches a plan, a very bold plan for a woman of her time and situation. Dressing like a prostitute, complete with veil, she stations herself where Judah must pass, and sure enough, Judah, recently widowed himself, stops and propositions her. What Tamar does next is key to the entire plan: She demands as a pledge for payment certain items that are identifiable as being Judah’s — his staff, his seal and his cord. He complies, they sleep together and, of course, she conceives by him.

Do you see where this is going? Over the centuries, this idea of tricking someone into sex and then being able to prove who it was has been used by quite a few writers. Boccaccio in his Decameron and Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales are but two. Shakespeare used it in All’s Well That Ends Well, and there is a dramatic reveal that coerces the faithless Bertram to return to his wife, Helena:

O my good lord, when I was like this maid,
I found you wondrous kind. There is your ring;
And, look you, here's your letter; this it says:
‘When from my finger you can get this ring
And are by me with child,’ & c. This is done:
Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.

Of course, there are differences to this happy scenario in Vayeishev. Judah is not going to marry his daughter-in-law. When he hears she’s with child, his first impulse is to have her burned as a harlot — after all, she’s a widow! Who would she be sleeping with? But this is where Tamar plays her final ace in this dangerous game. “I am with child by the man to whom these belong,” she says, adding “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”

Remarkably, Judah answers, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” Quite an admission. And here, the text notes, he was not intimate with her again.

Tamar — previously a rejected, childless, powerless widow — now assumes a higher place in society as the mother of twins. Husbands and children are the riches of women in the Torah, and while we do not hear of her marrying anyone else, her children assure her position. Unlike Potiphar’s wife, for whom sexuality was mere carnality, Tamar has calculated a way to use hers to achieve her goals and to foil the machinations of an unjust father-in-law. We may not agree in today’s world that sex should be traded for power, but at the time of the writing of the Torah, women had few options in the world. Who’s to say that what Tamar does is wrong? Manipulative, yes. Immoral...well, you be the judge.

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