Friday, December 28, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha


Parshat VaYechi

I'd like to share with all of you a slightly edited version of a
beautiful piece written by my wife, Devorah Zlochower, and
delivered by her as the Shabbat Sermon when she served as
Scholar-in-Residence at the Young Israel of Hillcrest in 2009.

When I was a little girl, one of the things I looked forward to on Friday night was my father giving each of us a berakhah. I come from a large family; I am the oldest of 8 children and berakhot on Friday night were quite a production as each one of us stepped up in age order to receive our berakhah. My father is an interesting blend. He is a graduate of Torah V’Daas and a research scientist, and he is both a traditionalist as well as an innovator. This was reflected in the berakhot he gave to his children.

The traditional formula of this parental blessing comes, in part, from this week’s parshah. Yaakov blesses Yosef’s two sons, Menasheh and Efraim saying: “Through you shall Israel bless; may God make you as Efraim and Menasheh.” (48:20)  For girls, Yaakov’s blessing to Efraim and Menasheh has been altered (my father is not the only innovator): “May God make you like our foremothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah.”

The giving of parental blessing begins with Yitzhak’s blessing to Yaakov and this beautiful idea has become custom for many parents who bless their children on Friday nights or on Erev Yom Kippur.

My father had his own additions to the traditional berakhot. For each of my four brothers, in addition to invoking Efraim and Menasheh, he would add the Biblical namesake of the child. So, my brother Yehoshua received a berakhah of May God make you like Efraim and Menasheh and like Yehoshua, student of Moshe. My brother Yossi should grow up to emulate Yosef the Tsaddik, Dovid was to be like King David and Avrumi, Avraham Avinu.

But for the girls, 4 of us, he went all out. Esther was told not only to be like our mothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rahel and Leah but she should also save her people like Queen Esther. Elisheva was to emulate Elisheva, wife of Aharon the Kohen who raised 4 priestly sons (she, by the way, has 6 priestly sons), and Adena was to merit life in Gan Eden before the sin. I was to emulate my namesake and do nothing less than merit the Divine Presence and prophecy itself like Devorah the Prophet.

What was my father doing? He was giving us a message. While we are all actually named for family members, we should also see ourselves as connected to our Biblical forebearers. They should be our models and as they accomplished great things in the world in birthing the Jewish nation, we too, in our own ways should set our sights high – we too should strive to accomplish great things and live a life of meaning not just for our selves but for Am Yisrael as well.

Blessings are not just blessings; they are dreams, visions of the future, fanciful or otherwise. In the case of parents, they may reflect the parent’s ambitions for the child or the parent’s own ambitions. They may tell us more about the bestower of the blessing, and his or her perceptions, than about the character or dreams of the recipient.

I was thinking about this point as I was reading this week’s parshah especially Yaakov’s blessings to his sons. In fact, it is really incorrect to call them blessings as they are quite a mix. They contain character analyses, predictions of future behavior as well as standard blessings for safety and material wellbeing.

In fact, Yaakov opens his final speech to his sons without any mention of the word berakhah at all. The Torah tells us: “And Yaakov called to his sons and said: Gather and I will tell to you that which will occur to you at the end of days.” (49:1).  What is Yaakov’s intent? What is it he is planning on telling his sons? Rashi, based on the gemara in Pesahim (56a) says:

Yaakov wanted to reveal the end of days, to prophesize the coming of the Messiah. But God did not desire this and withdrew God’s presence.

Thus, deprived of the power of prophecy, Yaakov was forced to speak of other matters, namely his blessings.

I would like to suggest another interpretation. “End of days” in this verse does not refer to the End of Days, to Messianic times, rather, “Yaakov wanted to reveal the end of days” means that Yaakov wanted to make predictions of the future. Not a prediction of the Messiah’s arrival but a prediction of his sons’ future based on their past behaviors. Come close I am going to tell you what your future will be. This is what his message to his sons was.

For some of his sons he predicts a rather inglorious future. Shimon and Levi, who slew the entire male population of Shekhem to avenge their sister’s honor, are cursed. “Cursed be their anger for it is strong, I will divide them among Jacob and spread them among Israel.” (49:7). These two brothers in arms are dangerous, violent and aggressive. They are to be spread out among their brethren, never to claim tribal lands of their own.

Are these statements of Yaakov good predictors of the future? Is the future moored in the past – subject to the consequences of earlier misdeeds?

One way of answering this question is to examine the blessings of Yaakov in comparison with the blessings Moshe gives the tribes before his death. Like Yaakov before him, Moshe too wishes to impart a final message and his blessing to the children of Israel. Moshe too blesses the descendents of those sons of Yaakov.

When we look at the berakhot of Moshe we see some similarities as well as some striking differences. Although Levi is cursed in Yaakov’s final testament. Moshe’s message is quite different.

They shall teach Yaakov, the nation, the laws and your Torah to Israel. They place incense before You and burnt offerings on your altar. (Devarim 33:10)

Moshe’s image of Levi is quite different; they are the servants of God in the Mishkan and later in the Mikdash.

But there is a common theme in Yaakov’s and Moshe’s statements about Levi. The same anger that Yaakov saw as dangerous is seen by Moshe as meritorious.

Levi, who said to his father and mother, “I did not see them”, he did not recognize his brothers and his sons he did not know, for he, Levi, guarded Your word, God, and Your covenant they kept. (Devarim 33:9)

It is Levi’s joining cause with Moshe after the sin of the Golden Calf, killing the transgressors, that ultimately earns them the right to serve God in the Temple. The “anger” that Yaakov so despised– cursed is their anger for it is strong - now becomes the incense brought to God’s face.

We are not meant to be trapped by our past. The very basic notion of teshuvah rails against this. As we are told in the gemara in Yoma (86b): “Teshuvah is so great that even transgressions committed willfully can become merits.”

Those same qualities and personal characteristics which we may feel condemn us to continuously repeat our mistakes, we have the power to harness them for good. For ultimately, our fate, our destiny is in our own hands. Blessings are nice, but it is we who create our future.

Perhaps this is the intent of the very first berakhah given to humankind. When God says to Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it. Take mastery of the fish of the seas, the birds of the heaven, the animals and all the beasts that roam the land” (Breishit 1:28) - this is a mighty, mighty blessing. We are being given proprietorship over God’s just created world. Will we be good stewards or vanquishing conquerors? Will we master and harness all the energy and power that God has bestowed to our earth or will we lay it waste? Will we achieve our potential prominence or will we squander it? Will we be masters or slaves? We have the potential to be both; God has given us the choice. God hopes, as our parents hope that we choose good – that we exercise good judgment, that we achieve our potential and that we live a life of blessing.

So how do we give blessings as parents? What did my father’s blessing mean to me? Well, it is complicated. On the one hand it made me feel pretty powerful. I have always felt very blessed to carry the name Devorah. On the other hand, the bar got set very high; nothing less than communion with the Divine would suffice. We need to both communicate to our children our confidence in them while at the same time making sure we can separate our own feelings, our own goals and dreams and free them to pursue their own. I am mindful of this every day when I look at my two boys and I hope and pray that they achieve their own potentials, that they feel supported to pursue their own dreams and that they feel the power of the blessing of a parent everyday.
Shabbat shalom


Friday, December 21, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: 
Click here:    Parshat Vayigash 
Yosef and Yehudah: God's Hand and Our Responsibility

The Yosef narrative of the last few parshiyot - the longest narrative of Breishit - has been focusing, not surprisingly, on the character of Yosef.  But also central to this story is the person of Yehudah, and his growing into the role of a leader. Although he failed to stop the selling of Yosef, and although he almost sent Tamar to a fiery death, he learned from these experiences.  He understood that as a person, and as a leader, his bond must be his word. He must be guided by a strict moral code, and he must be prepared to live up to his commitments regardless of the cost.

It was by exhibiting this trait that he secured Yaakov's agreement to send Binyamin down with the brothers, and as our parasha opens, it will be this trait that is put to the test.  Does he have the courage to take on a stronger, more powerful adversary? Can he live up to his promise to his father even at the possible cost of his life or his freedom? 

VaYigash - and he stepped forward.  The opening word of our parasha is an answer to these question.  Yehudah is prepared to move, to confront, to do what it will take  to ensure that Binyamin will return home safely. His impassioned plea to Yosef is both the climax and the turning point of the Yosef story, and results in Yosef revealing himself to his brother, and ultimately in the entire family leaving Canaan and settling in Mitzrayim.

Yosef demonstrates a different approach to engaging the world.  Not personal responsibility, but belief in God's guiding hand.  After revealing himself to his brothers, attempts to put their minds at ease:

Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life... And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
(Breishit 45:4, 6)

His belief in God, and in God's hand in history and in his life and the life of his family, allowed him to see what had happened as part of a Divine plan, and to absolve his brothers of blame. This approach stands in stark contrast to that of Yehudah, who does not talk about God, and who embodies personal responsibility. How does one approach life, its good and bad fortunes, and his or her role in the world? Is it "God working through us" or is it "the buck stops here"? Is it "It is not in me; God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer" (Breishit 41:16) or is it "I will be a surety, from my hand you may demand him?" (Breishit 43:8). To take the former approach absolves one, and others, of responsibility for their actions, to take the latter is to remove God from one's world.

One answer is that both are correct, we are responsible, and we need to strive to see God in the world. The key to resolve this contradiction is humility - we need to strive to see God in the world, not to presume to know how God works. If we believe that we know what God's plan is, then we can do great evil. We can go on holy wars, killing innocent people, because we know that it is God's will. We can ignore the needs of others, our interpersonal responsibilities, even our ethical responsibilities, because we know what God's plan is.

Even if not by acts of commission, we can fail to take the initiative to respond to real world events, because we will see all that happens as God's will. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Yehudah is much more of an active character, and Yosef is much more passive and reactive. Yosef is content to let events unfold, to not even tell his father for 22 years that he is in Mitzrayim, because he is content to wait for God's plan to reveal itself. This is taking religiosity too far. One's belief in God's hand in history may never compromise one's ethical responsibilities.

However, if we fully embrace our personal responsibility, and we are open, with humility, to the possibility of God acting in the world, we will live our lives both connected to God, and being proactive in addressing what is wrong in the world, in taking responsibility, in living up to it, and in never compromising our ethical obligations.

Yosef and Yehudah, then, represent the two components that are sadly often missing from an observant Jewish life - religiosity and strong and proactive sense of moral responsibility. As Modern Orthodox Jews, we often are very wary of an approach that is "too religious." We see how people can act when they believe they know God's will or that God works through them. How people can wreak violence and murder, and justify the most heinous acts. The answer, however, is not to remove God from the world. The answer is embrace a humble religiosity. To strive to see God in our lives, to look for those moments of connection, and at the same time to know that we are just human, and that - especially in a post-Holocaust world - that we can never truly know God's plan. And when we allow ourselves to think that living a halakhic life is the beginning and end of our responsibility, we lose sight of the fundamental Torah mandate to do "what is right and just in the eyes of God." Technical observance is not enough. We must fully embrace a sense of moral responsibility - to take full responsibility for our actions or our failures to act, to see what must be done in the world, what rights must be wronged, and to act on it.

These issues are of particular moment in the wake of the recent slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT.   Many people may ask where is God in all of this?  How can God allow such a tragedy to take place?  These are legitimate questions, and they have a place.  But to overly focus on the question of Divine justice, is being religious at the expense of our obligation to do something about it.  Rav Soloveitchik, zt"l, has said that the reason that Judaism does not overly focus on the question of theodicy, is because to come up with answers as to why God allows bad things to happen to good people is to make our peace with suffering and injustice.  As responsible Jews, as responsible human beings, our mandate is always to be sensitive to the suffering of others and do all that is in our power to give succor and to prevent such suffering and tragedies from ever happening again.

This dialectic is powerfully summed up in the following dialogue, the author is anonymous:

"Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it."

"Well, why don't you ask Him?"

"Because I'm afraid He would ask me the same question."

To see God in the world is to live the life of Yosef.  To never compromise our obligation to act, to do, is to live as Yehudah, to be an embodiment of vayigash eilav Yehudah.  To be able to do both, to embrace full faith and full personal responsibility, is the challenge and the goal of our as religious moral agents in this world.

Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week was our last week of the Fall Zman.  There were no afternoon classes or morning shiurim, as students spent the entire week devoted to chazara and taking their final tests of the zman, either in Hilkhot Shabbat or Hilkhot Ta'arovot.

In addition to review and test-taking, it was a week spent in reflection, feedback and assessment. Each student was asked to write a self-reflection on his growth and development in his learning, avodat Hashem, and as a future rabbi.  During this week, morning rebbeim met individually with each student in his class, and spoke to him about what he had written, and how the rebbe saw how he had been progressing.  I also met with each student in the entire yeshiva individually to talk about these issues, and it was a powerful way to connect with the students at the end of the zman.

On Thursday, students filled out an extensive feedback form on their individual shiurim and classes, and on larger curricular issues.  The yeshiva sponsored a lovely lunch of Thursday, were the entire yeshiva - students, rebbeim, staff and administration - share some nice bonding time together and hear beautiful divrei Torah from students and rebbeim to close the zman.

We look forward to resuming with our special January zman in a week-and-a-half.  It has been a tremendous zman of learning, shteiging and growing together.

Dear Friends...

This week has been a difficult one for us all, as we are still coming to terms with the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Below, in my piece on the parsha, I address some of the theological issues that such a horrific event can raise.  In the yeshiva we devoted time on Monday and Tuesday to discuss these events, and our moral and religious responsibility to do everything in our power to help shape a society in which such events - now, sadly, no longer rare - can be prevented in the future.

Students here also wanted to know how to help children deal with distress and fear after the shooting. I provide you below with the links that I sent to them, which I hope will be helpful:

On a personal note, as many of you know, my two sons are on the autism spectrum, and when it started being reported that the shooter had been diagnosed with Asperger's, they were deeply distressed.  "What will people think of us now?" my son Nethanel wanted to know.  Thankfully, there has been much in the press to correct the impression that had been given - that there is some link between emotional-social disorders and violence, or that such disorders are the same as mental illness.  Study after study have shown that there is no link between violence and social-emotional disorders.  If anything, such children are more likely to be victims than victimizers.  I would strongly urge you to become more informed about this matter so that we can make sure that those that are most vulnerable and most need our help do not become the collateral damage of this violence.  Here are some excellent articles on this that have been written this week:

What the media did wrong:

No connection between Autism and violence:

Let us pray to see a time and work to create a society which does everything in its power to protect the innocent from any harm, physical and emotional, and that we know only of peace and security.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family:
Click here:    Parshat Miketz 
A Change of Clothes

Clothes, as we have seen, play a major role in the stories of Yaakov and his children.   This theme continues and comes to a head in this week's parasha.  Yosef is rushed from the dungeon, and in preparation for his meeting with Pharaoh, he shaves and changes his clothes.  This change of clothing is of minor significance - he is merely making himself presentable before meeting the great and mighty Pharaoh.  But it presages another change of clothes, one that takes place after his meeting with Pharaoh.  And this one is of great consequence:

And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.  (Breishit 41:42)

When Pharaoh dresses Yosef in the linen and the gold, when he gives Yosef his own ring, he is seeking to transform Yosef's very identity.  And it is not just his clothes which change.  He adopts a new, Egyptian name, and marries into a royal family.  And he rides around in a chariot, the very symbol of Egyptian culture and society.  Now he is to be seen fully as an Egyptian, and not just as any Egyptian, but as one with power and status to boot.

This is Pharaoh's intent.  If Yosef will be taking on a position of power, then he must be seen as one of the ruling class.  But how did Yosef feel about all of this?  Was he doing what was necessary, just to get along, or was he an active and eager participant in this transformation?

It seems that the latter is the case.  Yosef names his first son Menashe because God has helped him to forget his father's house.  He is looking to leave his painful and difficult past behind him.  His family, the land of Canaan - these were just sources of pain.  Now he has a chance to start over, to be fruitful, to be successful.    It is not for naught that he does not reach out to his father in all these years.  He wants to forget, be a new man.  No longer Yosef, but Zaphnat Paneyach.

Perhaps he was so eager to put on new clothes, because his old ones had already been stripped from him.  His brothers had torn off his cloak of many colors, which in essence was his old identity.  It was this cloak that had been used to mislead Yaakov, to make him think that Yosef had died.   If his old identity had been stripped from him, then perhaps the old Yosef had died.  Now was the time to put on new clothes, to become a new person.

In a way, this is Yaakov redux.  When Yaakov came before Yitzchak, he attempted to appear as Esav.  He wore Esav's clothes, and he called himself by Esav's name.  The one thing he couldn't hide was his voice: "The voice is the voice of Yaakov."  Yosef did Yaakov one better.  Not only did he wear the Egyptian clothes and take on an Egyptian name, he was - by communicating through an interpreter - able to hide his voice, to appear in all ways as an Egyptian.

But there is a difference between these two "disguises".  For Yaakov it was a disguise, something to be used for a brief period of time to achieve a certain end and then discarded.   For Yosef, this was no disguise; this was a new identity, the new Egyptian Yosef.  He was not looking to deceive, to look like another person.  He was looking to become another person.

Even before he stood before Pharaoh, this process had begun.  "For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews" (40:15), he tells the wine steward.  That might be where he came from, but he does not own that as his identity.  It was the wine steward who forced Yosef's identity back onto him: "For there was with us there a young man, a Hebrew."  (41:12). Isn't this truly the Jewish immigrant experience?  Try as we might to shed our past identity, to assimilate, there will always be others who will remind us that we cannot escape who we are, that we are Jews.

So Yosef had found the goldena medina, he had intermarried, he had adopted their customs, he was powerful and accepted; he was one of them.  Who knows what would have happened if the brothers had never come down to Egypt?  Maybe Yosef would have fully assimilated.  Maybe he would have been totally lost.  But the brothers did show up.  They reminded him not only of the dreams, but of his family, his identity, who he truly was.

When Yosef accuses his brothers of spying, we get a peek into Yosef's mind.  "No, for the nakedness of the land you have come to see." (42:12).  To see someone's nakedness is to strip them of their clothes.  Subliminally, Yosef was saying, "You are going to reveal my nakedness!  You are going to strip me of my new clothes.  You are going to show everyone that I am not a true Egyptian, that I am one of you!"  

Yosef's old identity - his brothers, his family - is an embarrassment to him.  He is the immigrant Jew who has come to the new country and has worked hard to fit in.  And just when he thought all was going well, who drops by, but his relatives from the old country, the relatives with the long beards, the funny habits and speaking a funny sounding foreign language.  All the progress that had been made, for naught.

At the beginning of the wonderful PBS documentary, A Life Apart: Hasidim in America,  we are introduced to Nuta Kaufman, a Satmar Hassid, replete with peiyot, and black vest, who tells the following story in Yiddish as he is busy gutting out fish in his fish store:

The Satmar Rebbe, of blessed memory, had just arrived in America. On the first Shabbat here, he went out with a fur hat and a long black coat.  This Americanized Jew, who couldn't stand these European Jews arriving here and openly walking around in Hassidic garb, said: "Oy, I'm afraid that this rebbe will ruin America for us."

The Rebbe replied: "I haven't ruined America for you yet.  But just wait, I will..."

This is Yosef's fear.  And who knows how he would react.  It is not clear that Yosef was originally planning to reveal himself to them.  He might have thought that he could have the best of both worlds.  The dreams are fulfilled, the brothers are bowing down, and I can now get on with my life as a powerful Egyptian ruler.  Even when he was manipulating the brothers to bring down Binyamin, he may have wanted nothing more than to see his beloved brother, and to see the second dream - with the 11 stars, with all the 11 brothers, bowing down to him - fulfilled as well.

What changed this?  The turning point came when he saw Binyamin, and then at the importuning of Yehuda, when he connected emotionally with them, loving them, sharing in their pain.  It came when he reconnected to his family, when he was reconnected to what was truly meaningful in his life, when he was able to realize that with all the pain, this is who he truly was, and this is who he truly is.

This acknowledgment of his family, this acceptance of his identity, which occurs in this foreign land, is the culmination of all the changes of clothing, of all the putting on of different identities that have occurred until now, from Yaakov, to the brothers, to Yehuda, to Yosef.  

As long as someone is not at peace with who they are, is seeking out his identity, he will try on different clothes to try to become someone else.   And as long as someone is afraid of the impact that the outside culture will have on his identity, he will put on different clothes to remain apart.  But when someone is confident in his identity, has no need to become someone else and no fear that he will lose his sense of self, then clothes are no longer markers of identity.  They have lost their power.  They are just clothes.

And so, after Yosef has revealed himself and when he is about to send his brothers back to Canaan, he gives them each chalifot semalot, a change of clothes (45:22).   They will, it is true, have to change clothes if they are to come down to Egypt.  The will have to dress in a way that they can fit in.  But they will come down with their identity intact, as a family with its own customs and a heritage to be proud of.   With their identity secure, they can put on new clothes, they can fit in, for it won't change the core of who they are and it won't be a betrayal of their true selves.

To be able to be who we are, wherever we are, whoever we are with, whatever we are doing and whatever we are wearing: this is truly the lesson of Yosef in Mitzrayim.

Shabbat shalom! 

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week was our last week of shiurim and classes beforechazara and finals next week.  Students were learning intensely, covering the final sugyot, and finishing their review questions and other assignments.  It has been a tremendouszman of learning, with great hasmada and intensity, and it should continue and grow even stronger next zman!

It, of course, was also Chanukah, and we had a wonderful Chanukah chagiga at the Yeshiva on Monday night for students, rebbeim, staff and their respective families.  Thechagiga had something for everyone: dreidel making, chocolate Chanukah gelt, dreidel contests, and latke iron chef competition, and great music and chevreschaft.  It was such a nice opportunity to get together with one another, and with our families, and to really celebrate Chanukah with our yeshiva family.

Chanukah was a part of our learning as well, as students shared divrei Torah on Chanukah after mincha, and Rabbi Katz gave a shiur klali on the topic of U'Bau Pritizm vi'Chililuhu - how the violation by the Syrian-Greeks of the Temple actual brought about a desanctification of the vessels.   This halakhic principle has relevance to those tragic circumstances of desecrated synagogues, stolen sifrei Torah, and the like.  Finally, this morning, Rav Nati gave students a shiur on sources that they had been studying regarding the halakhic and hashkafic aspects of Chanukah.  It was great to make both the joy of Chanukah and the Torah of Chanukah part of our beit midrash this week.

Mazal Tov to Rabbi Jason Weiner (YCT 2006) on the great article, A Chaplain's calling: 'It drew me in',  that appeared in this weekend's Los Angeles Jewish Journal, detailing his Chaplaincy department at Cedars-Sinai, and the wonderful work that it - and he! - are doing.  Also a big mazal to Rabbi Weiner on his recently published guidebook for patients in hospitals entitled, "Navigating Illness & Traditional Jewish Practice".  Yasher Koachacha!  Sheteleikh mei'chayil el chayil!

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha


Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: 
Click here:    Parshat VaYeishev

Parashat VaYeishev - A Tikkun for Rivka

Immediately after Yosef is sold to the Midianites, the Torah interrupts the main Yosef narrative to tell us the story of Yehuda and Tamar.  This story is often understood to be Yehuda’s story, and could be entitled “The Moral Education of Yehuda.”  Yehuda was a person with true leadership potential.  As the story of Yosef bears out, he had a good moral compass, and knew the difference between right and wrong.  He was able to stand up to his brothers and prevent the death of Yosef.  But he still fell short.  He stopped the brothers from killing Yosef, but not from selling him into bondage.  This story, then, is where Yehuda, with everything to lose, admits that he is the father of Tamar’s child.  He has learned to take full responsibility for his actions, and to have the courage to stand up for what is right, regardless of the cost.

But this story is also Tamar’s story.  It is the story not of a leader, not of a person in a position of power, but of someone powerless who barely has a voice.  It is the story of how a woman in a patriarchal society is able to exert her will, able to right the wrongs that have been done to her.  It is the story of how such a woman is able to have, if not power, then at least influence, influence on the outcome of events and influence on the people who hold the power.

The way Tamar exerts such influence is not by directly challenging the powers that be.  The powerless cannot directly take on those in power.  When Yehuda tells her, after the death of his second son, that she must wait until he is prepared to remarry her to his youngest son, Sheila, she is silent and raises no objection.  This is not because she thought she was being treated fairly.  We are told that Yehuda was not being honest with her – “for he said, lest he die just like his brothers” (38:11) - and we can assume that she was not totally fooled by this.  But what could she do?  He was the man and the head of the family, so she had to take him at his word.  So she goes, silently, she leaves, she sits, and she waits: “And Tamar went, and she sat in her father’s home.” (38:11).

If she cannot succeed by the direct approach, then an indirect approach – deception – is called for.  Thus, when many years have passed and there is no question as to Yehuda’s shirking of his responsibility, she takes advantage of Yehuda’s state of sexual neediness, dresses up as a prostitute, and acts – through this deception – to right the wrong.

Now, we are familiar with the putting on of another’s clothing to misrepresent oneself, to deceive a powerful figure.  Rivka put Esav’s garments on Yaakov so that Yaakov could deceive his father into thinking that he was Esav.  But while that deception led to great suffering – Yaakov’s exile, his suffering and being deceived at the hands of Lavan – this deception not only leads to a positive result, but actually to the pronouncement of Tamar’s righteousness: “She is more righteous than I!” (39:26).  What is the difference between these two deceptions?

In many ways, the Torah encourages us to see parallels between these two cases.  In each case, the key woman in the story gives birth to twins, with the two sons fighting in utero for who gets to come out first and who will be the true firstborn son.  In both, clothing is used to deceive someone who could not see the other’s face – either because he was blind or because the other’s face was hidden behind a veil.  In both, a kid goat is used to effect the deception – the hair to stand in for Esav’s hairy neck and arms, or the promise of it to secure Yehuda’s signet ring, staff and cloak.   In both, the key word – yakeir, to recognize – represents the turning point (as it also does in earlier and later stories in this narrative).  Regarding Yitzchak we are told, vi’lo hi’kiro; he did not recognize Yaakov, and thus he blessed him.  In parallel, we are told that at the critical moment va’yakeir Yehuda, that Yehuda recognized and acknowledged his cloak and staff, and that he owned up to being the father of Tamar’s child.

The purpose of these parallels, however, is not to tell us that this is the same story.  Quite the opposite.  It is to encourage us to see the differences between these two parallel stories, to understand why one ended in misery and one in gladness.  It is to encourage us to see the difference between Rivka and Tamar, to see how Tamar is, to use later terminology, the “tikkun” of Rivka.

Let us start with the last point – the language of recognition.  In the Rivka story, the presence of the kid goat is used to deceive, and as a result, there was no recognition, vi’lo hikiro.  In the Yehuda story, in contrast, the absence of the kid goad was used to secure the cloak, the staff, and the signet ring – that is, the markers of the person’s true identity.  It was these markers of true identity which, when they were later produced, led to determining true identity – the father of the baby and the acceptance of responsibility, va’yaker Yehudah.

The question is how this indirect, perhaps less than fully honest, approach is being used.  Is it being used to deceive and lead astray, or is it being used to educate, enlighten, and encourage someone to live up to their commitments and responsibilities?  Sure, Rivka did what she did because she thought it was right.  But she did it despite Yitzchak, with disregard for Yitzchak’s desires.  And Yitzchak was doing what was the norm, fulfilling his obligation – to give the blessing to the firstborn.  The dressing up of Yaakov caused Yitzchak to act against his wishes, to give the blessing to Yaakov thinking he was Esav.

This is not so in Tamar’s case.  Tamar did not only what she thought to be right, she was also coming to educate Yehuda to do what he himself knew was the right thing to do.  The same societal norms that dictated that the blessing go to the firstborn also dictated the obligation of the levirate marriage, that Tamar, on the death of her husband, be married to another member of the family.   And while she dressed up as a prostitute, it was Yehuda who decided to sleep with this “prostitute”.  Tamar's dressing up allowed him to do what he did desire - to sleep with another woman.  And in so doing, he also did the right thing, fulfilling his obligation to his daughter-in-law.

The contrast goes even deeper.  Rivka, motivated by her own sense of rightness, was not just acting against Yitzchak’s wishes, she was also taking away what belonged to one brother to give it to another.  Tamar, on the other hand, was reversing just this type of injustice.  The act of the levirate marriage was an act of self-sacrifice of one brother for another.  The living brother knew that “the seed would not be his,” and he nevertheless was called upon to have a child to carry on his dead brother’s name.  Onan would have none of this, and Yehuda was perpetuating it.  It was only Tamar who was prepared to step in, remind Yehuda of his obligation, and ensure that what was due to this brother would be given to him.

Rivka’s deception caused an already blind man to be put more in the dark.  Tamar’s actions, in contrast, led to the restoring of Yehuda’s moral sight.  It is thus no accident that when Tamar dresses as a prostitute, she sits b’petach einayim, in the “open place,” but also, more literally, at the “opening of the eyes.”  Her covering herself up, with the clothes of a prostitute, with a veil, led not to a hiding of the truth but to its revelation.   She sat bi’petach einayim and this opening of eyes that she effected led to Yehuda being able to finally see clearly, va’yaker Yehuda.

The contrast of these two stories shows us that doing what is right can also be doing what is most effective.  Tamar, as a powerless woman in a male-dominated society, could not take the direct approach.  She could try – as Rivka had – to use subterfuge to impose her will on Yehuda, but that is a path that is doomed to failure.  Rather, both the right thing to do, and the most effective thing to do, is to lead Yehuda, lead the person who holds the true power, to a different path, to lead him to see the light.  It is not just to save Yehuda from embarrassment that Tamar does not point an accusing finger at him when she is being taken out to be burnt.  If she had done that, he would have denied it, and she would have been killed.  Tamar, rather, knew that by placing the items in front of Yehuda and then removing herself, Yehuda would be given the space to accept responsibility and do what is right.  She helped Yehuda see the light, and then Yehuda was able to see, va’yaker Yehuda.

The story thus ends with a different version of the younger and older brother.  Yaakov was the younger brother who was always struggling – often by deceit – to become the older brother, a position he believed to rightfully be his.  Peretz, on the other hand, was able become the older brother fair and square.  Sure there was a struggle, but in the end, he came out first.  Peretz resulted from the union of Tamar and Yehuda – a mother who knew that one must do what is right even when without power, and a father who was taught that when one is in power, he must not allow the power to blind him to what is right.  This is how one gets ahead, and how one has the courage and the strength of character to remain honest and fair when he gets there.  Peretz is the symbol of this honest and courageous leadership, and it is from his line that, through King David, the future monarchy of Israel is established.

Shabbat Shalom!