We must remember that sometimes the challenges that we face are trampolines to get us higher than before.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Vayeishev” (Genesis 37:1-40:23) and in it we read two different stories somewhat concurrently. We begin with the familiar story of Joseph and his brothers. In the middle of the story of Joseph we suddenly find ourselves in the story of Judah and Tamar, virtually without warning.
For those unfamiliar, the story of Judah and Tamar goes like this: Judah had three sons. The first son, Er, was married to a woman named Tamar. Er died and Tamar was now a widow. Er’s brother, Onan, married Tamar. Onan also died soon thereafter. With two of his sons dead — seemingly due to marriage with Tamar — Judah did not want his third son, Shela, to marry her. The odds weren’t on Shela’s side, to say the least!
Marrying a surviving brother is actually a very Jewish thing, known as “Levirate Marriage.” In this spirit, Tamar wanted to remain “in the family” even though she was not allowed to marry Shela.
As a result, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced Judah to lie with her…a form of Levirate marriage!
Indeed, she conceived from this event, twins, one of whom became the ancestor of King David, and by extension, the Messiah.
When her pregnancy became obvious, Judah accused her of acting immorally. Tamar did not say outright that she was pregnant from Judah, her father-in-law, but rather, she said that she was pregnant at the hand of whomever certain possessions, that she showed, had belonged to (which she was given as “payment” for her “service”). Judah then admitted that he indeed was the one who made her pregnant.
And then it’s back to the Joseph story! We pick up in the story with the sale of Joseph to a guy named Potiphar who was one of Pharaohs primary assistants.
The commentators explain that there is a connection between the two stories by noting the opening verse of the Judah story: “And Judah went down…” The words “went down” are interpreted in a number of ways. One interpretation has it that Judah “went down” from his position of leadership among the brothers as result of their father’s grief at the “death” of Joseph (he was fired!). There is a similar verse in the story of Joseph: “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt” which is connected to Judah’s downfall as he was ultimately responsible for Joseph ending up in Egypt.
Two great Jewish leaders facing downfalls.
You see…everyone has ups and downs in their life, it’s not just you and me! But notwithstanding the seeming downfalls of both Judah and Joseph, they emerged even better than ever. In fact, one of the reasons that Jews are called “Jews,” after Judah, is to recall that Judah did not hesitate to confess to his grave sin. That’s big!
He then emerged to be the ancestor of King David and the Messiah.
People can emerge greater after setbacks than they were before them. And Joseph? Well that’s an easy one. Boy did he have a downfall: sold as a slave several times, spent years in a dungeon, accused of sins he didn’t commit, and more. But he emerged king of Egypt!
The lesson of the life of Judah and Joseph, their ups and downs and then their ups again, is the lesson that we are not to give up all hope when things look down. We must remember that sometimes the challenges that we face are trampolines to get us higher than before.
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.
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