A Hero of Biblical Proportions?

A d’var Torah for Parshat Vayeshev by Cantor Sara Geffen Geller.

We usually think of Joseph as the “hero of biblical proportions” whose story takes up most of this week’s portion, Vayeshev. We follow Joseph’s story from precocious younger brother to the bottom of a pit, to slave and prisoner, to Pharaoh’s dream analyst and thence to the second highest office in the land. Joseph organizes the entire kingdom to avert famine. 

Joseph acquires the power to save the entire population from hunger. He is truly a “hero of biblical proportions.” I admire his tenacity and vision, yet I struggle to see how I might emulate him. How might I acquire enough power to help society endure? 

Another part of the Torah portion offers us an alternate path to contributing to a better society. This less-discussed story, Genesis 38, centers on Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah. Tamar was married to Judah’s first two sons, who each died. According to levirate tradition, Tamar should next marry the third son, Shelah. However, Judah fears that Shelah will also die, so he sends Tamar back to her family home. 

Here is a parallel to Joseph’s story: Tamar has also been cast into an abyss, for as long as Shelah is available to marry her, Tamar is in limbo. She can neither separate from Judah’s family nor can she marry anyone else. 

While Joseph has God’s support and the skill of dream interpretation, Tamar exercises her only “power” the ability to become pregnant and give birth. There seems to be no “hero of Biblical proportions” to help Tamar. 

To paraphrase Psalm 121: “From where will her help come?” From her neighbors. This inspiring interpretation of the rest of the story is given by Professor Judith Hauptman at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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Professor Hauptman shows three times when Tamar’s local community supported her: First, in verse 13, Tamar is told by other people that her father-in-law would be passing through. This intelligence allows her to put a plan in motion. Next, in verse 21, when Judah sends the goat he had promised Tamar and seeks to recover the collateral he had left with her, the “locals” or “town council” say there had been no prostitute in the area when Judah had been with a woman. They cover for her and throw him off the trail. Lastly, in verse 24, people tell Judah that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, is pregnant which leads to the public revelation that Tamar has been impregnated by Judah himself and the resolution of her limbo status. Professor Hauptman writes: “The role played by the townspeople in this episode, like that of a Greek chorus, is significant. They, and not the male characters, move the story along.” 

The identities of the various townspeople remain unknown. But the consequence of their actions is monumental. One of Tamar’s (and Judah’s) children is Peretz, an ancestor of King David (yes, another hero of biblical proportions). By forcing Judah himself to acknowledge that he has in effect “performed” the levirate marriage, these anonymous folks lift Tamar out of her pit. 

Find more commentaries on Parshat Vayeshev.

I recently moved to a new community, and for the first time in my life, I attended some meetings (Zoom and in-person) of a local political group. We learned about the qualifications of various candidates. We were updated on the progress of door-to-door canvassing, voter registration events, and postcard campaigns. The goal of the group was not to convince anyone to change their political affiliation. The goal was simply to encourage people to register and to vote. The efforts certainly did not change the outcome of every election this time, but then again, records show that only about half of the eligible voters in my district voted this year. So there is still a lot of work to do, and maybe next year… ‘

I see the possibilities and I hope to get more involved. Empowering people to vote lifts them out of a sort of pit.

I will never be a “hero of biblical proportions” like Joseph, saving an entire country through my individual actions. But if I work on it, I think I can be part of the anonymous group of people, one of many heroes, that helps our democracy endure. We all can.

 

Cantor Sara Geffen Geller has served Conservative congregations for 30 years. She has completed the Clergy Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Cantor Geller sits on the Cantors Assembly Executive Council and the Rabbinical Assembly/Conservative Masorti Movement Subcommittee on Racial Justice.

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