Walking in Tamar’s Shoes

This d’var torah is sponsored by Rabbi Michael Latz in memory of Ann Kaner-Roth.

The story of Tamar, which appears in Parshat Vayeshev, has always made me uncomfortable. Admittedly, I named my first child Tamar and have awkwardly tried to communicate for fifteen years that her name is not inspired by the biblical character we encounter this week. I actually wonder if whoever organized the stories in the Torah was also uncomfortable with the story, based on its odd placement — it interrupts the broader story of Joseph that is taking place immediately before and after in the text.  Giving the story a closer look, perhaps it is in my discomfort that Tamar’s greatest lesson is revealed.

This is a story about abandonment, vulnerability, and Tamar’s efforts to secure her own safety. After Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, is twice widowed by Judah’s sons, Judah becomes frightened and refuses marriage to his third son.

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Tamar finds herself childless, with a vulnerable social status, and desperate to remain a part of the family household. She deceives her father-in-law by veiling herself, posing as a prostitute, and tricking Judah into impregnating her. When Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, he accuses her of sexual indiscretion and calls for her death. After she lets him know, discreetly, that the child is his, he realizes that he too acted immorally and seemingly vindicates her actions by saying, “She is more righteous than I.” (Genesis 38:26)

It’s hard to understand why she would take such an extraordinary risk. Her plan would only succeed if a myriad of long shot factors worked in her favor, and she risked death for becoming pregnant as a widow. Even worse, she slept with her father-in-law, which I think most of us will agree was probably humiliating and, well, just gross.

It would be easy to write this off as the actions of a desperate woman, yet the fact that Tamar gives birth to twins and that one of those twins, Peretz, is an ancestor of King David signifies divine approval of Tamar’s actions. Clearly there’s something to celebrate here, but what might Tamar’s seemingly questionable actions come to teach us?

One takeaway is that people may go to extraordinary lengths in an effort to secure their own safety and protect their family and identity. Maybe Tamar’s story comes to caution those of us who forget to consider the context of someone’s actions or who are quick to judge. When we encounter a person who has joined a gang, or who is sleeping on a subway car, or who is selling sexual acts, can we consider their context and act from a place of compassion? Unless we have been in a marginalized or hopeless place, we may not be able to understand the limitations of having to act from there.  It can remind us that people must often make decisions within messy and difficult circumstances. Solutions they might identify from that narrow place may not seem good to us, or even remotely reasonable, but we mustn’t be blinded by our own privilege or assume that those impacted have more options when in fact they may not. What may seem right to an outsider may not even be an option to the person experiencing it.

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For those of us seeking to build a more just world, our efforts require relationships with those who find themselves in the marginalized places we so desperately want to open up. We must defer to their experiences, and ultimately their leadership, in order to support their efforts to secure their safety and identity. And we must be willing to be uncomfortable at times when we think the solution could be resolved differently. It’s a reminder of the importance of partnership in ensuring that we support people who have limited options without judgement as they make their own decisions.

I imagine that Tamar suffered tremendously. Her suffering, and ultimately her courage to identify a solution that would change the outcome of her story, however imperfect, flowed into the blood of King David and shaped Jewish history. This is a legacy that I now more deeply appreciate. While I didn’t name my daughter for the biblical Tamar, I now have a new way to explain to her what we have to learn from Tamar.

Cindy Greenberg is the President and CEO of Repair the World, whose mission is to make service a defining element of American Jewish life. This piece is based on chevruta learning with Rabbi Jessy Dressin, Executive Director of Repair the World Baltimore.