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Parshat Vayeishev

By: Reb Norman Meskin

The structure of Parshat Vayeishev makes one wonder if it were not written by some modern-day, New York Times #1 Bestselling, suspense or mystery novelist!

During the course of the first three aliyot, we learn about Yaakov’s family in Canaan; the multi-colored coat; Yoseph’s two dreams; the brothers’ extreme dislike for Yoseph; their decision to kill him; the intervention of Reuven and Yehudah; and the final decision to sell him. During the course of the last three aliyot, we learn that Yoseph had been purchased by Potiphar; was quickly recognized for his skills and integrity and was appointed to run Potiphar's household. We also learn that Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce Yoseph, but Yoseph withstood temptation and was thrown into the royal prison. He correctly interpreted the dreams of the wine steward and baker.

The mystery is posed by the reading in the fourth aliyah. Here we read about the story of Yehuda and Tamar. A brief summary of that story follows below:

Yehuda had three sons. The oldest, Er, married a woman named Tamar. But he died without having any children. When that happens, the living brother must marry the wife of the dead brother (Yibum). The second son, Onan, did not like this idea at all. He made sure that Tamar would not get pregnant. He also died without having any children.

Yehuda was afraid to let his third son, Shela, marry Tamar, lest he would also die. Tamar was stuck. She could not marry anyone else and she did not have children. She decided on a desperate plan. When Yehuda’s wife died, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute so that Yehuda would not recognize her and he slept with her. When he left, Tamar asked Yehuda to give her his seal, shawl and staff--things that identified Yehuda.

Three months later, everyone knew that Tamar was pregnant—but they did not know who the father was. In those days, when a woman did something like that, getting pregnant when she was not allowed to, the punishment was very serious. This is what happened next:

About three months later, Yehuda was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact she has gotten pregnant.” “Bring her out,” said Yehuda, and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Yehuda recognized them, and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shela.”.

Why does this intriguing but seemingly misplaced incident interrupt the story of Yoseph in Egypt? What is the connection?

One of the most penetrating answers to this question is provided by the 19th-century Torah commentator - Haketav v'haKabbala: "Yehuda's words on seeing his seal, shawl of office and stave, "She is more righteous than I am", have become the classic public admission of fault and acceptance of responsibility.”

According to the Yalkut Shimoni, because of his courage in publicly admitting the error of his ways, "Yehuda merited thereby that he rule over the brothers and that his descendants would be kings." The moral lesson is compelling: ONLY someone who can admit guilt and accept responsibility for his actions can be a true leader in Israel! One must be a “good” person to be a “good” leader!

And the Torah presents Yehuda’s credentials before he puts his life on the line for his youngest brother, Binyamin, and, thereby, saves the entire family.

Contrast this stance with the mythology that accompanies the individual whose exploits are celebrated and worshipped on Motza’ei Shabbat this week!