Parshas Vayeishev: Yehudah, Tamar, & Why We Can’t Benefit From Chanukah Candles

A joke: A scientist is in a room running some tests on a fly he has trapped in a test tube. He plucks one leg off of the fly and tells the fly, "fly". And so the fly does. It buzzes away, and the scientists records the affects of his little experiment on the fly in his notebook. He catches the fly again, plucks off another leg, instructs the fly to fly, and takes note of what happens again. He continues on like this until all six of the fly's legs are gone. With each leg painfully removed, the fly flies, and the scientist takes note. The scientist then removes one wing, tells the fly to fly, and when the fly doesn't take off, he concludes that after six legs and a wing have been removed from a fly, it can no longer hear.

This is, quite obviously, a bad application of the scientific method. That is not the story of a fly that could not hear, but of a fly that could not fly.

We must apply these same principles with our reading of the Torah. We must understand what it is that we are reading. We must apply the “scientific method” correctly. What are we reading? What is the real story?

The Story Of Yehudah And Tamar

Bereishis 38 tells the uncomfortable story of Yehudah and Tamar in which, unknowingly and thinking she was a prostitute, Yehudah sleeps with and impregnates his daughter-in-law. There are many obvious questions and concerns with this story, but today we deal only with a question of understanding: What, exactly, is the climactic point of the story? And, as an outgrowth of this, what is the proper lesson to be derived?

At Tamar's trial, during what would seem to be the climax, Yehudah recognizes that it was he who impregnated her, and says "she is more righteous than I". Tamar, who had Yehudah's cloak as temporary payment, did not reveal that it was Yehudah who slept with her. She refused to embarrass him. But Yehudah, who could have simply gone on pretending that it wasn’t him, instead admitted to his misdeeds. The lesson to be learned here would seem to be that one must admit to, learn, and grow from their mistakes. It is, put simply, a story of integrity and honesty.

If this is true — that the climactic point of the story is the trial and Yehudah’s admission of guilt — then there seems to be a tremendous amount of unnecessary details in the story. Why is the story so long and descriptive (as we shall soon see)? If the whole point of the story was only the ending, the close to 30 posukim that the Torah devotes to the tale seem to be astonishingly gratuitous.

There is another question that should trouble readers as well. Why is the story recorded at this point in the text? On the one hand, you could suggest that this is when the story occurred chronologically; that this tale is the end result of Yehudah having sold his brother into slavery.

Ibn Ezra, however, states that the story of Yehudah and Tamar happened years before this point in the text, which would present a challenge to our theory. Why, then, according to Ibn Ezra is this story recorded where it is? Ibn Ezra proposes that the story is used to delineate between Yosef being sold into slavery, and the story of Potifar that follows. The question of “why?”, however, still remains. Ibn Ezra himself seems to suggest that his answer is not the greatest, but that he is forced into giving it based on the genealogy of those that descend to Egypt not fitting with the story of Yehudah taking place where it is recorded in the text. As such, it must have taken place years before.

The Torah’s Euphemisms

Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein points out that the Torah has a very clear, and even perhaps strange, euphemism for sexual relations: "יָדַ֔ע", to "know". We see it employed even by Adam and Chava, the first man and woman:

Genesis 4:1:

וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ

And the man knew Eve his wife

A simple explanation for this euphemism is that the Torah speaks in a clean and elevated way. Rambam even states that this is what makes the Hebrew language holy — that there are no explicit words or phrases. This is true, but there are multiple different euphemisms that the Torah uses to describe sexual relations. As such, we must take note as to when and why the different terms are used. Interestingly, in the story of Yehudah and Tamar the Torah does not use the term יָדַ֔ע, but rather uses the term אָב֣וֹא, “let me come onto thee” (Genesis 38:16). There is most certainly a difference between these two terms, and it is to this difference that we now turn our attention.

Human Relationships

Every human, of course, possesses his or her own unique identity. Unfortunately, this is not always recognized in every interaction between two people. Often, one party sees the other simply as an object there to serve his or herself. We can either know and appreciate people in the deepest way — “יָדַ֔ע” — or we can view other people as simply being tools to either help or hurt us in our domination of the universe — “אָב֣וֹא.” The term “יָדַ֔ע” describes an interaction wherein two people with their own unique needs and personalities come together.

The presiding perspective of the story of Yehudah and Tamar is that Tamar tricks Yehudah into sleeping with her by dressing like a prostitute. While it is true that Yehudah certainly believes that Tamar is a prostitute, even a cursory reading of the text makes it clear that Tamar did not actually do anything to intentionally create this misconception. The Torah actually tells us that she put on more clothing than usual — and even covered her face! This is hardly dressing promiscuously. Yehudah indeed saw Tamar as a prostitute, but he was not tricked. Looking into someone else's eyes would be seeing them as a person, but Tamar's face was hidden. Tamar realized that she was objectified all along, and Yehudah fell into that trap.

After he sleeps with her, Yehudah realizes that he has no money. He sends messengers to look for Tamar later to pay her, but they return saying “there is no prostitute.” And they were 100% correct. There was no prostitute. There was only Tamar. Where Yehudah saw only an object, there was really a living person. The fact that the seemingly irrelevant issue of Tamar’s payment is mentioned at all must be to highlight precisely the point that we just made.

Yehudah, of course, uses that term אָב֣וֹא, “let me come onto thee”, hardly a nice way of speaking. He wanted no deeper relationship, nothing meaningful — no “יָדַ֔ע.” Indeed, he later sends his messengers to find Tamar so that he won’t be embarrassed (Genesis 38:23). Tamar was merely an actor in Yehudah's own life-play.

Objectifying People

When you objectify people — when you “buy” them without any meaning — you very likely will come to “sell” them as well. Sometimes figuratively, and, in Yehudah’s case, sometimes literally. Yehudah, of course, was the one that sold Yosef. Yehudah’s answer to someone bothering him — to someone getting in the way of his own plans — was to literally get rid of him.

It is this connection that one of my rebbeim proposed is the missing connection that Ibn Ezra was looking for. This is why the story of Yehudah and Tamar comes after the story of Yehudah and Yosef — they are both cautionary tales of what comes of objectifying people.

Chanukah And The Marketplace

The Gemara states that the Chanukah candles can be lit from the time the sun goes down only until people are no longer “in the marketplace.” A marketplace is a place of physicality — a place of buying and selling for one’s own personal gain and benefit. Perhaps one of the reasons the Chanukah candles are lit specifically and only during this time is as a means of drawing us out of this mindset. We are not allowed to gain from the Chanukah candles. We are not allowed to receive any benefit from them whatsoever. We cannot take advantage of them for ourselves. Surely, part of the reason this is the case is to remind us of the ideas outlined herein. If we must approach the Chanukah candles in this regard, and this attitude and perspective is instilled within us, surely we will be more cognizant of the fact that people are not just objects either.

The climax of the story of Yehudah and Tamar was not when Yehudah realized that it was he who impregnated Tamar. It was when he first saw Tamar standing on the side of the road, and instead of seeing a person, saw an object. There never was a prostitute. Yehudah saw a prostitute. But people are not just there to serve — they are so much more than that.

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