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Fathoming Our Dates With Destiny

December 10, 2009 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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Even though the dates of Chanukah change every year, we Jews welcome our Festival of Lights annually by reading the last parshah of Genesis, the tale of Joseph. This year, perhaps the lights of Chanukah will illuminate the often neglected story that seems to interrupt the Joseph narrative.

Jealous of Joseph's special place in their father's heart, his 10 brothers plot to kill him. They throw Joseph into an empty pit, then sit down to eat. Upon seeing a caravan of traders, one of the brothers, Judah, suggests that instead of killing Joseph, the brothers sell him to the foreign travelers. They agree, then soak his multicolored cloak in animal blood and present it to their father, who wails with grief.

The next chapter shifts the focus to Judah, who marries and fathers three sons. Judah takes Tamar as wife for his son, " ... but Er, Judah's first-born, was wicked in the sight of God, and the Holy One brought about his death." Judah then arranges the marriage of Tamar and his second son, Onan, so that their issue can serve as the first son's heir.

When Onan refuses, "the Holy One brought about his death as well." Judah sends Tamar to her father's house, but binds her to the family by promising that when his third son, Shelah, comes of age, he will become her husband. "Time passed ... and Judah's wife died," and Tamar does not marry Shelah.

The midrash teaches that Tamar was endowed with the gift of prophecy. Knowing that she was destined to carry on a family line that would include David, she takes a bold step: She puts herself in Judah's path. He assumes she is a prostitute, and when she asks for a pledge, he offers his signet seal, his cord and his staff.

Scholar Robert Alter notes that these personal items are the "ancient Near Eastern equivalent of all a person's major credit cards" that serve as an encoded version of his past deception of his father, and his grief as a parent. At the entrance to Enaim on the way to Timnah, Tamar and Judah enter into a liaison that changes their lives and the course of Jewish history.

When Judah later learns of Tamar's pregnancy, he shouts, "Bring her out and let her be burned!" Tamar sends the signet seal, his cord and his staff to her father-in-law. When Judah recognizes his belongings, he responds, "She is more in the right than I."

Scholar Carol Ochs, in Reform Voices of Torah, writes, "Destiny ... neither controls us nor ignores us. Rather, it invites us to live a life beyond the narrow concept of self-interest. ...We are not coerced or tricked into reflecting on our destiny, rather we are invited. And with this invitation comes the possibility of moving from an 'accidental' life to one that is in harmony with the goodness of the original creation."

This story is not an intrusion into the text, but is a challenging example of two individuals who, after great loss, embrace destiny. Tamar's courage enables her to become the ancestor of Israel's most important poet and king. Judah's acceptance of responsibility, here and in the next Torah portion, clears the way to his becoming the eponymous leader of the Jewish people.

When destiny calls, are we able to take risks that may open the way to a future of greater honesty, clarity and compassion?

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: slelwell@urj.org.


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