The Prostitute and The King
Judah son of Jacob approaches the beautiful prostitute at the crossroads and asks for service (Genesis 38:15). Judah has no money or livestock to pay her on him, so he asks for credit. The apparent harlot is the disguised Tamar, Judah’s former daughter-in-law. Two of Judah’s sons had already died during their successive marriages to Tamar, and Judah withheld his third son from her, contrary to the tradition of the time.
The unrecognized Tamar agrees to extend credit to Judah, as long as he gives her some of his personal items as a guarantee. They then have relations and go their separate ways. Judah afterwards sends payment, but the prostitute is no where to be found.
A few months later it is discovered that Tamar is pregnant. Judah orders that she be burned to death – the punishment for her apparently illicit conception. She should have been waiting to consummate her marriage with someone from Judah’s family and should not have been cavorting with strangers. Tamar goes along willingly to her impending death, but she sends a message to Judah, along with his personal belongings, which she had kept until this point:
“To the man to whom these items belong, I am pregnant. Please recognize who these belong to.”
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, (along with many other commentators) asks why didn’t Tamar just flat out state that it was Judah and present her evidence. Sforno quotes a famous passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sotah 10b) that says:
“It is better that a person throw themselves into a fiery furnace than embarrass someone in public – we learn this from Tamar.”
Judah indeed recognizes his items, understands now that Tamar was the beautiful harlot at the crossroads, and understands her motivation. He claims: “She is more righteous than me.”
Tamar risked her life in order not embarrass Judah, who had been in the wrong and had mistakenly accused and sentenced her. The Bible relays this story as a message and the Talmud prescribes it as correct behavior.
Judah, an apparently important and proud man, repents for his error, and is not afraid of the public shame his admission brings. This unique union is blessed with twins, Peretz and Zerach. The Bible goes out of its way to tell us elsewhere (Ruth 4:18-22) that Peretz is the progenitor of King David. Tamar and Judah, because of their actions and character, are part of the formative ingredients in was is to become the royal dynasty of the Tribes of Israel.
May we learn from Tamar’s courage and Judah’s fortitude. May we know how to act if we ever have the potential of shaming someone. Likewise, may we have the strength to overcome any shame that may come our way. May we be blessed with progeny that become leaders in Israel.
To my brother Boaz, an amazing example of courage and fortitude. This is his bar-mitzvah reading, which is why I still remember parts of it. Happy Birthday! May we see you again soon in Israel for happier occasions.