The Shame Of It All
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Yehudah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, "Remain a widow in your father's
house until my son Shelah grows up, in case he dies like his brothers."
Tamar returned and remained in her father's house. (Bereishis 38:11)
The building of the Moshiach dynasty has been a long, difficult, and often
VERY confusing process. Had we been in charge we probably would have done
things differently. Had WE done it G-d's way, it would have ended in
disaster a long time ago. Thank G-d He is in charge, because only G-d can
work in such mysterious ways and still make everything work out in the end
the way it was meant to.
On such detail is the Yehudah-Tamar incident. In the beginning, we aren't
given much of an opportunity to appreciate the greatest of this special
woman because she is known only through her two husbands - Er and Onan -
who were decidedly bad. And, one would assume that the wife of an evil man
must not be too righteous herself. How wrong assumptions can be!
In any case, after Onan had gone the way of his former brother, their
father Yehudah feared for the life of his third and last surviving son,
Shelah (which, ironically, means "hers"). At that time, Shelah would have
had to marry the wife of his dead brother, since she failed to have
children from the deceased brother, just as Onan had done after Er had died
childless. Therefore, Yehudah sent Tamar back home once again, lamely
citing Shelah's youth as an excuse to avoid marriage at that time.
Well, the years went by and there had been no sign of Yehudah or Shelah,
which inspired Tamar to take matters into her own hands. For some, that
might have meant confronting the father-in-law to decide either to have the
remaining son marry or to "file" for divorce. But for Tamar, it wasn't
freedom to marry another that she wanted, but to produce children from this
illustrious and royal family, the very source of Moshiach himself.
Therefore, Tamar - with tremendous help from Heaven - took advantage of a
situation that she could never have planned: the death of Yehudah's own
wife, and his being in Tamar's neck of the woods shortly after. Disguising
herself as a worman-of-hire, she placed herself in Yehudah's path and let
Divine Providence take care of the rest.
And it did with precision: Heaven brought Yehudah to Tamar, and the rest is
in the parshah itself. The result was the conception and eventual birth of
two sons, Zerach and Peretz, the latter becoming of the next link in the
chain of the Messianic dynasty. And, as if to prove just how much Divine
Providence had player a role in the entire affair, Yehudah never approached
his daughter-in-law again.
This part of Messianic history occurred just after we recovered, if we ever
did, from the story of Moav's humble, or should we say, rather bizarre
beginning. Moav was the son of Lot's eldest daughter and himself, conceived
while Lot was intoxicated with wine. True, the daughters had acted in this
strange way because, after witnessing the destruction of Sdom, they had
thought that no other men were left to marry and from whom to have
children. That itself was strange given that they probably knew, as their
father did, that Avraham and his family was still alive, and more than
likely, others as well.
Moav was also the nation from which another righteous woman, Rus,
descended, in order to marry Boaz, through circumstances that were every
much as strange as those to do with Yehudah and Tamar. She had married a
Jew who had emigrated to Moav against the halachah, and who ended marrying
a Moabite princess. Yet, because he did, Rus ended up converting and
returning to Eretz Yisroel to marry Boaz, whose own wife had died just as
Rus had returned with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to Beit Lechem.
And Boaz himself lived only long enough to marry Rus - amidst great
controversy - and have her conceive - one day altogether!
The creation of Moshiach, upon which so much rides, has been a very
But all of this is just by the way, because one of the main lessons of this
story comes out quite vicariously. And, when one thinks about how close
Tamar came to death with her twins still inside of her, just to avoid
embarrassing the very man who had been somewhat of a source of her own
misfortune, one shudders. It leaves us with two very important lessons, one
about the importance of not embarrassing another in public, and the second
about what might be holding up the Final Redemption, as we watch with
trepidation monsters of the past renew themselves before our very eyes.
While she was being taken out, she sent for her father-in-law saying, "I am
pregnant by the man to whom these belong. Please identify to whom this
signet ring, cloak, and staff belong." (Bereishis 38:25)
The Talmud begins with a discussion about "ona'a," the technical name used
when someone has been charged at least one-sixth more than the value of
something. However, as the Talmud later teaches, "ona'a" applies to more
than acquiring items - it also applies to how we speak to others (Bava
Classic examples of "Ona'as Devarim" include reminding a Ba'al Teshuvah
about his pre-Ba'al Teshuvah days, or a convert about his non-Jewish
origin. Even calling a person by a not-so-nice nickname, even if others use
it freely falls into this category, and amazingly, can cost a person his
portion in the World-to-Come.
The Talmud, as if to emphasize this point, brings up the story of Dovid
HaMelech (Bava Metzia 59a). As if descending from Rus wasn't bad enough
(some still questioned in those days whether or not a Maobitess could
convert to Judaism, as Rus haddone), Dovid married Bas Sheva under somewhat
cloudy circumstances. It just gave the enemies of Dovid HaMelech, whose own
birth was questionable in the eyes of some, more fodder to shoot at Dovid
himself. Only during his son's lifetime, Shlomo HaMelech, after Dovid was
long gone, did all the questions get answered in his favor.
All Dovid had to do was enter the Bais Medrash, a place that should have
been one of peace for him, and he was humiliated.
"Dovid!" some would call out to him, "Someone who takes a married woman
dies by what kind of punishment?"
An obvious reference to himself. However, he would answer them, "His death
is by strangulation, but at least he gets a portion in the World-to-Come.
But," he would continue, "someone who embarrasses another in public does
NOT have a portion in the World-to-Come!" (Bava Metzia 59a).
Indeed, the Talmud makes the most remarkable comment that it is better for
a person to be intimate with a woman who might already be married than to
embarrass another person in public! Not that the Talmud is sanctioning
doubtful adultery, G-d forbid! The Talmud just wants us to understand just
how severe the sin of embarrassing a person in public really is. If we
already appreciated that, then the statement from the Talmud would make
sense to us without any further explanation. We would already know that
embarrassing a person, especially in public, is like killing them on some
level, since the blood drains from their face.
Tamar understood this. When it became know that she was pregnant, and
obviously not from Shelah, she was accused of adultery by Yehudah. Being
the daughter of a kohen, she was sentenced to burn to death, which she
accepted without saying a peep for fear that she would embarrass Yehudah by
spilling the beans about who was the true father. The most she would do was
hint the truth to him, and then leave it up to Yehudah to either take
responsibility for his actions, or to let her go up in flames. Amazingly,
the future of Moshiach came down to one woman's willingness to burn to
death rather than to embarrass the secret father of her children, and that
man's willingness to reveal the truth about his dubious act.
Incidental, or a major factor in the construction of the Messianic Dynasty?
Yehudah recognized [them] and said, "She is right. It is from me. It
happened because I didn't give her to my son Shelah." (Bereishis 38:26)
One can only begin to imagine the collective sigh of relief that Yehudah's
admission must have brought, not just to Tamar and her family, but to all
those who had been present, physically and spiritually speaking. Perhaps
this is why Ya'akov made such a great deal about Yehudah's admission from
his death bed, when Yehudah's connection to royalty was sealed:
"Yehudah, you brothers will admit to you . . ." (Bereishis 49:8)
Indeed, everything about Yehudah is about admission, as his name implies.
But, even still, the star of the story is Tamar, who never stopped thinking
about producing children from the line of Yehudah, and then leaving it up
to him to prove her innocence. As to why this trait plays such a major role
in the creation of the Moshiach, we have only to return back to the
beginning of history, where the concept of bushah - shame - was a major
issue because it hadn't been prior to the sin.
Prior to eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Torah
Both the man and the woman were naked, but were not embarrassed. (Bereishis
They did not know the way of modesty to distinguish between good and evil.
Even though he had knowledge to name the animals, he did not yet possess a
yetzer hara. When he ate from the tree, the yetzer hara entered him, and he
knew the difference between good and evil. (Rashi)
Rashi has introduced some interesting concepts. Embarrassment, according to
Rashi, is a function of the yetzer hara, of being able to distinguish
between good and evil. Bushah is the response to the sin of eating from the
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, a measure of one's awareness of the
difference between good and evil, or more accurately, man's potential to do
Thus, if Moshiach represents the tikun for history since the sin itself -
hence the gematria of Moshiach and Nachash (snake) are the same - it makes
sense that the concept of bushah, also a tikun for the first sin, should be
intricately bound up with the concept of Moshiach, and to play a major role
in its evolution to reality.
Thus, Tamar was doing more than simply protecting her father-in-law from
public embarrassment. She was creating an opening through which Yehudah
could pass in order to bring about the realization of Moshiach.
There is a fundamental difference between the idea of embarrassment and the
idea of shame. In the case of the former, it usually comes from others
whereas the shame comes from within us. People cause others to become
embarrassed, but shame is something we feel about ourselves, when we do
something that is below the standard that we expect from ourselves. To feel
shame for one's incorrect behavior is noble, but to embarrass another is
despicable and, according to the Talmud, tantamount to murder.
Not only is shame for immoral behavior a noble thing, it is throwback to
Adam HaRishon. It implies a strong sense of right and wrong, and
understanding of G-d's rules for creation, and commitment to them. It
indicates a greatness of spirit, a willingness to put Objective Truth ahead
of personal gain and comfort. It represents a person's ability to sense his
own G-dliness, and yearning to fulfill it. Ultimately, it means a person
can still relate to man's greatness from before the sin, while living in a
state after the sin. It is the conduit between both worlds.
The king of the Jewish people, and ultimately Melech HaMoshiach himself,
has to be someone of this nature. He will not be a god, but he will be very
special. His uniqueness will lie in his ability to put the needs of
creation before his own, the requirements of his people ahead of his own
interests. It is the only way for him to become the conduit he must be for
the light of G-d in order to bring an end to thousands of years of evil.
This is what Yehudah did upon seeing his staff, ring, and cloak in his own
hands, sent to him by the woman he had thought had only been his
daughter-in-law, but now understand she was much more. As Yehudah stood
there and beheld the evidence in his hand, he underwent a paradigm shift,
from seeing himself as the judge and Tamar as the defendant; he as the
proud one and Tamar as the shameful one - to Tamar as the brave and humble
soul and himself as the guiltiest of parties on more than one charge.
However, only he and Tamar knew the truth, and she was committed to die
with it rather to embarrass her father-in-law. Her future, the future of
their children, and his own future was in his big and powerful hands, and
only his attitude towards truth would decide the outcome. He chose to be
modeh - to admit - and to suffer the shame of all of his inappropriate
actions: from not giving Shelah to her in time as promised, to hiring a
supposed woman of ill-repute, of suspecting his righteous daughter-in-law
of adultery, of almost killing an innocent woman and her children.
And in the brief moment that he felt shame, he ascended to the highest
heights, and merited to become the king of the Jewish people and ancestor
of Moshiach. For, as the Talmud says, at the end of history, falsehood will
be so rampant that sanity will be difficult to maintain (Sanhedrin 97a). It
will take someone of just the opposite qualities to combat and destroy all
the falsehood, and that day, as a result of Tamar's clever planning and
great self-discipline, Yehudah was able to step into that role.