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Suspend Judgment

Thursday, 17 December, 2015 - 1:49 pm

Steven paid his way through college by becoming a waiter in a restaurant.  "What's the usual tip?" asked a customer.

"Well," said Steven, "this is my first day, but the other guys said that if I got five dollars out of you, I'd be doing great."  "Is that so?" growled the angry customer. "In that case, here's two hundred dollars!" "Thanks. I'll put it in my college fund," Johnny said.  "What are you studying?" asked the customer. "Applied psychology."

This week's portion, Vayigash, relays the incredible story of one man's transformation: Judah.

22 years earlier, Judah asked his brothers, “What will we gain by killing our brother Joseph? Let's sell him to the Arabs and not harm him ourselves.” He was behind Joseph being sold as a slave. Joseph was sold and brought to Egypt at 17. 13 years later, at age 30, he became the viceroy of Egypt.

In Vayigash, when Joseph's younger brother Benjamin is about to be taken as a slave (by Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers), Judah offers himself instead. He will become a slave for life so Benjamin can go free.

No sooner does he offer than Joseph, overcome with emotion, reveals his identity and the elaborate drama comes full circle. The family is reunited. Jacob relocates to Egypt where he meets his long lost beloved son.

What caused this change? How did Judah achieve this momentous transformation of character?

The Torah does not explicitly answer this question. Yet it interrupts the story of Joseph’s sale into slavery with a seemingly irrelevant narrative, which may contain the clue to understanding the psychological evolution of Judah.

Judah meets and marries a Canaanite woman, and they have three sons, Er, Onan, and Shalah. The oldest, Er, marries a woman named Tamar but dies childless. Guided by the tradition of levirate marriages, where a childless widow marries the brother of the deceased, Judah asks her to marry his second son, Onan. But Onan also dies. Tamar is left a childless widow. At this time, we would expect her to marry the third son, Shalah. Yet Judah, fearing that his third son would share the fate of his brothers if he married her, withheld him from her, leaving her unable to remarry and have children. At that time, the levirate laws of marriage dictated that when a husband died and left a childless widow, she was bound in marriage to either her brother-in-law or her father-in-law.

Once she understands her impossible situation—she can’t move on, nor can she marry Shalah—Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute. Judah encounters her on the road and they are intimate with each other. She becomes pregnant. Judah, unaware of the disguise, concludes that Tamar must have had a forbidden relationship. Tamar, who was bound to his son Shalah, has committed adultery. He orders her to be put to death by burning. At this point, Tamar, who, while disguised, had cleverly taken Judah's seal, cord and staff as collateral, sends them to him with a message: "The father of my child is the man to whom these items belong." Judah now understands the whole story. Not only has he placed Tamar in an impossible situation of living widowhood, and not only is he the father of her child, but she behaved with extraordinary discretion in revealing the truth without shaming him. (We derive from Tamar's action that "one should throw oneself into a fiery furnace rather than shame another in public.")

Judah makes a public confession. "She is right!" he exclaims. "It is from me [that she has become pregnant]." Tamar's life is spared. She soon gives birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach, the former becoming the ancestor of King David.

But Judah discovers one more thing—and we may speculate that it altered his life forever.

Judah discovers that he was about to send an innocent pregnant woman to be burned. In his mind, his was a righteous verdict. He was acting based on the law of the land at the time. If he had had even the slightest concern that this was an unjust law, he would have never abided by it. In the Abrahamic family, sending a person to death was no small matter—even 3,500 years ago when human life had little value amongst most peoples. Yet Judah, clueless to the fact that it was he who had impregnated Tamar, was convinced that his daughter-in-law had committed a capital sin.

Suddenly he discovers that he had it all wrong! His verdict would have snuffed out three innocent lives. To his credit, Judah not only let her off the hook, he also confessed publicly that it was he who had had relations with her. In that process he realized how deeply mistaken a person can be. Here was someone he was convinced deserved to die—when in reality this person’s innocence was flawless. It was HE who was in the wrong.

Then, a thought must have crept into Judah’s mind. Maybe this had occurred in the past as well?

Maybe—just maybe—his position on Joseph, too, was completely misguided? Maybe he had been in the dark all those years?

As Judah gazed in disbelief on the items Tamar sent him, he discovered the shocking truth: everyone is capable of misreading a situation. You can hold a position which, in your eyes, is perfectly right—and in reality you are the culprit.

Something happens to you when you suddenly realize how terribly wrong you can be! Judah was never the same person again. He was forced to reevaluate his entire life and ask himself if maybe his perception of Joseph was flawed and crippled.

Two decades later, as Joseph’s brother Benjamin was wanted as a slave in Egypt, though Judah was not guilty and was entitled to leave, he sacrificed his life and eternal freedom to ensure Benjamin's freedom and the wellbeing of his father Jacob.

How important a lesson this is in each of our lives.

A young lady was waiting for her flight in a large airport. As she had several hours to spare, she bought a book and a package of cookies, and settled down in an armchair in the VIP room of the airport to wait, the cookies on the shared armrest. In the next armchair, a man also sat reading. When she took out her first cookie, the man took one too. She was irritated but said nothing. She just thought, "What nerve! If I was daring enough I would punch him!" For each cookie she took, the man took one too. She was furious but didn’t want to cause a scene. When only one cookie remained, she thought, "Ah…..what will this abusive man do now?" The man took the last cookie, divided it in two, and gave her half. That was too much! She was too angry now! In a huff, she took her things and stormed to the boarding area.

When she sat down on the plane, she looked in her purse to take out her eyeglasses, and lo and behold, there was her unopened package of cookies! She felt so ashamed!! She realized she had been wrong.… She had forgotten that her cookies were in her purse. The man had divided his cookies with her without feeling anger or bitterness, while she had been very angry, thinking that she was dividing her cookies with him.

Steven Covey tells of traveling on the subway one Sunday morning. People were sitting quietly, reading, thinking, and resting. It was peaceful.

Suddenly, a man entered the subway car with his children. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed. The man sat down next to Covey and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people's papers. It was very disturbing. Still, the father did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. Covey could not believe that the man could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild and do nothing about it, take no responsibility. (It was easy to see that everyone on the subway was irritated.) Finally, with what he felt was unusual patience and restraint, he turned to the father and said, "Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you could control them a little?"

The man lifted his gaze as if in a daze and said softly, "Oh, you're right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don't know what to think, and I guess they don't know how to handle it either.…"

“Can you imagine what I felt at that moment?” Covey asks when finished. "This was one of those times when in a single moment you realize how wrong you were; how primitive it was of you to sit on a throne of judgment and reach conclusions that were in truth superficial and insensitive."

This is the truth of life: We know nothing of the trials, sorrows and temptations of those around us, of pillows wet with sobs, of the life-tragedy that may be hidden behind a smile, of the secret cares, struggles, and worries that cut into people’s lives. Even if we do know, we automatically see things a certain way, clouded by our own needs, wants, pains and insecurities. Even as we understand cerebrally that truth is often relative and nuanced, emotionally we don’t really feel it in our bones. 
What Judah discovered, and what we must all discover, is how painfully wrong we can be and how much damage we can create as a result.

Indeed, this story is captured in the very name of Judah. The Midrash says, it is also related to the verb which means “to admit, to confess.” Judah is the first person in the Torah to admit and acknowledge that he is wrong, that he made a terrible mistake by accusing Tamar of wrongdoing. As a result, he becomes a new man—more honest, humble, noble, respectful, caring, and courageous than he was ever before. So must we.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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