Maybe the Torah is really Tamar’s story. Seen from that perspective, Judah’s interlude with Tamar is not an annoying interruption placed between Joseph’s sale into slavery and Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife. Maybe we need to know Tamar better. After all Psalm 92 tells us, tzaddik k’tamar – the wise/just are like Tamar. They are planted in the house of God, where they fruit and send out seed in order to tell of God’s uprightness.
So what does it mean to be like Tamar?
A straight reading of the story seems to reveal nothing that suggests we would be wise to be like Tamar. She is a sad person, a levirate wife who is mistreated by her father-in-law Judah after her husband dies. She becomes pregnant after her tricking Judah into having sex with her. And she is only able to do that by pretending to be a prostitute.
But step back, and we see that this encounter with Tamar pushes Judah to take on his true identity as a compassionate and wise leader. Recall that Judah calls Tamar not a zona (common prostitute) but a kadeisha (a cult prostitute), and the root word in kadeisha is k-d-sh – holy.
Indeed, Tamar’s actions remind me of those of lamed vavnikim – the 36 hidden righteous ones who by their collective saintliness hold this world together. It is important to realize that lamed vavnikim are not sweet plaster saints. They have the hard task of pushing us to be better. As a lamed vavnik, Tamar forces Judah to see exactly who he is and then push him to become someone far better.
It is not a pretty or easy process. Tamar tells Judah that the price for sex is a goat. Now goats are something Judah knows a lot about – and not just because he is part of a herding culture. Not too long before, Judah dipped Joseph’s coat in goat blood so he could deceive his father Jacob about Joseph’s death.
But Judah has no goat with him on this trip, and Tamar knows all too well that he is a deceiver. So Tamar demands that Judah give her collateral if he wants to have sex with her. She takes Judah’s seal, staff, and ring – his very identity. And then she seems to have disappeared from his life. While most men in his position might be happy not to see this woman again, it creates a serious problem for Judah. He needs his seal, staff, and ring.
Judah tries to find her and give her the promised goat so he can get his collateral back, but the kadeisha cannot be found. To be a man in his position without a seal, staff, and ring of office must have been extremely uncomfortable, constantly – and at every important event – forcing him to recall his behavior. What subterfuges did he engage in to prevent revealing what he had done?
And then, at the moment Judah thinks he will be publicly calling his daughter-in-law Tamar to account for her immoral behavior, suddenly it is Judah who is on trial. When Tamar reveals Judah’s seal, staff, and ring in public, she forces Judah to acknowledge before all that he, like Esau with Jacob, is a man who is willing to sell himself cheap.
By stealing Judah’s trappings of identity, his badges of high office, Tamar puts Judah in a position in which he has no choice but to reveal the pitiful wretch he actually is. And in doing so, she forces Judah to reject all he has been and to become the righteous, good, tender, caring man we see in Egypt.
So when the story ends, Tamar only seems to wander out of history. The reality is that Tamar is a person who makes history. If we pay attention, we will see the connections.
We will recall that we Yehudim (Jews) are Yehuda’s (Judah’s) children – both in name and in reality. We will see that, but for Tamar, there would be no Jewish people. Without her intervention, would Judah have had the courage to lead his brothers to reconciliation and redemption in Egypt? If not, they would have all died of starvation in Canaan. And King David would never have been, since Tamar and Judah are his ancestors.
But Tamar is not forgotten by the wise. King David remembered. He named one daughter Tamar. And every week, the Psalmist reminds us that the wise and just are like Tamar.