After Joseph is sold as a slave to Potiphar and is placed in charge of the latter’s home, the Torah suspends its linear narrative and shifts to describing an episode that takes place outside the context of that narrative – the story of Judah and Tamar.
Judah refuses to allow his youngest son, Shelah, to marry Tamar, Shelah’s widowed sister-in-law, and to thereby perform the commandment of yibum (levirate marriage). In response, Tamar dons the garb of a harlot, and has sex with her father-in-law. Judah promises to bring her a goat kid in payment for her sexual services, and in the meantime, as a pledge, gives her his signet ring, cord and staff.
When it is discovered that Tamar is pregnant, Judah sentences her to death by fire, whereupon she presents the pledge, proving that Judah is the father of her child. Judah then reverses the sentence and marries Tamar.
The abrupt transition from the story of Joseph’s bondage in Egypt to that of Judah and Tamar is not explained in the Torah text; the sages, however, offer many linguistic parallels that connect and characterize the two stories.
According to the sages, the relationship between the two tales is that of “measure for measure” (midah keneged midah): Judah is caught up in the net of Tamar’s actions because of his part, along with that of his brothers, in the selling of Joseph into slavery.
There is a moral-economic symmetry here that compensates for the seeming injustice of the two stories when they are considered separately as isolated units. For instance, when Judah decrees that Tamar must be put to death by fire, she takes out his pledge, saying, “Discern, I pray thee [haker na], whose are these, the signet, and the cords, and the staff” (Genesis 38:25).
With regard to that verse, the midrash tells us, “Rabbi Johanan stated that God told Judah: You said to your father, ‘Know now [haker na] [whether it is thy son’s coat or not].’ It is therefore fitting that Tamar is addressing you, using those same two words, ‘haker na’” (Bereisheet Rabbah 85:11).
Early in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), Judah, standing together with his brothers, says to his father Jacob, “Know now [whether it is thy son’s coat or not]: And they sent the coat of many colors, and they brought it to their father; and said: ‘This have we found. Know now whether it is thy son’s coat or not’” (Gen. 37:32).
In Rabbi Johanan’s homily, God turns to Judah, pointing out the symmetry between the use of the phrase “haker na” by Judah, in addressing his father, and its use by Tamar, when she addresses Judah. “It is only fitting,” God informs Judah, “that the very same words you used when you spoke to your father should be used by Tamar when she spoke to you.”
The symmetry is, of course, based on a literal reading of the text; however, the literary, refined and unexplained repetition of the phrase “haker na” – Know now/Discern, I pray thee – is given meaning by Rabbi Johanan, who presents a dialogue between God and Judah, wherein God tells Judah that he deserves to hear the very same phrase that he himself used when he spoke to his father about Joseph’s alleged death. In Rabbi Johanan’s eyes, the connection between the story of Tamar and Judah and the story of Joseph is that of “measure for measure,” in which the punishment precisely suits the crime.
The midrash presents other examples that stress the symmetry between the two tales. In the following example, the highlighting of the symmetry is accompanied by an ostensibly casual comment that, however, reflects the sages’ view of the Torah’s literary character, which naturally creates such literary symmetries.
“It is written, ‘And Judah sent the kid of the goats [by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand]’ [Gen. 38:20]. Rabbi Judah, son of Nachman, quoting Rabbi Simeon, son of Lakish, cited the verse, ‘Playing in [or, with] his [God’s] habitable earth’ [Proverbs 8:31], and noted that there are cases where the Torah turns mortals into mere toys. God says to Judah: ‘You deceived your father, using a young goat; it is therefore fitting that Tamar should deceive you, also using a young goat’” (Bereishet Rabbah 85:9).
The second part of this commentary operates in accordance with the very same mechanism demonstrated in the previous example. The homilist presents us with a dialogue between God and Judah, wherein God points out the symmetry between the two stories, thereby turning what appears to be something inexplicable into a case of measure for measure. Since Judah deceived his father with a young goat, he deserves to be deceived with the same means by his daughter-in-law Tamar.
However, before presenting this symmetry, the homilist cites a verse from Proverbs that appears in a passage dealing with the supreme status of wisdom, which, in the literature of the sages, is always a reference to the Torah. In Proverbs, wisdom-Torah is described as being in God’s possession even before he creates the universe. The Torah has been in existence forever: “When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth; While as yet he [God] had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the beginning of the dust of the world” (Prov. 8:24-26). The Torah accompanies the process of the Creation from the very beginning and bears witness to each and every stage in that process.
What did wisdom do in those dark times that preceded the creation of the universe? “Then I was by him [God], as a nursling; and I was daily all delight, playing always before him, playing in [or, with] his habitable earth, and my delights are with the sons of men” (Prov. 8:30-31).
In God’s presence, the Torah, God’s toy, plays with the newly created world as if it were also a toy. In the above midrash, Rabbi Judah, citing Rabbi Simeon, son of Lakish, interprets the word mesaheket (playing) as meaning “mocking.” The Torah mocks God’s creatures, whose exploits are depicted in its text.
The literal symmetry between the act of Joseph’s being sold into slavery and the tale of Judah and Tamar is explained not as an instance of poetic justice, but rather as an example of the Torah’s ridiculing mortals and putting them in their place. The creation of this symmetry is the Torah’s way of punishing its protagonists for their immoral or unethical behavior.
When we consider such a sophisticated view of the biblical text’s nature, the Torah is seen as an outwardly looking entity that has strong opinions and that judges its protagonists, leading them through manipulative literary means to the fate that they richly deserve.
God’s somewhat surprising role is to mediate between the biblical text and its protagonists. He initiates a dialogue with a scorned mortal, Judah. In it, God explains to him the Torah has ridiculed him: “You deceived your father, using a young goat; it is therefore fitting that Tamar should deceive you, also using a young goat.”