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Shavuot: The Scandalous Backstory of Ruth and Boaz
Video 3 of 4
Rashi actually asks the question straight out in the very first verse of the Yehuda and Tamar story. The story opens with words; Vayeired Yehuda mei'eis echov - and Yehuda went down from amongst his brothers. Rashi asks; Lamah nismecha parsha zu l'kan - what is this whole story doing here; V'hifsik b'parshato shel Yosef - why does it take us away from the story of Joseph that we were involved in? Lelamed shehoriduhu echov migedulato keshera'u betzarat avihem - Rashi's answer is that the word Vayeired that begins this story can be understood in two senses. It can mean that Yehuda physically went down from amongst his brothers, but it could also be understood in a political sense, that the brothers caused Judah to descend from his among his other brothers; Keshera'u betzarat avihem - when they saw the pain that the sale of Joseph had caused him. You see, Yehuda had engineered the sale of Joseph and the very last words before the story of Yehuda and Tamar were words that expressed father's pain, when father said; Ki eired el beni avel she'olah - I will go down to my grave mourning Joseph. Rashi says the two Vayeireds are connected. The reason why the brothers caused Judah to descend was because father said, I'm going to descend to my grave mourning Joseph, I'll never get over his loss. They realized the folly of the sale of Joseph and held Judah accountable for it.
But you see here's the problem, at face value Rashi just seems to be explaining one sentence, why the story of Yehuda and Tamar begins with the word Vayeired, what about the rest of the story? Why the whole long story, Judah he marries somebody, he has three children, this one dies, that one dies, Tamar marries this, why do I need to hear about all of that? I believe the answer is that Rashi is telling us much more than the connection of one verse to one verse, he's talking about the whole story. And to see that you need to dig just a little bit more; the connections between the story of Joseph and his brothers and the story of Yehuda and Tamar are vast and are deep. Because of time constraints I cannot get into all of them here now, however, right here on Aleph Beta we have another course devoted just to the story of Yehuda and Tamar; I recommend you look at that for the fuller picture. But here's a quick summary of some of the important points.
The Sages alluded to the connections between the story of the sale of Joseph and the story of Yehuda and Tamar when they focus on a couple key words at the end of each story. Yehuda had said to his father; Haker nah - do you recognize this? The brothers had sent a bloody coat to Jacob after having thrown Joseph in the pit and had asked father to recognize it and father indeed affirmatively does recognize it and comes to the conclusion that Joseph must be dead. He says, I will never get over the loss of Joseph, I will go down to my grave mourning this son. Yehuda leading the brothers actually [ferment 3:39] this kind of loss upon Jacob and he does it with; Haker nah - do you recognize this? Those words themselves come back to haunt Judah when he hears those words from Tamar.
After Tamar becomes pregnant, after dressing up as a harlot and seducing Judah, it turns out that something both ironic and terrible happens. Yehuda who seems to have been the judge at the time is told that Tamar is pregnant, apparently illicitly, she had been awaiting Yibum and then Shelah, Judah's child hadn't married her, it seems that this was an illicit union. So this case is brought before Yehuda, she's condemned as adulterous and is sentenced, of all things, to capital punishment, when in fact, unbeknownst to Yehuda he's actually the father of her child. The commentators explain that at the time a woman awaiting Yibum is still seen as married in some kind of provisional way to her dead husband, such that intimacy with any other man other than for the purpose of Yibum would actually be considered adultery and a capital crime at the time. So Judah condemns her to death. But of course the irony is, is that he is the father. If anyone has acted ignobly here it's he. She has acted with the purest of intentions.
So at that moment Tamar as she's being led out to her doom, she does something brave, she sends out Judah's coat, the coat that he had given her for safekeeping while he went to find the goat, and she says; Haker nah - do you recognize this? The same words that Judah himself said in the previous story. Now Tamar has actually done something very dangerous here because she actually has evidence, she has this coat, one call to the National Enquirer and it's all over, she could just expose Judah. But she doesn't do that, she gives him a choice. He could have just allowed her to die and pretended that he didn't recognize the coat, but to Judah's credit; Vayakira - he recognizes it, and he says; Tzadkah mimeni - she is more righteous than I. With that Tamar's life is saved and the lives of the two children that she is carrying, Peretz and Zerach. Those two children will be born and Peretz will become the scion of the Davidic dynasty of kings.
The story of Judah and Tamar is a story about Yehuda spiritual greatness. Yes, he was a man who was seduced but he was also a man who said, Haker Nah, who recognized the truth instead of hiding it when it would have been the easiest thing to cover it up. Indeed, in the story of Yehuda and Tamar, Yehuda does nothing less than actualize his own name. When he was named Yehuda by his mother Leah he was named that because; Hapa'am odeh et Hashem - I can finally thank G-d. As we've talked about in other videos, the idea of Hoda'ah, of thanks, its core is acknowledgement, is recognition. When Yehuda can recognize the most painful thing of all, that he, the powerful judge, is not as noble as he might seem, and this woman condemned to death is actually the heroine. When he can recognize that - indeed publicly recognize that - that's when he gets his coat back, that's when he gets his staff back, that's when he gets his signet ring back. Who carries around a coat, a staff, and a signet ring? A king does. That's when Judah gets kingship back.
You remember what Rashi said; Shehoriduhu echov migedulato - the brothers caused him to descend, politically, from his position of power over them. Remember Judah ultimately will be the tribe from which kings came and he was the beginning of a leader already with the sale of Joseph. He led them astray in the sale of Joseph, and the brothers called him on it and caused him to descend from his position of leadership. So you know what's happening when he promises Tamar a goat, and he doesn't have it and Tamar says, well I'll take your staff, your signet ring and your cloak? She is dethroning him, she is taking away from him what he no longer has the right to have. But the story of Yehuda and Tamar is also the story about how he gets back these things. He claims it back with the words Haker Nah, when he recognizes those things, and he recognizes her greatness.
Had Yehuda failed in the story of Yehuda and Tamar he would have lost his coat, his signet ring and his staff forever. Judah in the end wins the kingship but he can only be a king if he can rise to the Haker-Nah-challenge.
Now guess what, remember how we looked at the story of Lot and his daughters and we found in it the story of the birth of Ruth's ancestor, the birth of Mo'av? Well now let's look at the story of Yehuda and Tamar, who is born from the union of Yehuda and Tamar? A child by the name of Peretz. That child ultimately becomes the scion of the Davidic dynasty, but that happens because the seventh-generation descendant of Peretz is none other than Boaz. These two stories, the story of Lot and his daughters and the story of Yehuda and Tamar are not just stories that are sort of, kind of, similar to the Book of Ruth in that they're stories about Yibum and stories about seduction. These are actually the stories of the biological genesis of both Boaz and Ruth. Lot and his daughters and Yehuda and Tamar they're actually not two stories; they become one story in the Book of Ruth when Ruth, child of Mo'av, marries Boaz, child of Peretz. They unite biologically and become one, but they also unite thematically and become one.
The themes of broken kindness from Lot and his daughters and the themes of Hakarah, of recognition, from the story of Yehuda and Tamar, these themes come together in the Book of Ruth, and once we see that, the Book of Ruth looks entirely different. Let me show you how that's so in our final video.
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