In the middle of Parshat Vayeishev, Yehuda has an interesting series of encounters with a woman named Tamar. Yehuda fails to marry off his third son Sheilah to her, which he earlier promised to do to carry on the name of his first two sons (each of whom married Tamar, but then died childless). Tamar therefore takes matters into her own hands: disguised as a prostitute, she attracts Yehuda to impregnate her himself. Later, as she is preparing to be killed for harlotry, Tamar indirectly reveals that it was with Yehuda that she conceived, prompting him to confess immediately and vindicate her.
The words Yehuda uses to assume responsibility and stop the execution – “Tzadekah Mimeni” (38:26) – are surprisingly ambiguous. The simple Pshat seems to be, “She is more righteous than me.” Indeed, Ramban, Rashbam, Sforno, and Or HaChaim all interpret it this way, explaining that Yehuda was “more” at fault for one reason or another. Ramban, for example, writes that he should have given Sheilah to Tamar, while Or HaChaim points out that he slept with a woman he thought was a Nochriah, which violated a decree of that generation’s courts. The “trop” (cantillation notes) also fit well with these Mefarshim: the word “Vayomer” immediately before our phrase has a Pashta, a stronger note, while Tzadekah has a Munach, a weaker note that leads in to the stronger Zakef-Katon on Mimeni. This seems to side with the interpretation that Yehuda’s two words are a single cohesive phrase. Even Siftei Chachamim, commenting on Rashi (who, as we shall see, disagrees with this interpretation), notes that this is the simplest way to read the verse – as an expression of Tamar’s comparative righteousness and Yehuda’s relative guilt.
Many of the more traditional Mefarshim, however, put an entirely different spin on these words. Onkelos translates, “She is innocent – she is pregnant from me!” He treats the words Tzadekah and Mimeni as two separate statements, one an affirmation of Tamar’s virtue and the other an exclamation of Yehuda’s own involvement in the case. This is also the interpretation of Rashi, quoting Chazal, and of Targum Yonatan. These commentators deliberately avoid the more obvious reading that the aforementioned Mefarshim endorse; in fact, Siftei Chachamim believes that the viability of that explanation was what prompted Rashi to comment at all on these words. But if it seemed so compelling to the later commentators, why were Chazal and those who follow their approach so averse to this simple Pshat? Why, according to them, can Yehuda not just mean that he was more to blame than Tamar?
Siftei Chachamim itself provides some explanation of this. To explain why Rashi chose the interpretation he did, Siftei Chachamim asks rhetorically, “What difference would it make here if she was more righteous or not?” Yehuda’s guilt in comparison to Tamar’s, claims Siftei Chachamim, is just not relevant to the capital case at hand. This answer, though intuitively appealing, still leaves the question of why it is irrelevant. Tamar does not live in a vacuum; why would Yehuda’s role in the whole affair not affect her?
The answer to this question may seem obvious for the scenario in question – a court case – but it is not always so obvious in its application to everyday life. In a court case, we intuitively understand that no one is put on trial for being guiltier than anyone else. A defendant is tried on the basis of whether or not he personally committed an act worthy of punishment, and the crimes or virtues of others are totally irrelevant. This is why Chazal, Onkelos, and their followers felt compelled to avoid the simple understanding of the Pasuk – they found it inconceivable that Yehuda’s defense is simply a statement of relative guilt and innocence. Rather, it must be a statement that actually nullifies the charges against Tamar, one which expresses her innocence and the reason behind it. (Clearly, identifying exactly how this reason of “Mimeni” answers the charges depends on understanding what those charges are, which is beyond the scope of our discussion.) A trial can only deal with objective evidence and arguments.
But it would be a grave mistake to limit this principle to the justice system. No person in life can judge his peers or himself in comparison to others. Judaism does not accept the excuse of being “better than the next man,” nor does it recognize the “failing” of being comparatively less worthy. We are not criticized for not being like Avraham or Moshe Rabbeinu, as Reb Zusha taught in the famous story, but we are also not free from responsibility just by being more virtuous than our neighbors. The only standard is what we personally are capable of accomplishing, and that, as Chazal and Rashi imply, is the true measure of righteousness.