In Parashat VaYeishev, the Torah tells us the seemingly bizarre story of Yehuda and Tamar. We are told that Yehuda "went down from his brothers" and married the daughter of a "Canaani" (Bereishit 38:1-2). He had three children with her: Eir, Onan, and Sheilah. Eir married a woman named Tamar, but the couple was childless. Eir died because he did something "bad in the eyes of God," whereupon Yehuda told Onan to perform the Mitzvah of Yibum (see Devarim 25:4-10) by marrying Tamar. Onan didn't want his deceased brother to get all the credit for his own children (see ad. loc. verse 6), so he also did something "bad," and God killed him as well. Yehuda told Tamar that Sheilah, his youngest, would remain with him, and when he would grow older, he would go marry Tamar. After some years, Yehuda's wife died, and, as he was going to shear his sheep, he met a harlot, who happened to be Tamar in disguise. As collateral, Yehuda gave Tamar, still anonymous, his signet ring, staff, and cloaks. After three months, it became known that Tamar was pregnant, and when Yehuda heard of this, he commanded that she be killed. However, when Tamar showed Yehuda his ring, staff, and cloaks, he immediately retracted his previous statement and said, "She is more righteous than I.”
From a cursory glance at this story, a very basic question arises: why does the Torah record this episode? The most elementary questions that always must be answered regarding any story in Sefer Bereishit are how it affects our understanding of the Sefer in general and how it relates to the themes surrounding it. How are we to understand this episode?
To put it simply, the life of Yehuda parallels the life of Yaakov. The parallel is obvious both linguistically and thematically, both of which emanate purely from the unfettered text of the Torah. Let us first take a look at the life of Yaakov. Yaakov fell in love with Rachel and had two children from her. When summarizing his life, Yaakov says, "And when I was coming from Paddan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan...and I buried her on path to Efrat, which is Beit Lechem" (Bereishit 48:7). Clearly, the death of Rachel was a crucial factor in Yaakov's life and made a huge impact on the way he lived. The Torah begins the story of Yosef by telling us, "And Yaakov lived in the land where his father lived, in the land of Canaan" (37:1). Why does the Torah have to phrase it like this? Why couldn't the Torah have said "Yaakov lived in Canaan”? The Torah clearly emphasizes that it was in the land where his father lived. Yaakov was rooted in the past. He was obsessed with tradition and with staying deeply connected to loved ones. At first, Yaakov felt deeply attached to Rachel, but her death created in him a need to be so connected to his loved ones to the extent that he wouldn't let them leave him. This is why Yaakov chose to emphasize that fact at the end of his life.
Yaakov made sure not to let his two most beloved children, Yosef and Binyamin, leave his side. Yosef was still confined to home at age seventeen; when his brothers went out to graze the sheep in the field, the only one kept home (besides Binyamin, who was too young to go out) was Yosef. Yaakov did not want Yosef to leave his side. The brothers eventually became so jealous of Yosef that they decided to sell him to the Yishme’eilim, having agreed not to kill him outright. Yaakov became inconsolable. The Torah tells us that his children tried to comfort him but that he refused to be comforted (37:35). It also should be noted that the language that the Torah uses to tell us how Yaakov refused to be comforted is very similar to the way the Navi tells us (Yirmiyahu 31:14) that Rachel refused to be comforted when Bnei Yisrael went into exile. We see that the connection Yaakov had to his children was a predominant trait in his family, because Rachel also had that connection to her children.
We also see Yaakov's connection to the past when he requests that he be buried in Eretz Canaan; he says, "Bury me with my fathers" (49:29). When Yaakov went down from Eretz Canaan for the first time, Hashem had to assure Yaakov, "Don't be afraid to go down to Mitzrayim" (46:3), because the fear of leaving his homeland was so great. In fact, Yaakov repeated this theme in his final address to his children, in which he stresses, "and He will return you to the land of your fathers” (48:21). Even Yaakov's name expresses this connection to the past, for he was named because "His hand was holding on the heel of Eisav" (25:26). Yaakov’s entire life revolved around his older brother, and for a large portion of his life, Yaakov was running away from him. His life was rooted in the dominion his older brother had over him. He was deeply connected to his family.
If we look closely, we will now see that these themes repeat themselves with Yehuda. After both of his first sons died, he became so connected to Sheilah (the youngest, just like Binyamin and Yosef were the youngest) that he did not allow him to marry Tamar at all. Yehuda never intended to let Sheilah marry Tamar, as even when Sheilah grew up, he did not let him marry Tamar (38:14). After Tamar’s trial, Yehuda realized that she was right and that he should not have prevented Sheilah from marrying her; "And he said ‘She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to Sheilah, my son’" (38:26). He was afraid of letting Sheilah go out into the world, just like Yaakov was afraid of letting Binyamin and Yosef go out into the world
With this understanding of the story of Yehuda and Tamar, we can appreciate why Yehuda acted as he did later in Sefer Bereishit. When the brothers needed to go down to Mitzrayim to buy food, Yosef told them that they could purchase food only if they would bring their youngest brother with them. When they returned to Yaakov to tell him this news, he refused to let Binyamin go with them. Even after Reuvein offered both his sons as collateral to bring back Binyamin, Yaakov refused to let him go (42:37). He relented only when Yehuda pleaded to let Binyamin go. Why? Yaakov knew that Yehuda had gone through many of the same issues that he himself had gone through. Yehuda knew what it felt like to be so connected to a son and to want to be separated from him. Therefore, Yaakov knew that he could trust Yehuda to bring back Binyamin. In fact, this was exactly what Reuvein had been trying to argue when he offered his two sons as collateral for Binyamin. Reuvein was saying that he also could be like Yehuda; he was willing to lose two sons. Yaakov, however, acquiesced only to Yehuda, who already had gone through such an experience. We see this also when Yehuda told Yosef, "and his (Yaakov’s) soul is connected with his (Binyamin’s) soul" (44:30). Only someone who truly had experienced this type of emotion firsthand could make such a statement regarding other people.
We also can see the parallel between the stories from the language, for when the brothers brought back Yosef's colorful coat full of blood, they said, "Please recognize if this is the coat of your son or not" (37:32). Similarly, Tamar says, "Please recognize to whom these cloaks, ring, and staff belong (38:25). Also, regarding Yehuda it says, "And Yehuda went down from his brothers" (38:1), and the story immediately afterwards begins, "And Yosef went down to Mitzrayim" (39:1). Yaakov wouldn't let Binyamin go with his brothers "because his brother died, and he alone is left, and a tragedy will happen on the path that he is going on" (42:38), just like what Yehuda says, "for perhaps he will die like his brothers," when he does not allow Sheilah to marry Tamar.
There is, however, a key difference between Yehuda and Yaakov. Yehuda learns from his mistakes; Yaakov seems not to have done so. For example, Yehuda admits that Tamar is "more righteous than I." We see no mention whatsoever of Yaakov regretting the way he treated Yosef and Binyamin. In addition, Yehuda says regarding Sheilah "perhaps he will die like his brothers," while Yaakov states definitively that a tragedy will happen to Binyamin. Yaakov was able to admit any alternative. Chazal (Sanhedrin 6b) state that whoever blesses Yehuda is being disgraceful, because Yehuda said, "What profit is there if we will kill our brother?" (37:26), implying that if there had been profit, they should have killed him. Based on this, we can understand why Yehuda “went down from his brothers” immediately after they sold Yosef. Yehuda went into exile to do Teshuvah. We know from elsewhere in Tanach that exile is associated with Teshuvah. When Kayin was punished for killing Hevel, his punishment was exile. The punishment for all of Bnei Yisrael for sinning was the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and the exile amongst other nations. Yehuda went to start a new life. Yehuda was younger than Yaakov and therefore was more willing and able to learn from his mistakes; yet he also realized how Yaakov would not be able to overcome his fear, and thus he sympathized with him in all situations.
There are only two women in Tanach who are described as having twins: Rivkah and Tamar. Regarding Rivkah’s children, the Torah says, "and his (Yaakov’s) hand was holding on to the heel of Eisav,” yet regarding Tamar, the Torah says, "And it was when he removed his hand and his brother came out" (38:29). The birth of Peretz and Zerach is a Tikkun (reparation) for the birth of Yaakov and Eisav. Peretz and Zerach learn not to have hands attached to each other. Each is an individual, yet both can live together; and great people emerged from both Peretz and Zerach. In fact, the word Peretz means strength.
In Sefer Yehoshua, we are told that when Bnei Yisrael conquered Eretz Yisrael, seven of the tribes did not go out to collect their portion. They instead surrounded the Mishkan at Gilgal not far from the Jordan River . In order to motivate the seven tribes to leave Gilgal, Yehoshua moved the Mishkan to Shiloh, which is located in the center of Eretz Yisrael (Yehoshua 18:1). Yehuda and Yosef were two of the five tribes who did inherit their land. In fact, Yehoshua tells Bnei Yisrael, "And you shall divide it into seven different parts; Yehuda will stand on the border in the south and the house of Yosef will stand on their border in the north" (Yehoshua 18:5). Yehuda and Yosef now model for the rest of Bnei Yisrael the willingness to leave the comfort of shared encampment around the Mishkan and take the bold step of separating and inheriting their respective portions of Eretz Yisrael. It is not a coincidence that the Mishkan was relocated to Shiloh, a name that bears strong resemblance to that of Sheilah. In Yaakov's Berachah to Yehuda, he says "The scepter shall not depart for Yehuda, nor the scholar from among his descendants, until Shiloh arrives and his will be an assemblage of nations" (49:10). There is a difference of opinions as to what "Shiloh" here refers to, but in the long run the Torah is telling us that eventually there will be a time when all of Bnei Yisrael will be together as one. Until then, we must learn how to be separate and yet still retain a strong connection.
Yehuda was an extremely mature person, and he learned the deep lessons of relationships during his lifetime. He made a mistake at the beginning of his life, but he learned from it. He also learned from his father and his father's mistakes with his children (see Shabbat 10b). It is because of this tremendous attribute that Yehuda was chosen to be the king of Bnei Yisrael. He was down-to-earth and realized how a healthy relationship, whether on a personal level or a national level, is supposed to function. A leader cannot be someone who is so full of connection and unity that everyone has to stay together, nor can a leader be someone who doesn't understand true unity and the need for love and togetherness.
Hebrew has a beautiful word that does not have a literal translation into English. That word is “Mitgageia” which means something along the lines of longing, yearning, and having special feelings for someone. It is this word that Yehuda realized to the fullest. He understood that a person can have such a longing for someone that he cannot be disconnected from him, yet he learned that a true life cannot be disconnected from reality.
“And your house should be like the house of Peretz…” (Ruth 4:12).