Monday, November 26, 2007

Parshas Vayeshev 3

Yehuda’s behaviour in the incident of Tamar is in stark contrast to Yosef’s reaction to the temptations of Potiphar’s wife. Yehuda becomes enticed by his daughter-in-law, thinking that she is a prostitute; he sleeps with her and she conceives twins. Not knowing that he is the cause of her pregnancy, Yehuda orders that Tamar be put to death. However, at the final moment he acknowledges Tamar’s righteousness and accepts responsibility for his actions. He thus becomes the paradigm of a Ba’al Teshuva, one who repents their former actions. In actuality, his ability to admit when he is wrong is implied in his very name; Yehuda comes from the root “lehodot”, “to admit”.

Yosef, on the other hand, is subjected to many temptations from Potiphar’s wife, yet overcomes them all. The Talmud explains “Every single day, he was approached by Potiphar’s wife, who tried to seduce him, changing her clothes from morning to evening. When she begged him to consent to her, he refused. When she threatened to lock him in prison, he replied “G-d loosens the bound”… She tried to bribe him with a thousand talents of silver, but still he would not come to her...” (Yoma 35b). Yet despite the fact that Yehuda succumbs to temptation, whereas Yosef overcomes it, Yehuda is the one chosen to be the father of kings. His two sons with Tamar, Peretz and Zerach, are the progenitors of kings and prophets.

Not only does Yehuda fail the test of sexual temptation, but it appears that this is also part of the legacy that he passes on to his descendants. The two greatest kings of Israel, David and Solomon, are both from Yehuda, and both fail the test when encountering women who are forbidden to them. Though David sins with Bat-Sheva, and Solomon with Pharaoh’s daughter, they are still held up as the paradigms of what a Jewish king is supposed to be.

The only king who is not from Yehuda is Shaul. He is from the tribe of Binyamin, genetically the closest tribe to Yosef. His downfall is not that he succumbs to temptation, but that he is unable to admit when he has made a mistake. Though his sin is almost trivial, offering a sacrifice a few moments before he has been instructed to, his inability to recognise his mistake causes him to lose the line of kingship.
Yehuda’s son from whom the kings are descended is Peretz, which means literally “breaking forth”. This is a hint to the Talmudic dictum that “HaMelech Poretz Geder”, “The king is permitted to break through boundaries (as he goes out to war)” (Pesachim 110a). Though this refers primarily to the physical walls that the king and his army may break through as they go out to battle, it is also true spiritually.

The Talmud says (Brachot 34b) “The place where Ba’alei Teshuva stand is a place where the completely righteous are unable to stand”. Elsewhere (Yoma 86b) the Talmud states “How great is Teshuva (repentance), that [through it] wilful sins are transformed into merits”. The simple explanation is that the efforts that one used to sin have now been channelled into the service of G-d, therefore the actions performed were the catalyst for a closer relationship with G-d and are therefore counted as Mitzvoth.

Though sinning takes a person further away from G-d, through Teshuva they can reach even greater closeness to Him, and therefore they stand before G-d in a place where someone who has never sinned is unable to stand.

Similarly, the king breaks down fences and boundaries. The family of Yehuda, who though their sin are able to repent and do Teshuva, are able to serve G-d in ways that Yosef, and other completely righteous people, are unable to do. They create new ways of serving G-d, though their actions are wrong. This is why the kings of Israel are all descended from Yehuda; they are able to exist in the real world. Though they are tempted, and often fail the tests which they are confronted with, they are able to admit their mistakes and repent. A king who is always right, and unable to see his own faults however slight they may be, cannot relate to the people whom he is ruling, and is similarly limited in his relationship with G-d.

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