The Torah in Parashat Vayeishev tells the story of Yehuda and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. After the death of Yehuda’s oldest son, which left Tamar widowed, Yehuda had his second son, Onan, fulfill his levirate obligation and marry her. After Onan died without children, Yehuda feared having Tamar marry his third son. Tamar was now left widowed and childless, and later she boldly posed as a prostitute and stood on the road where Yehuda was traveling. With her face covered, Yehuda did not recognize her, and he solicited her services. She became pregnant, and was sentenced to capital punishment for having violated her legal bond with Yehuda’s third son. Just before her execution, Tamar sent a message to Yehuda with the collateral items which he had given her after their intimate union, informing him that the owner of those items was the one who impregnated her. Yehuda announced that he was the father, and she was not punished. As a number of commentators explain, the institution of yibum (levirate marriage) that was practiced before Matan Torah allowed for any family member to marry the childless widow, even her father-in-law, and thus Yehuda’s union with Tamar was legitimate.
The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (10b) makes a famous observation regarding this story, noting that Tamar risked her life by choosing not to identify Yehuda directly as the one responsible for her pregnancy. In order to spare Yehuda embarrassment, Tamar found a discreet manner to inform Yehuda that he made her pregnant, allowing him to decide whether or not to publicly come forward. On the basis of this story, the Gemara states that it is preferable for a person to “throw himself into a fiery furnace” than to humiliate another individual.
Leaving aside the well-known question as to whether this dictum is meant to be taken literally, it is worth noting the significance of the Gemara’s pointing specifically to Tamar as the model of sacrifice for the sake of avoiding causing another person shame. Tamar had a legitimate grievance against Yehuda, who, as it seems from the narrative, was to have had his next son marry Tamar. Yehuda, at least in Tamar’s mind, bore the responsibility to care for his childless, widowed daughter-in-law by having his third son marry her, but he failed to fulfill his duty. Tamar felt compelled to resort to this drastic measure because she was neglected by Yehuda, and she saw this as her only chance of conceiving and begetting a child. And yet, although she held Yehuda responsible for the situation that arose, nevertheless, she chose not to subject him to shame. Tamar courageously left it for Yehuda to decide whether or not to come forward at the expense of his honor in order to save her and the fetuses she was carrying.
The Gemara’s comment, then, teaches us not only about how far we must go to avoid causing people embarrassment, but also that a legitimate grievance does not entitle us to cause somebody embarrassment. Public humiliation is not an acceptable means of revenge against a person who has wronged us. Just as we are not allowed to cause somebody physical or financial harm in response to a grievance, we are likewise forbidden from shaming a person for revenge, no matter how valid we feel the grievance is.