"She Has Been More Righteous Than I"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT VAYESHEV

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

"She Has Been More Righteous Than I"

Adapted by Dov Karoll

And it was at that time that Yehuda went down from his brothers, and turned to an Adullamite by the name of Chira... (chapter 38)

Why did the Torah place this episode right in the middle of the story of Yosef? The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 85:1), commenting on the opening phrase, describes the activities of several characters at that time:

"And it was at that time." Rabbi Shemu'el bar Nachmani opened [his interpretation of this chapter]: "For I [God alone] know the thoughts that I think toward you..." (Yirmiyahu 29:11). At that time, the brothers were involved in the sale of Yosef, Yosef was involved in sackcloth and fasting [over his sad state], Reuven was involved in sackcloth and fasting [over his role in the sale and his father's mourning], Ya'akov was involved in sackcloth and fasting [over the loss of Yosef], while Yehuda was involved in taking a wife; meanwhile, the Almighty was involved in the creating the light of the King Messiah [who would come from the children of Yehuda and Tamar].

According to the Midrash's understanding, while other family members mourned, Yehuda was involved in productive pursuits, getting married and establishing a family.

The episode of Yehuda and Tamar opens with the words, "Yehuda went down from his brothers." Rashi (s.v. vayehi) explains that the brothers lowered Yehuda from his position of leadership. They had looked to him as a leader, and therefore blamed him for the sale of Yosef. "You told us to sell him [rather than kill him]; had you told us to take him back, we would have listened to you." While in a certain sense this argument is a means for the brothers to absolve themselves of blame, nevertheless the claim they make remains valid.

Furthermore, Yehuda underwent further "going down" in the course of this episode, first taking a Canaanite wife, and then descending further through his behavior toward Tamar. The Gemara (Megilla 25a-b) lists certain sections of the Torah that are to be read but not translated, such as the story of Reuven (Bereishit 35:22). Chazal felt that since these passages contain material that would degrade our forefathers or would create theological problems for people, it was better to read them in Hebrew and omit the translation into the vernacular.

Notwithstanding this factor, the Mishna mentions that the incident of Yehuda and Tamar is both read and translated. The Gemara (25b) asks, "Is this not obvious?" The Gemara explains that we might have thought that this incident should not be translated out of concern for Yehuda's honor. Yet it concludes that we learn from the mishna that, overall, this incident gives us a positive impression of Yehuda, since he admitted his wrongdoing.

Generally speaking, people have a natural tendency to cover up a wrongdoing, often adding further wrongdoing in the process. It is much easier for people to deny than to face up to the harsh reality of things they have done wrong. In many contemporary scandals, such as Watergate, the cover-up is more damaging than the original misdeed. While Tamar's message made quite clear to Yehuda what he had done and what had transpired, he still could have let her be killed. Had she brought her claim to court, what chance would she have had if he denied it? He was a man of stature, and she was a woman without any special status.

Yehuda took responsibility for his actions. He faced up to the harsh reality of what he had done, and admitted his wrongdoing. This recognition, "She has been more righteous that I" (38:26), certainly warrants both a reading in the original and a translation. It is a cornerstone of repentance and personal growth, and should be a model for all of us.

[This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Parashat Vayeshev, 5762 (2001).]