Parshat Vayehshev

Torah Reading for Week of November 21 – November 27, 2010

“Opening Our Eyes To Truth”

by Gregory D. Metzger, AJRCA Second Year Rabbinic Student

For a great number of women, the world is much the same as it was in biblical times. Economic security and position depends largely on having a husband and bearing children. Childless widows are particularly vulnerable in many societies. In biblical times, the solution was for the widow to marry a brother in-law and to have children by him.

In this week’s parsha, we learn that Judah had three sons. The oldest son, Er, died leaving his wife Tamar a childless widow. She was “married” off to the middle son, Onan, who died after having let his seed “go to waste,” leaving her a widow twice and still childless. Judah then promised Tamar that his youngest son, Shelah, would marry her when he grew up and was old enough. When time passed and Shelah did not marry Tamar, she exercised the only power she had – her sexuality – by disguising herself as a prostitute and meeting Judah on the road. Unaware that the prostitute he solicits is Tamar, he sleeps with her. When he later hears she is pregnant, he seeks to have her killed to punish her for harlotry. It is only when he discovers that he is to be the father of the child that she is spared and he utters the famous line, “She is more in the right than I”(B’reishit, 38:26).

Tamar was fortunate. In most of the world, economic and social conditions leave women like her little alternative but to enter into the sex trade. Once there, they become doubly vulnerable. They become subject to arrest and persecution by the same authorities that deny them other economic options. Like Judah, men who are responsible for the conditions that drive women to become sex workers often become their clients, and then become their persecutors.

Judah’s discovery that he is the father is only a first step in discovering truth and promoting justice. It is doubtful that he would have granted her clemency had she become pregnant by any other man. While Judah takes responsibility for Tamar’s pregnancy, one is left to wonder what he really meant by “she is more in the right than I.” Did he see the hypocrisy and injustice in condemning to death a woman for providing the services he sought from her? Were his eyes opened to see a bigger picture? Did Judah realize that by withholding his son Shelah, he created the conditions that forced Tamar to take desperate measures? Did he realize that he was part of a system that needed change?

We too are part of system that needs change. More and more women today become sex workers because of social and economic conditions. According to reports provided to the UN, sex workers account for up to 10% of the female population of certain countries. War and political instability contribute to the State Department’s estimated 19 million women “trafficked” as sex workers. During and after conflict, women are particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation including torture, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution and mutilation.

Opening our eyes fully to truth is the first step to pursuing justice. The moment that we recognize that we have a part in creating the social, economic and political conditions is both beautiful and uncomfortable. It is the moment of our redemption and the beginning of hope for the redemption of the world. In Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l states that “redemption is achieved when humble man makes a movement of recoil, and lets himself be confronted and defeated by a Higher and Truer Being.” Like Judah, we need to open our eyes wider to encompass more than just the impact of our personal conduct. We need to allow ourselves to be confronted by Truth that we have a role in creating and supporting the systems that fail to protect the rights and dignity of women. This humble act which connects us to our duty to support change within ourselves and the world opens us to the beauty, hope and promise of redemption.

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