Parashat Vayeishev

Friday, December 11, 2020 /25 Kislev, 5781
Parashat Vayeishev Genesis 37:1–40:23

Dear Friends,

Last night, over 100 families participated in the temple’s program for the first night of Hanukkah. Together we sang, we brought light into the world, and rejoiced in the community.

This year the Hanukkah story feels especially poignant. Hanukkah offers light in the darkness. It speaks to the hope that can get us through challenging times.

When Seleucid King Antiochus came to power, he forbade Jews from participating in Jewish rituals. He forced Jewish leaders to eat pork, desecrate holidays, and denounce their traditions. He ransacked the sacred Temple. It seemed that all was lost. The small army of Maccabees was no match for the Seleucid army. But even as Jewish leaders were killed or folded under pressure, the Maccabees continued to fight valiantly, filled with faith and a sense of purpose. Miraculously, they came out victorious.

Similar themes appear in this week’s Torah portion. Judah’s son, Er, dies, leaving Tamar a widow. Following the custom of the time, Er’s brother Onan marries Tamar, but he too dies. Judah has just one son remaining, and he is fearful about what might happen if Shelah marries Tamar as well. Judah tells Tamar to go back to her father’s house and wait until Shelah is ready to marry her. This stalling tactic fools no one, but Tamar has no choice. She is stuck, betrothed to a man who may or may not ever marry her. She wants nothing more than to have a child, pass on her love and her husband’s lineage, but Judah denies her this dignity. It seems as if all hope is lost. Tamar has no control over her destiny, but she refuses to accept that reality and instead takes matters into her own hands.

Tamar stands by the side of the road as Judah approaches. Dressed as a harlot, she entices her newly widowed father-in-law to sleep with her and becomes pregnant with his twins. When Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, he is enraged and orders her stoned to death. Clever Tamar had planned for this. She had asked Judah for a payment for their union—his staff, signet seal, and chord. Tamar presents these items, saying that she was impregnated by the man to whom these items belong. Judah immediately recognizes them and understands the wrong that he had done. “She is more in the right than I,” Judah says, “for I didn’t give her my son Shelah.” Tamar’s life is saved, and she becomes a mother. The Rabbis teach us that Tamar’s lineage will include a king, a judge, and eventually, the Messiah because of her actions.

When faced with no options, Tamar, and the Maccabees, think outside of the box. They teach us that when everything seems dark and the world feels small, there is often another way. At difficult moments in our lives, these stories teach us to find the resilience within and have faith. A better future is possible.

Wishing you Hanukkah filled with light, laughter, and hope,

Rabbi Cassi Kail