18/19 Dec :Mikeitz : Shabbat comes in 3:37 pm, ends 4:47 pm
Parashat Mikeitz – Joseph and Tamar
Last week, our tight narrative of Joseph’s life was interrupted with the story of Tamar. Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, was wronged by her family, and responded through trickery to prove herself in the right. Her trick included disguising herself to interact with her father-in-law, and then using Judah’s seal, cord, and staff to prompt Judah to recognise that he had wronged her. I’ve long thought that the intention of Tamar’s story is to show us how Judah was prompted to develop as a character – how he turns from being a boy willing to sell a brother (Joseph) into slavery into a man who would sell himself into slavery to save a brother (Benjamin).
While the story of Judah and Tamar does help us to understand Judah, there are also significant parallels between Tamar and Joseph as characters. Joseph is discussed in feminine terms (e.g. prized for his beauty, given clothing that is described elsewhere in the Bible as being customary for princesses), which is especially clear in midrashic explorations (in which he is described as wearing feminine makeup and attire and being pursued by men). Tamar’s story is of course naturally gendered, as it is about her place as a woman in ancient society, focusing on marriage, fertility, and sexual ownership. This week, we see Joseph – like Tamar, wronged by the family of Israel – disguise himself to interact with his brothers, and trick them using a precious item (in this case, a silver goblet). The culmination of this event, which we will read about next week, is a recognition of how the brothers have wronged Joseph and an ultimate reconciliation.
Tamar and Joseph, a pair who have apparently never met, have come to represent a character type. They are the members of the family once considered precious (and perhaps even property), and then wronged and discarded. And when left in that powerless position, both characters use disguise and trickery to wield power once again. They use that power to hold a mirror to the family, to force them to face their wrongdoings.
I’ve always been inclined to see Joseph and Tamar as protagonists in their stories. But perhaps they are also cautionary tales.
So in terms of a punishment for the people of Noah’s time, the flood and the destruction of all living things does seem a bit extreme. One of my rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson argues, that is exactly the point the Torah is trying to make.
Destruction, even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” bursts beyond any manageable or fair limitations. Even punishments, originally intended to be measured and reasonable, provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship.
Rabbi Paul Arberman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself. This is not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from ourselves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:
” Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. ”
Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from himelf, his essence absorbed within society. His face is masked, hidden from view, making the idea to “know thyself” impossible.
I’m not sure why we hide from ourselves so well when we are young — or perhaps we just don’t take the time to think through who we are — but I can say definitively, that one of the great joys of getting older is the unmasking — getting to know yourself — what you actually enjoy or don’t enjoy doing.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman