This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, contains the episode of Tamar and Judah. You are all familiar with the episode:
Judah has three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah, and he picks as a wife, Tamar, for his eldest son, Er. Er was displeasing to God, so God kills him. Judah told his middle son, Onan, to marry Tamar in a levirate marriage, but Onan knows his son will carry Er’s inheritance, and, in the Torah’s words, Onan spills his seed on the ground, and God kills him. Shelah is next in line for the levirate marriage, but Judah fears for Shelah’s life, and told Tamar to live in her father’s house until Shelah grows up.
Years pass, and Tamar realizes that Judah will not give Shelah to Tamar. Tamar is told that Judah is traveling by a certain road, and Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, and waits for Judah alongside the road at a crossroad. Judah’s wife recently died, and he engages Tamar (whom he did not recognize) to provide sexual satisfaction. They agree on a price (one of Judah’s kids (young goats), which he didn’t have at hand), and until Judah delivers the kid, Tamar demands collateral: Judah’s seal (signet ring) and cord and staff. Judah gave to Tamar his seal, cord, and staff. (Why Judah gave them up, especially the seal and the staff, is inexplicable.) Judah attempts to deliver the kid, but he is unsuccessful. The townspeople say that there was never a prostitute at that location.
Three months pass, and Judah learns Tamar, technically married and an adulteress, was pregnant. Judah tells the townspeople to bring her out and burn her.
Tamar sent a message to Judah: “I am with child by the man to whom these belong. Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Judah admits that he is the father of a child (actually, twins), and proclaims that Tamar is more righteous than Judah, because Judah didn’t give Shelah to Tamar.
Three times in the Talmud, it is stated, “It is preferable, from an ethical perspective, for one to throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than humiliate another in public.” The source for that edict is from Tamar’s declaration: “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” Tamar didn’t mention Judah’s name, and she didn’t blame him, leaving Judah to admit culpability, which he does.
Sometimes, you are tempted to humiliate somebody else in public. Often, it is deserved. You should think twice about humiliating another person in public, and you should emulate Tamar: make the person admit the error.