This week's Parsha begins with Joseph, the youngest and most favoured of Jacob’s sons, being given the famous multi-coloured coat by his father. While Joseph wears his new and colourful coat with pride, he is unconcerned of his brothers growing envy and hatred towards him. Then, Joseph has two dreams; the first where 11 sheafs of corn all turn and bow to his sheaf, and a second where eleven stars and the sun and the moon all turn and bow to his star. Joseph, so excited by these dreams tells his brothers of them, relating to them as the bowing sheafs and stars, thus only increasing their envy and hatred towards him.
Simeon and Levi then plot to kill Joseph, but Rueben suggest that they should throw him in a pit instead. While in the pit, Judah sells Joseph to a band of Ishmaelites and Josephs exodus to Egypt begins. The brothers dip Josephs coloured coat in goat blood and trick jacob that his beloved son was devoured by a wild beast.
Then we learn of a woman named Tamar, an important yet often overlooked character. The story goes like this;
Marries his eldest, Er, Judah marries and has three children. He marries his first, Er, to a local Canaanite woman named Tamar. He then dies young and childless so Tamar is given in levirate marriage to the second so Onan. However, Onen too meets an early death. Judah is reluctant to have his third son marry her and withholds him from her. Determined to have a child from Judah’s family, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces Judah himself and then insist he leave behind his staff as payment. Three weeks later Judah hears that his daughter-in-law has become pregnant and orders her to be executed for committing adultery, but when Tamar produces the staff he left with her as a pledge for payment, he immediately knows what has happened and says, “she is more righteous than I.” (Gen.38.26)
This is the first time in the Torah where someone explicitly admits that they are wrong. Judah, someone who earlier in this Parsha sells his brother to slavery now begins a transformation into a better person, someone who one day will offer his own life to slavery to save Benjamin.
But the real hero of the story is Tamar. She took an incredible risk by becoming pregnant, but she did it for a noble reason: to ensure that the name of her late husband could continue. And she did so in way that ensured Judah would not be put to shame. Only He and She knew what had happened. Judah could acknowledge his error without having to also be disgraced and humiliated in front of his farther and brothers.
The lesson that is learnt in this parsha is the same lesson the sages teach us: a person should be willing to throw himself into a furnace of fire rather than shame another person in public. (Berakhot 43b, Ketubbot 67b) Jacob openly gives Joseph preferential treatment, dishonouring and insulting his other sons. Joseph humiliates his brothers further by recalling his dreams to them and as a result of the brothers insult they hate Joseph and sell him. Tamar however goes to every length to make sure that she does not embarrass and shame Judah, allowing him to grow and learn from his mistakes.
It’s no coincidence that Tamar is the Ancestor of David, Israel’s greatest king. To humiliate someone causes them to become more stuck in their ways, and we must avoid it embarrassing at any length if we wish to elevate them and encourage them to become a better person. These are the traits of a great leader, and Tamar is the first character in the Torah where we learn these traits.