Don’t Throw the Towel In

Insights on the Parsha from 12/16, from Rabbi Tzvi Alyesh

This week’s parshah brings us the tales of two independent women – Women who have agency, creativity, cleverness, and decisiveness. These are not the first and certainly not the last powerful female characters we meet in the Torah, but they certainly serve as a potent reminder that our Jewish holy books value female intelligence, influence, and autonomy despite what contemporary attackers of traditional Judaism may say. But in addition to a feminist reading of this week’s parshah, we also have an important lesson about the right and the wrong way to respond to destiny, fate, and prophecy.

              This week’s parshah tells us the stories of two women who both receive the gift (or perhaps the curse) of glimpsing the future to which they are destined. One woman is named Tamar and the other is not named, known to us only as the wife of Potiphar, master of Joseph. We begin with the latter.

              The wife of Potiphar was granted a vision in which she learned that Joseph, at the time a Hebrew servant in her home, was fated to be the father of her descendants. Rather than accepting the vision as one of inevitable destiny, she, like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, decided to take fate into her own hands with disastrous consequences. The wife of Potiphar, as her title suggests, is a married woman, and so despite her best efforts to seduce the righteous Joseph, he continues to refuse her. The climax of the story comes on the day of Potiphar’s family outing. The wife of Potiphar feigns illness as an excuse to stay home while the whole family is away. She believes this will finally be her chance to convince Joseph to have children with her, but much to her shock, even when he has no reason to fear getting caught, he still refuses her.

              She is insulted by his refusal, angry that her plot was foiled, and confused about what this means for the destiny she felt she was promised. When her husband, Potiphar, returns, she presents Joseph’s jacket to Potiphar and tells him that Joseph attempted to assault her. On the basis of her false testimony, Joseph is sentenced to twelve years in prison.

              Contrast this outcome with the story of Tamar, who is similarly motivated to link the story of her descendants with the special people to whom she was close. She decides that her destiny is to be the mother of children in Judah’s line. She marries Judah’s firstborn son, Er, and he dies early in their marriage. She then marries Judah’s second son, Onan, who dies very young as well. Judah asks Tamar to wait for his third son to grow older before marrying him. Tamar does so. And after years of waiting, Judah refuses to offer his third son to Tamar. So Tamar instead decided to seduce Judah himself. Three months later, Tamar is expecting twins, the first of whom will be the ancestor of the messiah when he comes to redeem all of Israel.

              So, what can we learn from these two stories? Two women who were both kissed by fate to merit bearing the children of special men, one succeeds spectacularly and one fails miserably. Both women are active agents in shaping their own destinies, but one does so within the boundaries of ethics, and the other throws morality to t he wind in pursuit of her objective. The wife of Potiphar is a married woman who throws it all away in a brazen attempt to convince Joseph to have children with her. With a less scrupulous man, this might have worked, but she did not stand a chance against Joseph’s convictions. Conversely, Tamar is dutiful, creative, and assertive all while maintaining her dignity and moral compass.

              We must fight hard for what we want, and we cannot give up the fight irrespective of the obstacles in our path, but we must never sacrifice our ethics in pursuit of our dreams.

Shabbat shalom from your Sloan’s lake Rabbi

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