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The Jewish Heart is Beating Stronger than Ever

No, We Have Not Betrayed Our Mission: Yehudah, Tamar and a Chanukah Drama

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • December 7, 2023
  • |
  • 24 Kislev 5784

The Wandering Jew by Marc Chagall

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Class Summary:

The Yehudah-Tamar story as a metaphor of our relationship with G-d. Yehuda thinks Tamar is guilty, only to find out that he is at fault. The same with Jewish history.

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein in the loving memory of Alta Shula Swerdlov. And in the merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya," Schottenstein


להיות שותפים ממש בהפצת נשמת היהדות - Dedicated by Devorah Zeiger


The Judah-Tamar Drama

It is a fascinating story: (1) Judah has three sons, Er, Onan and Shalah. His oldest son, Er, married a woman named Tamar, but died prematurely, without children. His bereft father, Judah, suggested to his second son, Onan: "Consort with your brother's wife and enter into levirate marriage with her, and establish offspring for your brother."

Here, we are introduced, for the first time, to the concept of levirate marriages, discussed later in the book of Deuteronomy: "When brothers live together, and one of them dies childless, the wife of the deceased man shall not marry outside to a strange man; her brother-in-law shall come to her, and take her to himself as a wife, and perform a levirate marriage. The first-born son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel."

One of the great biblical commentators, Nachmanides, writes that this mitzvah embodies "one of the great mysteries of the Torah" and that even before the Torah was given, people knew of the spiritual benefits of a levirate marriage. The biblical commentators explain that the child born of the union between the brother of the dead man and his former wife -- both of whom are intimately connected with the deceased man -- is considered the spiritual son of the deceased. The Kabbalists even explain that the first-born child of the levirate marriage is a reincarnation of the soul of the first husband, bringing the deceased man, as it were, back to life.

So Judah suggested to his second son Onan to marry his brother's widow and perpetuate the legacy of the deceased brother.

Now, Judah's second son also died prematurely without having any children. Judah refused to allow her to marry his third son, Shalah. This put her in an impossible situation: she could not go out and marry anyone else, because she was bound to Shalah, but her father-in-law would not allow her to marry Shalah.

Now, during those early times prior to the giving of the Torah, Nachmanides explains, other relatives, in addition to brothers, used to carry out this obligation of levirate marriages. So following the death of both of Tamar's husbands, she went and lured her former father-in-law, Judah, into a relationship with her, that impregnated her. As a guarantee that he would pay her for the relationship, Judah gave Tamar his seal, cord (2), and staff.

"Some three months passed," the Torah relates (3), "and Judah was told, 'Your daughter-in-law Tamar has committed harlotry, and she has become pregnant by harlotry.'"

"Take her out and have her burned," said Judah.

"When she was being taken out, she sent word to her father-in-law, saying, 'I am pregnant by the man who is the owner of these articles. Identify, I beg you, these objects; who is the owner of this seal, this cord, and this staff?'

"Judah immediately recognized them, and he said, 'She is right; it is from me [that she has conceived]. She did it because I did not give her to my son Shelah.'"

A Spiritual Story

The stories in the Torah are not just tales of ancient Jewish history. They also reflect spiritual timeless experiences that take place continually within the human soul. In his commentary on the book of Genesis, Nachmanides wrote: "The Torah discusses the physical reality, but it alludes to the world of the spirit (4)."

Here is a classical Chassidic interpretation on the episode of Judah and Tamar, treating the story as symbolic of the inner spiritual life of the Jew.

Betrayal and Its Consequences

The name Judah, or Yehudah, containing within it the four letters of the name of Hashem, symbolizes G-d. Tamar is the Hebrew name for a palm tree, represening the Jewish people and their bond with G-d (5). The Talmud explains (6), that "just as the palm tree has but one 'heart,' so too do the Jewish people have only a single heart, devoted to their Father in heaven."

(The heart of the date palm is its sap. Unlike the saps of other trees, like the alive or almond tree, the sap of the palm is found only in its trunk, but not in its branches or leaves. This is the meaning behind the Talmudic statement that the palm tree possesses only a single "heart" (7)).

The intimate union between Tamar and Judah, the Jew and G-d, occurs during the sacred days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During those days, G-d, or Judah, exposes Himself to His people, evoking within them a yearning to transcend and to become one with G-d.

But then, some time passes, and the spiritual inspiration of the High Holy days wears off. Judah is informed that "Tamar, your Kallah (8), has committed harlotry, and she has become pregnant by harlotry." The news arrives to G-d that His bride has gone looking elsewhere for bliss. 

At one point during our lives, we may be inspired to connect to the deeper Divine rhythm of life. Yet, the cunning lore of numerous other gods captivates our imaginations dulls our vision. We substituted the G-d of truth with the ego-god, the power-god, the money-god, the temptation-god, the addiction-god, the manipulation-god, and the god of self-indulgence

What is even sadder for Judah is the news that "Tamar" is so estranged that she became pregnant by harlotry. This symbolizes the stage in life when the Jew rejects the G-d of his forefathers permanently and decides to build his future with superficial sources of gratification. 

"Take her out and have her burned," says Judah. The purpose of the Jew is to serve as the spiritual compass of human civilization, to bear witness to the truth of the One G-d, the moral conscience of the world. When the Jew loses sight of the raison d'être of his existence when he believes that his salvation lies in the fact that the word loves him, that he was praised in an editorial of The New York Times, his existence is in danger. The world will come to loathe him, and he will have no anchor.

The Truth Emerges

The great Jewish  mystic, the Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luryah, writes that "the judgment that began on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is completed some three months later, during the days of Chanukah." That's why it is at this period of time, three months after the intimate union between Judah and Tamar, that Judah (the metaphor for G-d) is "informed" regarding the spiritual status of Tamar (the Jewish people) and the verdict is issued that Tamar has no future.

"When Tamar was being taken out, she sent word to Judah, saying, 'I am pregnant by the man who is the owner of these articles. Identify, I beg you, these objects. Who is the owner of this seal, cord, and staff?'"

During that fateful time, when the "prosecuting angels" have almost been successful in demonstrating to G-d that the Jewish people have become alienated, at that very moment, the Jew sends word to G-d, saying, "I am pregnant by the man who is the owner of these articles!" The information you received that I abandoned you, is a blatant lie! Gaze into the deeper layers of my identity and you will discover that I belong to You, that my intimacy is shared only with You, G-d. "I am pregnant from Judah and not from anybody else!" the Jew declares.

"Identity, I beg you, these objects. Who is the owner of this seal, cord, and staff?" For during the festival of Chanukah, when the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is finalized, the Jew kindles each night a wick, or a cord, soaked in oil, commemorating the event of the Jews discovering a sealed single cruse of oil after the Greeks had plundered the holy Temple in Jerusalem (9).

The Jew further points to the staff in his arm (10). In order to preserve his faith, he was forced time and time again, for millenia, to take the wandering staff in his arm, abandon his home, wealth and security, and seek out new territory where he could continue to live as a Jew.

"Identity, I beg you, these objects. Who is the owner of this seal, cord, and staff?" the Jew asks G-d. "It is to this man that I am pregnant!" Our loyalty and commitment remain eternally to the owner of the "seal" and "cord" of the Chanukah flames; our deepest intimacy is reserved to the owner of the "staff" of Jewish wandering.

Sure, the insanity of exile and the traumas of millenia have confused so many of us. But -- as we have all seen since the last Hamas-Israeli war on October 7th, 2023 -- the Jewish heart is beating stronger than ever. The Divine holiness embedded in the core of every Jewish soul is shining.

Who Is the Traitor?

"Judah immediately recognized the articles, and he said, "She is right; it is from me that she conceived. She did it because I did not give her to my son Shelah."

When G-d observes the burning flames of the Chanukah menorah, He immediately recognizes that indeed, His people have never left Him. True, the Jew does fall prey at times to the dominating external forces of a materialistic and immoral world, yet this enslavement is skin deep. Probe the layers of his or her soul and you will discover an infinite wellspring of spirituality and love.

"If the Jew has, in fact, gone astray here and there, it is my fault," G-d says, not his. "Because I did not give Tamar to my son Shelah." Shelah is the Biblical term used to describe Moshiach (11), the leader who will usher in the final redemption. G-d says that for two millennia I have kept the Jewish nation in a dark and horrific exile where they have been subjected to horrendous pain and savage suffering. Blood, tears, and death have been their tragic fate for twenty centuries, as they
prayed, each day and every moment, for world redemption. But redemption has not come.

How can I expect that a Jew never commits a sin? How can I expect that a Jew never seeks a nest in the outside gentile world, when I held back for so long the light of Moshiach?

"It is I, G-d, who is guilty of treason," G-d says. Not the Jew. Tamar is an innocent, beautiful palm tree, which still has only one heart to its Father in heaven.

Cold Soup

Rabbi Manis Friedman once shared the following thought (12):

Three thousand, three hundred and fifteen years ago G-d asked us if we would marry him. We had an extraordinary wedding ceremony, with great special effects--we were wowed. After the wedding, He said, "I have a few things I'd like you to take care of for me so, please... I'll be right back." He hasn't been heard from since. For more than three thousand, three hundred years. He has sent messengers, messages, postcards--you know, writing on the walls... but we haven't heard a word from Him in all this time.

Imagine, a couple gets married, and the man says to his new wife, "Would you make me something to eat, please? I'll be right back." She begins preparing. The guy comes back 3300 years later, walks into the house, up to the table, straight to his favorite chair, sits down, and tastes the soup that is on the table. The soup is cold.

What will his reaction be? If he's a wise man, he won't complain. Rather he'll think it's a miracle that the house is still there, that his table and favorite chair are still there. He'll be delighted to see a bowl of soup at his place. The soup is cold? Well, yes, over 3300 years, soup can get cold.

Now we are expecting Moshiach. If Moshiach comes now and wants to judge, what's he going to find? Cold soup?

He will find an incredibly healthy Jewish people. After 3300 years we are concerned about being Jewish, which means we are concerned about our relationship with G-d.

Yes, if Moshiach comes today, he'll find that our soup is cold. We suffer from separation anxiety. We suffer from a loss of connection to our ancestors. We suffer a loss of connection even to our immediate family. The soup is cold. The soup is very cold. But whose fault is that? And who gets the credit for the fact that there is soup altogether?

We are a miracle. All we need to do is tap into it. We are the cure. Not only for ourselves, but also for the whole world. So let Moshiach come now and catch us here with our cold soup because we have nothing to be ashamed of. We are truly incredible. When G-d decided to marry us, He knew He was getting a really good deal.

A Jew is a child of G-d. A Jew is a prince. A Jew is the holiest of the holy. A Jew is truly one with G-d. And even when you look at yourself in the mirror and you feel disloyal, the truth is that your ultimate loyalty remains to G-d, to truth, to holiness, to purity.

Moshiach is ready to come. May we see him now!

(This essay is based on the writings of the Chassidic Masters (13))

1) Genesis, chapter 38.
2) "Pethila" in Hebrew literally means a string or a wick. Judah gave her the string that he used to bind his sheep (Sechel Tov on Genesis 38:18). Many commentators, including Rashi, translate the word to mean a wrap or cloak.
3) Genesis 38:24-26. 
4) Commentary on the opening verse of Genesis.
5) See Hoshanos recited on the third day of Sukkot. Psalms 92:13.
6) Sukkah 45b. Megilah 14a
7) Rashi ibid.; cf. Ritva.
8) In Hebrew, "Kalasecha" (Genesis 38:24). This can be translated as "your daughter-in-law," or, literally as your kallah, your bride.
9) Shabbas 21b.
10) The Hebrew term for "the staff," "v'hamateh" has the same numerological value as the word "Hakeli," the vessel, symbolic of the menorah in which we kindle the Chanukah flames. Hence, this verse is alluding to the three components of the Chanukah lights: the menorah, the wick, and the oil, all of which testify to the eternal allegiance of the Jew to G-d.
11) Rashi Genesis 49:10.
12) http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2540/jewish/Cold-Soup.htm
13) Bas Ayin Parshas Vayeishev, authored by Chassidic Master of Safed, Rabbi Avraham of Avrutch (1765-1840). He was a disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Bardeitchev and of Rabbi Nachum and Rabbi Mordechai (Reb Matele) of Chernobyl.

Please leave your comment below!

  • Anonymous -2 years ago

    Chek the footnotes, the psukim and gemarot are not right

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • M

    M.T. -4 years ago

    I would like to thank you for this article, as well as the hundreds of shiurim that I’ve listened to and grew from, and enjoyed over the past few years.

    Hashem has given you a trendous  talent of profound brilliance,  insight and a great gift of articulation, and you spend your days and nights sharing your gifts with an untold number of His children from all walks of life.

    May Hashem bentch you and your family with many many more years of brocha, smicha, good health and only revealed good!

    One think I wanted to point out…

    I’m wondering if it’s ok for us, as people, to say about Hashem, “G-d Did Well By Choosing The Jewish People”? I feel like we don’t really have a right to compliment Hashem on a job well done. I don’t know if I’m expressing my sensitivity well, because I do not have the gift of articulation, but just wanted to point that out.

    Thank you

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Vayeishev/Chanukah

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • December 7, 2023
  • |
  • 24 Kislev 5784
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein in the loving memory of Alta Shula Swerdlov. And in the merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya," Schottenstein


להיות שותפים ממש בהפצת נשמת היהדות - Dedicated by Devorah Zeiger


Class Summary:

The Yehudah-Tamar story as a metaphor of our relationship with G-d. Yehuda thinks Tamar is guilty, only to find out that he is at fault. The same with Jewish history.

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