Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha



Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim

The 19th-20th Century American Jewish Adventure: History Lessons for 21st Century Jewish Life


VaYeshev…Genesis 38:1-30



HOW is Tamar the model of right[eousness] who redeems the Joseph story?

WHAT are the redemptive lessons of her legacy for our lives as a Jewish People today?


REMEZ…“Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing [American] Judaism in an attempt to make it…more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.” [J. SARNA]

v.1-2  About that time Judah left his brothers and camped near a certain Adulamite … Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua,

he married her and cohabited with her.

RASHI…Why is this passage juxtaposed, interrupting the story of Joseph?  To teach you that Judah’s brothers took him

Down—VaYered, from his greatness.

MIZRACHI…  “Judah “went down”  from his brothers…”  For when his brothers saw their father’s intense grief, they blamed Judah saying: “You told us to sell him!”  Had you advised us “Send him back to his father,” we would have listened.

SARNA…The narrative reflects the isolation of Judah in pre-monarchic times caused by the presence of Canaanite enclaves, as Deuteronomy echoes: “Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah, and restore him to his people.” [Deut 33:7]  Nevertheless, of all of Jacob’s sons, God remains steadfast in the choice of Judah: “The scepter shall never depart from Judah.” [Gen 49:10]

v.11   Then Judah said to his daughter in law Tamar, “Stay a widow in your father’s house until Shelah grows up,” thinking, ‘He might die as his brothers”

RASHI…That is, Judah sought to push her away with a straw, for he never truly intended to have Shelah marry Tamar.

v.12   A long time afterward, Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah died. When his mourning was over, Judah went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers…

RAMBAN…Judah sought consolation by “going up,” by busying himself with the flocks, he would forget…

v.13-14  And Tamar was told: Behold, your father-in-law is coming up to Timnah for the sheepshearing.  So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and wrapping herself up, sat down at Petach Eynayim   

B’REISHIT RABBAH…R’ Shimon taught: Why is both ascent and descent associated with Timnah?

Because here—for Judah,  it was an ascent, since, through Tamar, he produced Kings.

MINCHAT YEHUDAH… Petach Eynayim—Opening of Eyes  This was the crossroad at which she sat, for it is at this

place the traveler must look every way and determine his direction.

CHIDUSHEI HaRIM…  When Tamar set herself there for deceptive yet noble purpose it was ‘with open eyes,’

she fully perceived the Providential chain of events that could proceed.

v.16-18  So he turned aside to her saying, “Let me come to/on you.”…”What will you pay for coming to me?”  He said, “I will send you a kid from the flock.”  But she said: “You must leave a pledge…Your seal and cord, and the staff you carry.” So he gave them to her, came to her, & she conceived.   

IBN EZRA…So great was his passion burning [as a result of Providence] that he gave them all as pledge for a goat.

RAMBAN… She selected the three articles which most distinguished him as ruler, and which would provide indisputable proof…

B’REISHIT RABBAH…As if inspired by prophetic vision, Tamar selected the three things which became the insignia of her descendants: the ring of royalty, the judges cloak, and the scepter of the Messiah.

v.19   Then she arose—she went—and removed the veil she had on, and dressed in her widow’s garb

S’FORNO… She had now acquired longed-for seed, and thus had no more desire to marry anyone!

v.21    He asked of the people in town: Where is the prostitute, the one at Eynayim by the road?” But they said: There was no prostitute here

SARNA“kadeshah—cult prostitute”…The term refers to a woman who practiced prostitution in service of a deity…Deut 23:18 outlaws such practice in Israel…It should be noted that “kadeshah” is employed in the dialogue here while “zonah” appears in the narration. It is possible that Hirah is expressing Canaanite notions or that he is deliberately using kadeshah to avoid embarrassment.

MINCHA B’LULAH…The deeper intent of the peoples’ reply was: ‘There was no act of harlotry here.’

They prophesied and knew not what they prophesied!

v.25-26          As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” She added, “Examine these: Whose seal, cord & staff are they?”  Judah recognized them and said: “She is more in the right than I am…”

RASHI…She did not want to embarrass him, saying, “I am pregnant by you, rather, she thought, ‘If he will admit it on his own,

let him do so.’  If not, let me be burned…

TALMUD…  With the same expression “HaKer-Nah—Recognize, if you please…is this your son’s tunic or not?” [Gen 37:32] Judah caused

his father untold anguish.  God repaid measure for measure as Tamar makes her accusation with those very words  [Sotah, 10b]

TARGUM YONATAN…  “Tsedakah Mimeni–She is[in the] right; she is[with child] from me.”

S’FORNO… She is more righteous than I…For her intention was not for personal pleasure but only to bear children,

while my intention was to spare myself embarrassment.  As the Sages teach, a sin for the sake of heaven is greater than a selfish mitzvah.

v.27    When the time came for her to give birth, behold—there were twins!…

RASHI…T’omim—With full spelling, unlike in the case of Jacob—Esau, for these boys were both righteous. Zerach, who stuck

out his hand first, associated with the sun, was to be firstborn, but Peretz—destined to be the ancestor of David’s House was

given the Divine privilege of emerging first. So the Davidic line is likened to the moon…

R’ Neil GILLMAN…The major distinction in the story is the personality of Tamar.  She is one of those singularly

strong and confident Genesis women, clearly the equal of Sarah and Rebecca.  She is fully aware of who she is, of her

rights and her responsibilities, and she does whatever she must to shape her personal destiny.  She is quite worthy of

being the mother of the messianic king, but what a delightful irony it is that the Messiah of our faith should emerge

from an act of prostitution—grand scheme of the echo of these stories that takes its principal characters from pit to

sovereignty…the message being that suffering is ultimately redemptive.






D’RASH…   “ In a creative process of collective self-fashioning, Jews reinterpreted their own culture

and history to fit the circumstances of American Jewish life.” [B. WENGER]


from Deborah, Golda & Me…..Letty Cottin Pogrebin

“Mother, I Hardly Knew You”


I feel about mothers the way I feel about dimples: because I do not have one myself, I notice everyone who does.…Most people who have a mother take her for granted in much the same way. They accept or criticize her without remarking on the fact that there is a mother there at all—or how it would feel if there were none.


She was fifty-three when she died; I was fifteen. I had less time with my mother than I’ve had with my children. …I think about my mother most in the spring—not just on April 20, the anniversary of her death, but whenever ordinary events, like spring cleaning, evoke everyday images of her. I remember that I would come home from school one day to find her in the midst of the annual purification of our house. She called it “freshening up.”


…She also liked freshening herself up at the end of the day. After cooking supper, she would tidy the house so that my father could return from his law office to calm surroundings and never suspect the mess of daily child rearing—a reality so many men are spared by impeccable wives.


My father always came home for dinner, usually at seven. But no matter how lovely my mother looked, he didn’t stay home. It wasn’t another woman that propelled him out the door, it was a lifelong affair with meetings. The United Jewish Appeal or the Jewish War Veterans….  Watching him leave the house, I lost faith in my mother’s axioms for feminine success, yet she kept reciting them like a litany—not only “freshen up for your husband,” but “Don’t show your brains; smart girls scare men,” “Always laugh at his jokes,” “Act interested in his work even if you’re not.” My mother lived by these bromides. She freshened up, listened, laughed, and cooked up a storm, but none of it stopped the man she loved from getting into his Dodge sedan and driving away.


My father lived more than twenty-seven years after my mother died, yet he remains a father figure, rather than a father. She is the parent I remember and hers is the life I keep mining for gold, running my sieve through the same old streams, searching for precious nuggets that might connect my memories of her to the life I have lived without her…


She was called Sarah when she sailed from Hungary in steerage in 1907, a little girl wearing paper shoes, and she never overcame her sense of inferiority at being a “greenhorn” in the New World. Soon after her arrival, she changed her name to Cyral and then Ceil, undoubtedly to glamorize and Americanize herself. It occurs to me now that the name change also may have had something to do with two of her most distinctive traits: her love of transformations and her superstitions. According to Jewish mysticism, one changed a person’s name when he or she was gravely ill. This would mislead the Devil who was thought to keep track of vulnerable people by name. Maybe my mother believed that a name change would divert the Devil from a weak and vulnerable greenhorn like herself.


She went to work in her father’s grocery store straight after graduation from the eighth grade because her parents needed her help. Later, she got a job in a garment factory. She married the indolent first husband, gave birth to Betty, got her divorce, and sometime in the late 1920s, found work with the respected hatmaker and couturiere Hattie Carnegie, where she eventually worked her way up to the position of designer. Photographs from those years show Ceil as an elegant young woman whose clothes and posture were a cut above…Despite the wonderful flapper outfits and Jazz Age look of the pictures, she told me—once I knew the truth of her life—how miserable those years were for her. No career accomplishment could overshadow the shanda of divorce or the disgrace of having had to send her daughter away.


I confess now that I have trouble understanding how the fiercely maternal, overprotective woman who was my mother was the same woman who could leave Betty in a boarding school at the age of three.  Nor did it jibe with what I knew of my mother, the kind of person she was with me. Yet it is also true that the mother I knew was a married full-time housewife with a lawyer husband, and the mother Betty knew was a struggling single working woman. In 1928, enrolling her little girl in an upstate, upscale boarding school must have made sense. What now looks like cold-hearted rejection must have been to her way of thinking an act of loving sacrifice.


Betty says it would have been easier (and free) to let Grandma baby-sit, but Ceil was determined that her little girl become a “real American,” not a second-generation greenhorn. Thinking about her frequent references to “real Americans” and “real families” I can see how obsessed my mother was with what she wasn’t. She believed that her parents’ Yiddish accents and immigrant ways would rub off on her daughter. Rather than let such a tragedy happen, she worked long hours to pay for the expensive boarding school until Betty was twelve and my father adopted her.


As for Ceil, she spent those years polishing her English until it was pristinely unaccented. She read voraciously and informed herself about art, politics, and music. Nevertheless, she remained so ashamed of her origins and her family’s poverty that the address she gave her beaus was not the Lower East Side tenement where she lived with her parents and unmarried siblings, but the home of a “rich” cousin in the Bronx.


After almost ten years of single life and subterfuge, she married the man who would become my father. They met on Visiting Day at the boarding school where both of their daughters were enrolled….

Ceil could not believe her good fortune. She had married a “real American” and a good provider, a lawyer who, despite the Depression, was making a living.  She quit her job. Now she could have a “real family” like every other middle-class woman she admired. No more boarding school; no more crowded Lower East Side tenement—they moved to the Bronx apartment that was even finer than the “rich” cousin’s digs Ceil had claimed as her own.  At last, by her lights, she was a success.


When I was about a year old, we moved to Jamaica, Queens, to a semidetached house with a front lawn, a backyard, six rooms, and a porch. This should have been the happily-ever-after part of my mother’s story, but it didn’t work out that way. Ceil felt painfully inferior to her well-educated, silver-tongued spouse—and if my father did not exactly flaunt his superiority, neither did he disabuse my mother of her low self-image. She worked hard to compensate, taking courses in oil painting, Hebrew, and Jewish history. She learned to play bridge—never well enough to still his carping ridicule. She learned to drive but he would not let her have the wheel when he was in the car. He gave her the allowance from which she squirreled away that secret cache that would become my nest egg, but she never felt secure.


Though she fought a losing battle against his meetings and organizations, she never gave up trying to lure her husband home by adorning herself, improving herself, and trying to win his heart the old-fashioned way—through his stomach. Her handwritten recipe cards attest to her efforts.


…Even more assiduously than recipes, my mother collected people. Her relatives were first in her heart, time and devotion. After the family came her many friends in the Jewish community, the women of our Temple Sisterhood, Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, Women’s American ORT, and the JWV Ladies Auxiliary.


She also had a group of friends who played Mah-Jongg as if it was the Russian chess championships, but without the silence.  The ladies of the Maj-Jongg group could forecast doomed marriages and fatal illnesses long before the principals knew they were in trouble. I learned to recognize the gravity of a person’s condition from the voice levels of the narrator. Whispers meant polio and cancer. Heart attacks were discussed a little louder, the flu at full volume.


…There were seven siblings and dozens of cousins in my mother’s family, but Ceil was the one you would call if you had a friend in need. She was the organizer, the family glue, the counsel of last resort. Everyone leaned on her. And because her husband, the man of her dreams, was almost never home, she filled her life with everyone else. She took in uncles who returned from the war and cousins who had survived the Holocaust, putting them up until they could get settled on their own. When I was five, one of my aunts died in childbirth and Mommy insisted that my newborn cousin, Simma, live with us until her father could find another wife. Thus, from 1944 to 1946, I had a “baby sister.” In 1950 my mother invited a friend’s daughter to stay in our extra bedroom so the girl could continue to attend her own school while her parents moved out of the city for her father’s health. And when my grandparents were too old to maintain their own home, Mommy performed one of her domestic miracles and transformed our basement into their pied-a-terre…

Whether it was a family crisis, a holiday get-together, a dinner to be hosted for one of my father’s clients or organizations—whatever it was, if it needed doing, my mother did it with grace.


…Ovarian cancer was the recorded cause of her death. Today, with all the talk of cancer-prone behavior and the physiological ravages of stress, I wonder if the female body’s ultimate expression of feminine suffering is to develop uterine cancer. I wonder if my mother died from too many years of self sacrifice…

More than five hundred people came to her funeral. I heard one man say the turnout reflected my father’s prominence in the community, but most people knew otherwise; these were her friends, the people who had claimed her love in my father’s absence.  And they appreciated her as he never did.


…I’m quite sure my mother died without understanding how remarkable she was. Once, during the last weeks of her life, when I was sitting with her after school, she started crying. “I’m so sorry that I will never see you grown up,” she said. “I hope I’ve raised you well, because I’ve been a failure at everything else.”
“Everything else?” I whispered.

“Yes,” she explained. “Choosing a husband is the most important decision in a woman’s life, and twice I chose wrong.”


She never saw herself for what she was: a brave pioneer in the new world, a female wage earner unbowed by a grade-school education, a single parent who supported and educated her child throughout the Depression, a gifted artist and designer, an intrepid student, a maker of feasts and celebrations, a relentless optimist, a nourishing mother, and a true and giving friend.


I learned what success means from this woman who considered herself a failure.  But the older I get, the more rich and complicated her legacy seems. Before she could become the conformist that I might today deplore, she had to learn a language, decipher an entire social system, make the leap from a shtetl with wooden cottages and mud paths to a crowded city tenement—and decide that tenement life wasn’t going to be good enough. Where did she get the vision? In a time when women tolerated all kinds of abuse in order to stay married and economically secure, she walked away from an insufferable husband. Where did she get the nerve.


I see now that my mother’s brilliance lay in her ability to create a persona as original s the dress designs she coxed out of few folds of fabric. In her context, for her generation, she was a miracle worker. She invented herself. Then she invented the family life she thought she and her daughter deserved. Deeply, desperately, she wanted to be like everyone else, but when the American dream didn’t deliver, she made up her own.



z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z



SOD…   “ Jews glory in their survival,” [Jacob Rader] Marcus once observed, “they refuse to disappear.”


GOTTLIEB ZORNBERG…What Judah recognizes is not simply his pledge to Tamar—the seal,

chord and staff that symbolize his authority.  He recognizes, in effect, himself.  In response to Tamar’s

weighted invitation: “HaKer-Nah–Please recognize,”  Judah rises above the dismemberings of experience

From the loom of forgetting fall his own words to Jacob, as he presented him with Joseph’s torn coat.

Then, Jacob had been asked to acknowledge tornnness; now Judah is asked to reassemble that tornness.

In the words of the Midrash, exemplifying the power of her call, Tamar pleads:

‘Please recognize your Creator; do not hide your eyes from me.’  [The Beginning of Desire, pg 277]



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