I was once invited for a meal at a Rabbi’s house. He opened up the conversation with a question: If you could meet a Jewish hero from any time period, who would you ask to meet and why? I, wishing to be different maybe, chose Tamar.
Tamar is married to Yehuda’s son Er. Er is sinful (Genesis 38:7) and is killed by G-d. So Yehuda gives Tamar his next son, Onen, as her yavam. A yavam is a man who marries the wife of his childless dead brother in order to continue his name. Onen, not wanting to have children in his brother’s name, avoids having children and is killed by G-d. Yehuda tells Tamar to wait until the next brother is older but many days go by and nothing happens. Tamar sees that the next brother is getting older but Yehudah is not marrying them (Genesis 38:14). She decides to take action. Tamar’s decision needs to be seen in light of the fact that marrying the brother of the deceased, Yibum, is a mitzvah. In those days, this mitzvah could be done with any male relative, in our case even Yehudah. Our sages also say that Tamar had an intense desire to be part of Yehudah’s family and have children from a holy nation (Horayot 10b). Tamar hears that Yehudah is passing by. She dresses up as a prostitute and Yehuda comes to her, not knowing who she is. She becomes pregnant so Yehuda sentences her to be burnt. She hints that he is the father. He admits his wrongdoing and stops her death. She has twins, one of them Peretz, who is the ancestor of David, and please G-d soon, the Messiah.
There are many different explanations to this story but the one statement of Chazal that fascinated me and made me want to meet her (not that I would mind doing so now, either!) is quoted by Rashi on Genesis 38:15. Yehudah comes across Tamar, waiting on the roads like a prostitute. And the verse states “Judahsaw her, and because she had covered her face, he assumed that she was a prostitute.” Rashi says, “Because she covered her face and he could not see her and recognize her. Our Sages’ midrashic interpretation is, because she had covered her face when she had stayed in her father-in-law’s house and she was modest. Therefore, he did not suspect her. [From Sotah 10b]”. Rashi has a great question. How was it that Yehudah did not recognize Tamar, his daughter-in-law, close up? His answer is twofold. Firstly, she covered her face. Second, he didn’t recognize her because he hadn’t seen her closely before. She was modest in his house, and didn’t show her face.
Besides being interesting on its own, I was really impressed by one point. Using this argument, it seems Tamar went against her own modest nature to entice Yehudah because she felt it necessary. Moreover, ultimately she is rewarded with great descendants!
This theme of going beyond one’s nature is seen in other places in Tanach. Many of the examples are extreme, such as that of Avraham Avinu, who takes his long sought after son, and is prepared to kill him. What can we learn from these extreme examples? Maybe we need to learn that there are times to go against the grain, whether it be society or our own nature. If we are outgoing, in and of itself a beautiful trait, it sometimes needs to be quelled, and we need to be reserved. If we are flexible, and accommodating, there are times we need to stand up for what we believe in. We learn from Tamar to go beyond ourselves to do the right thing.