By Rabbi Gila Ruskin
Living in the 23andme era, when a little bit of saliva can reveal the secrets of our DNA connections to our biological ancestors, it’s difficult to imagine the power of yichus (pedigree). Yichus gave you bragging rights: “I am descended from the great Albert Einstein, or Gluekel of Hameln.” Or it also could bring terrible shame, if one’s family tree included gonifs and other disreputables. Whether we like it or not, human society has always judged us on the basis of whose loins we are the fruit of.
The Bible takes this matter very seriously, replete with protracted lists of “begats.” Not throwaway passages, these genealogies actually reveal the divine connections between generations. God’s stated intent is to reward or punish for observing or defying God’s commandments. According to the system of l’dor v’dor, the behavior of the ancestors significantly impacts the destiny of the descendants.
We seek to understand ourselves by examining and investigating our ancestry. The saliva DNA tests lead to Ancestry.com as we search for connections. Fascinating to be sure, but I find myself curious to know the deeper links between the generations that have reverberated down the centuries, in the manner of the Bible. Ancestry.com may inform me about my most recent relatives, but that only whets my appetite to know more.
So, encountering Parshat Vayeshev, I, as a descendant of Judah, son of Jacob, wish to understand: What was it about Judah that merited our being named Jews? And if we read the story backwards, what was it about Judah that merited that King David and ultimately the Messiah would be descended from him? God must have been rewarding some exceptional behavior on Judah’s part. But in chapter 37 of this week’s portion, Vayeshev, the Torah demonstrates clearly that Judah did not start out as such a great guy. It was he who suggested to his brothers that selling Joseph as a slave to the caravan of Ishmaelites could turn a nice profit.
Certainly, this rather embarrassing pedigree could not have been the intended lesson of our yichus from Judah. To truly understand the intent of Judah’s elevation to the ancestor of the Messiah, we delve further into the Torah portion, into Chapter 38 of Genesis. Here the contemporary 23andme investigation into genetic destiny meets the modern #MeToo controversy.
Judah engages in some pretty reprehensible activities in Chapter 38. True, he does his fatherly duty by marrying his oldest son, Er, to a local Canaanite girl named Tamar. When Er dies before they conceive a child, Judah instructs his middle son, Onan, to fulfill his obligation to provide an heir for his older brother by marrying Tamar. When Onan refuses to cohabit with Tamar, his life is also ended. At that point, Judah refuses to instruct his youngest son, Shelah, to fulfill his obligation. Instead, Judah banishes Tamar to her father’s home. There, Tamar languishes, living a life without promise of a future.
After some time, Judah’s wife, Shua, passes away. One would think that this chieftain, son of Jacob, would quickly realize his obligations: either to give Tamar to his son, Shelah to produce an heir or to find for himself a new wife to procreate so that the family would continue.
But what does he do instead? When the official period of mourning is over, he heads off with his buddy to the sheep-shearing festival at Timna. Not to look for a new spouse, but to party.
Tamar, recognizing that the future of this family is in her hands, disguises herself as a prostitute, and waits for Judah at the crossroads. When he engages her services, promising to send payment, she asks for collateral. He offers his seal and his staff.
Tamar conceives and Judah is informed that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Judah sends for her, in a rage that she has brought shame upon his house. And it is then that we discover the reason for our yichus with Judah.
He reveals that he is a man of courage and integrity. When Tamar shows Judah his staff and seal, claiming that the man who gave her those objects was the one who begat this child, Judah could very easily have had her burned, and denied his involvement. Instead he publicly proclaims that Tamar was justified, that she was the righteous one who sought to continue the family legacy, while he was focused only on his own pleasure.
In the #MeToo era, we long to hear the accused predators admit what Judah proclaimed. “I was wrong. I took advantage of my position of power. I am sorry. I will do what I can to make things right. She is justified in her claims.”
From the ancient patriarchs to the modern 23andme and #MeToo, it is honesty, humility, repentance and integrity that define greatness. I am proud to claim Judah as my genetic and spiritual ancestor.
Rabbi Gila Ruskin recently retired from Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace, Maryland. She and her husband live in West Philadelphia.