Most of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, focuses the tangled tale of Joseph and his brothers. But midway through that drama, as a kind of interlude in the parshah, we get one of those R-rated biblical episodes that we don’t teach in Hebrew school.
Genesis 38 tells the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. She marries Judah’s eldest son, Er; when Er dies prematurely, before she can bear him an heir, she marries his younger brother, Onan. When that match, too, fails to produce children, upon Onan’s death Judah sends Tamar away, lest the same grim fate await his youngest son, Shelah.
This leaves Tamar despondent and alone, with little prospect for marriage and family. In her desperation, she hatches a ruse to take matters into her own hands. She dons a veil, disguises herself as a prostitute and waits by the side of the road for her father-in-law, who eventually engages her services and sleeps with her, without realizing her true identity. A few months later, Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant. In a patriarchal rage, he proclaims: “Bring her out and burn her!” But when she produces Judah’s staff and seal, which he left in her possession as a sort of deposit after their tryst, he owns up to his misdeeds: “She was in the right, rather than me, inasmuch as I denied her my son Shelah.”
She is right. I was wrong.
With these words, Judah becomes the first person in the Torah to make teshuvah, to acknowledge his transgressions and alter his behavior accordingly. It is no coincidence that many years later, when the brothers must plead for their lives in Egypt, Judah is the one who steps up and confesses their history of wrongdoing toward Joseph. Judah is a hero, because as we all know, it is extraordinarily difficult to take responsibility for our offenses and change our path for the better. Overcoming stubborn pride and ego is a formidable task. This is why Judah’s name will become the root of both “Jew” and “Judaism.” When we are at our best, we are his heirs.
There is no realm in which teshuvah—and our Jewish leadership—is more important than that of ecological justice. Our relationship with the rest of God’s creation is in dire need of repair. Indeed, a failure to deliberately turn away from the destructive status quo imperils all life on earth. Our future hinges upon our ability to step out of the status quo and learn to live in a far more sustainable future—and there is no time to waste. The hour is late, as injurious climate change is already upon us, but we, like our forefather Judah, can still shift course and affirm the promise of life for our posterity.
The Jewish organization Hazon is leading the way. Their vision is both straightforward and urgent: a vibrant healthy Jewish community in which to be Jewish is necessarily to help create a more sustainable world for all. Hazon has proclaimed the current Jewish year, 5780, as the year of environmental teshuvah. They are urging all Jews to examine our impact on the planet and use our tradition’s insights and imperatives to commit ourselves to doing better. You can find more here: https://hazon.org/commit-to-change/environmental-teshuva/
As Judah recognized long ago—and as we all experience in our own lives—teshuvah is hard. But I am confident that with CABI’s new task force on climate change, our community will do our part to teach by example. Please join us—we need you!