On recognizing the truth and honoring obligations


Genesis 37:1-40:23

Numbers 7:1-17

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

Medieval Hebrew poets counted on their readers to recognize the most oblique references to biblical phrases.

They buried biblical phrases even in their secular love poems. This sounds, I admit, like a recipe for boring and dull. But wait until you see the kind of maneuvers that the best of these poets could do with a biblical phrase.

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevy makes dazzling use of a phrase from this week's Torah reading in his poem "Yom LeYabashah." (This poem can be found in some prayerbooks as a reading for the seventh day of Passover, or for a circumcision feast.)

In the fourth stanza, HaLevy commends the Jews to God for observing circumcision: "They enter with you into the covenant of your seal, and from the womb, they are circumcised for your name."

In the fifth, he praises us for fulfilling the commandment of wearing tzitzit: "Show their sign to all who see them, for on the corners of their garments they will make fringes."

And then he asks God, "Of whom is this inscribed, please recognize the truth, to whom belongs the seal, and to whom the cords?"

He refers to circumcision as a seal, echoing the prayerbook: In the blessing after meals we mention "the covenant sealed in our flesh." And in the blessing after the circumcision ceremony, we describe Jewish men as "sealed with the sign of the holy covenant."

HaLevy refers to the fringes as "cords," echoing the language found in the last paragraph of the Sh'ma, "and you shall put on the fringes of the corner a cord of blue" (Numbers 15:38).

While the poet calls on God to recognize our faithfulness, the words he uses echo the words of Tamar in this week's Torah reading. To get the full force of this echo, you have to remember the whole story (Gen. 38).

Tamar, widow of Judah's son Er, follows ancient custom by marrying his brother Onan, who then promptly dies. Tamar, once again Judah's ex-daughter-in-law, returns to her father's house to await the customary invitation to marry the next son, Shelah. Judah, however, feels no urgent need to marry his next son to this luckless woman. Tamar just waits.

And then she acts. She chooses a ripe moment. Judah, just completing the mourning for his wife, sets off for sheep shearing. On his way home, he meets a prostitute by the side of the road, and, sad to say, engages her services.

When they have agreed on a price of one goat kid, he gives her as security his symbols of identification. Perhaps these items seem too important to give away so freely, but he does give them away.

Judah's partner is no random prostitute, but Tamar in disguise; he is not her anonymous customer, but the only quarry. She sees to it that he unwittingly fulfills the archaic obligation of the father or brother of a childless man to his widow, which he would not do willingly. The incident has ended, and Judah still does not know this.

Judah sends his friend to pay the prostitute, but no one can find her. Embarrassed to have lost his identification seal and cords this way, Judah abandons the search.

Three months later, the news comes to Judah that his ex-daughter-in-law, while committed to wait to marry either himself or Shelah, has become pregnant. He sends back a harsh decree: "Take her out and let her be burnt" (Gen. 38:24). She sends back the reply: "By the man who owns these am I pregnant. Recognize, please, to whom belong this seal and these cords…" (Gen. 38:25).

And now you understand the punch line of this poem. By using Tamar's expression, "Recognize, please, to whom belong this seal and these cords," HaLevy compares God to Judah, the patriarch who has not done right by his faithful younger dependent relative.

Audaciously, shockingly, the poet implies a challenge to God: You have not done right by your dependent, faithful people. Take them back.

By the way, in the Bible, Judah makes a magnificent reply to Tamar's question. His answer begins, "She is right" (Gen. 38:26).