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Friday, December 11, 2009

A Little Extra for Hanukkah...a Midrash on Judith and Tamar

This week's parashah is Va'yeishev (Bereshit/Genesis 37:1 – 40:23). This is the beginning of the Joseph story and includes Joseph's dreams of his brothers serving him, his father giving him the multi-colored coat and his brothers' decision to kill him and then selling him into slavery instead. Then the story of Judah and Tamar is seemingly interjected in Joseph's story.

In this story (which will be explained further in the midrash below) Tamar tricks her former father in-law Judah into sleeping with her in order to have the child that she believes is her right after the death of her first two husbands (Judah's eldest two sons). Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant and accuses her of 'harlotry,' but when he finds out that he is the father he admits his wrong and states that she is in the right. The Joseph story then continues.

I would like to juxtapose this with the fact that tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. And in addition to Judah Maccabee there also exists a lesser-known hero connected with Hanukkah. Her name is Judith. Her story is found in the Book of Judith, part of the Apocrypha (the books written in ancient times that were not included in the Tanakh/Hebrew Bible). Thanks to Judith's bravery the troops of the Syrian-Greek general Holofernes fled from her town and the people were saved.

Of course, the stories of Judith and Tamar are imagined to have taken place hundreds of years apart, but that doesn't mean that they couldn't have somehow spoken to each other. After all, in a world where a day's worth of oil can burn for eight days anything is possible! Happy Hanukkah!

Judith and Tamar

The war between the Maccabees and the Syrian Greeks was raging. Though the Jewish freedom fighters were outnumbered their cleverness enabled them to outwit the mighty Greeks on many occasions. But in the Jewish town of Bethulia it seemed as if victory would be in the hands of the Greeks before long.

On a dark winter night when the Greeks laying siege to the town had finally decided to rest for a while a young woman walked through the streets of the deserted town. Looking around her she saw the desolate streets and knew that her fellow citizens were inside either cowering with fright or making plans to escape under cover of darkness, sure that the Greeks would attack the town once again at sunrise and finally bring it to submission.

Judith's heart was heavy as she entered her home and lit the candle on the small table in the middle of the room. She then sat down in a chair and began to replay in her mind all that had happened in her short life. She had always lived in Bethulia. She had always been happy – until the Greeks arrived. It seems that ever since that day her life has been filled with fear and uncertainty. Tonight was no exception. And yet it was. For there was a feeling beginning to arise within her that was at war with her sense of melancholy and hopelessness. She couldn't name this feeling, but she knew that it was there and that it was calling to her to do something. But she didn't have the energy to figure out what it was telling her to do and so she closed her eyes and tried to get some rest on what was most probably to be her last night in the Jewish town of Bethulia.

Suddenly Judith felt a presence in the room with her. She opened her eyes and in the dim light of the candle she saw another woman sitting in the chair facing her. "I'm sorry if I frightened you Judith," said the strange woman. "Who are you?" asked a startled and somewhat frightened Judith. "I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself first. My name is Tamar and I have been sent to help you." "Help me?" "Yes," replied Tamar, "help you understand that feeling is rising up inside of you."

Judith could not speak. How did this woman Tamar know what she was thinking and feeling? Why was she there to help her? Who sent her?

"Those are all excellent questions," said Tamar, clearly able to read Judith's thoughts, "and I will answer them. All you must do is sit there and listen. I have no doubt that once I tell you my story you will understand why I am here, what you are meant to do and who sent me." And so Tamar began to tell a story that sounded strangely familiar to Judith.

"You see," began Tamar, "at a young age I married into a very prominent family. As the bride of the eldest son my role was clear. I was to be the mother of the next heir. But soon enough all these plans and expectations were in ruins, as is usually the way with plans and expectations, for my husband died before I was able to become pregnant. As was the law in those days, I then married his younger brother – the middle son. But he was stubborn and resentful of the fact that he was forced to marry me and that any child we would have would be the heir to his dead brother's name and not to his. The rivalry that had fueled their relationship when his brother was alive thwarted our relationship. He would sooner disobey the law rather than see me bearing his brother's child. In very little time I was a widow yet again.

"After the death of the second brother I soon realized that my destiny had changed. I was not meant to be the matriarch of this family. For some reason I was destined to die childless and alone. Then one night in a dream it became clear that this was not my destiny either. I became aware that night that I was indeed meant to be a matriarch, not merely of this small family, but of an entire nation. Somehow I believed that God was sending me the message that the salvation of the people was dependent upon me and my not-yet-conceived child."

Judith continued to stare into Tamar's eyes as she listened to the story. She knew by then who Tamar was and she could not believe that she was sitting across from her. Why had Tamar come to her? Before she had the chance to ask this question Tamar began to speak again.

"In due time you will understand everything, my daughter," she said with a smile. Then she continued. "My father-in-law, by now you may have guessed that his name was Judah, decided not to give me his youngest son in marriage right away. After all, losing two sons in such a short time was difficult enough, and it was clear that he blamed me for their deaths. But as the years passed and I grew older I still did not marry the youngest. Then I realized that I needed to take action myselfe in order to insure that I would become pregnant and give birth to the child whose existence would somehow insure the survival and salvation of our people. But Shelah, the youngest son, was kept in seclusion far away. I did not know what to do.

"Then it came to me as clearly as if it were the most natural thought in the world. I realized that it was not Shelah or his brothers that were meant to help me bring my destiny to fruition, but their father. It was Judah whose seed must be joined with mine in order to bring salvation. And so I set about to ensnare him, knowing that he would never submit willingly out of fear for his own life."

"I believe you know the details of the story?" Judith nodded slightly Tamar then continued. "You see, I believe that Judah was unable to act because of the guilt he still felt over what he and his brothers had done to Joseph. Deep down he believed that his sons' death was punishment for selling Joseph into slavery. Rather than acknowledge this it was much easier and more acceptable to put the blame on the woman. But his inner termoil and his melancholy eventually led him to seek out the comfort of a woman – any woman. Of course, as you know, that is where I entered the picture and how I conceived.

"Once he learned that I was pregnant he was incensed. He ordered that I be brought to him and executed for my crime. I suppose that he may also have thought that by destroying me perhaps he could also destroy his guilt over his sons' deaths and Joseph's plight.

"Of course, I always was a clever person, and I knew that having taken his staff, seal and cord as a pledge in exchange for sex would come in handy. After all, they represented Judah to the world. So when the messenger brought them to him from me in secret he realized what has happened. For now he knew that it was he who had 'played the harlot' – not that he would have phrased it that way. He was the one willing to sell himself, or at least his identity, for a quick encounter with an unknown woman along the roadside. So he then proclaimed to all who would listen that I was the righteous one and it was he who had wronged me.

"He then knew what I had already known, that he and I were destined to be the parents of this special child. It was all part of the plan. His proclamation insured my life and also released him from his guilt. For though he could not change what he had done to Joseph or bring back his sons, this experience had enable him to grow and to become a man who could admit his wrongs, make amends and seek forgiveness.

"If it had not been for my decisive action, performed with a little deceit, my children would never have been born and the lineage of King David and the Messiah would not have begun. Judah realized that, as I know you do now." Tamar paused for a few moment, " So do you understand why I have come to you on this dark night?"

At first Judith was unsure. But as she sat in silence, paying attention to the feeling that had been rising within and trying to listen to what it was trying to tell her, she suddenly understood. "You are here to tell me that I too must take decisive action, performed with a little deceit, to help insure the salvation of my town and my people." "Yes," said Tamar, "I knew you would understand." "But what action am I to take Tamar? Please tell me!" "Ah, I cannot tell you that any more than any human being could have told me what to do in my situation. Just listen to the voice within and you will know."

At that moment Judith awoke with a start. She looked around her. The candle had long since burned down and there was no one else in the room. Was it a dream? Perhaps. But even if it were, it was clearly a dream that was sending her a message. As she listened to the voice within her, but she also heard voices from outside. She paid careful attention to these whispering voices, which she realized belonged to Greek soldiers, . "Holofernes says we are to attack the town at dawn unless they seem well fortified – which they certainly do not." "Yes," replied the other, "let us only hope that Holofernes is in good enough shape to lead us into battle in the morning." "Don't worry," replied the first soldier, "I have been told that there is a guard outside of his tent to prevent any of the local harlots or any strong drink from entering his tent for tonight, at least. So he should sleep soundly and be prepared to lead us in the morning." It was then Judith knew what she must do.

Judith went outside and started towards the Greek camp. Almost immediately she was captured by the two soldiers whom she had just heard conversing. "Please," she begged, "I have information that I have overheard and which I must share with your commander. I do not wish to die along with the other people of my village. Helping you would be easier and save my life." "You can tell us what information you have," replied one of the soldiers. "You will pardon my forwardness," she said, "but I must tell your commander directly. My life is at stake and I want to be certain that he receives the message correctly." The two men looked at each other. This plain peasant woman seemed harmless enough. Surely she could not do or say anything that could spoil their victory. And so the men took Judith to Holofernes and she was left alone with him in his tent to tell him her secrets.

After giving him false information that he believed would ensure his victory she then asked him to celebrate with cheese and wine, which she had hidden inside her cloak. Once Holofernes had eaten and drunk enough to lull him to sleep she then followed in the footsteps of Tamar and took matters into her own hands.

When the soldiers found Holofernes' headless body in the tent that morning they feared for their own lives. And so they fled and Bethulia was saved. Years later, upon hearing of this miraculous event, Judah Maccabee, who had begun to fear that he and his followers might indeed be defeated by the Greeks, had his strength and confidence renewed. And so the battle he was fighting continued toward eventual victory. Rejoicing in their victory the people prayed for the coming of the Messiah, descendant of David, descendant of the house of Judah and Tamar to bring the ultimate salvation for them and the world. And perhaps the actions of Judith brought this vision a little closer to fruition – at least for the moment.

1 comment:

Elianah Avram said...

I am in a class that is going to be studying the Apocryphal Book of Judith. I am trying to find the specific Midrash that tells the story of Judith. Do you know in which collection of Midrash the story is told?

Thank you!

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