Tamar, an End to Bitterness

The episode of Judah and Tamar that appears in this week’s parashah, Parashat Vayeishev, is one of the most mysterious stories of the Torah.

A literal reading of the Torah’s text reveals that Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law, the widow of his son Er who died because of his misdeeds. After Er’s death,Judah told his second son Onan to marry Tamar in a levirate marriage, as is required when a man has died without offspring. However, Onan acted in an unacceptable fashion and he also died without begetting children, leaving Tamar a widow once again. Upon seeing this, without realizing that his sons had died as punishment for their sins, Judah was reluctant to have his third son, Shelah, marry Tamar, fearing that he too might suffer the same fate as his two older brothers. When Tamar realized that Judah was holding Shelah back from her, she disguised herself as a prostitute and waited for Judah to pass by. Judah was allured towards Tamar without knowing who she was and from their union, Peretz and Zerach were born.

This account of Judah’s complex relationship with Tamar requires careful examination, especially when we remember that Peretz, their firstborn, was the predecessor of the royal dynasty of Jewish Kings that began with King David, as we find in the book of Ruth, “These are the descendants of Peretz… and Yishai gave birth to David.” Furthermore, it is from this lineage that the Mashiach shall be born.

The Zohar’s profound mystical interpretation of Judah’s and Tamar’s acts begins with an invitation to,

Come and see how precious the words of Torah are, for every single word of Torah contains high and holy mysteries. And this is what it says that when the Almighty gave the Torah to the children of Israel, He gave them all the hidden holy treasures; and all of them are in the Torah.

Although every parashah in the Torah contains the deepest mysteries, the episode of Judah and Tamar contains especially secret mysteries that relate to the revelation of Mashiach. It is here that his soul-root begins to shine, as the sages state that while this episode took place, God was busy creating “Mashiach’s light.”

Sweet in place of bitter

We will turn our focus to Tamar, who actively initiated the episode, by discovering the inner significance of her name. In Hebrew, “Tamar” (תמר) is a date palm, the seventh and final of the species with which the land of Israel is blessed, but it is also the root of the word “exchange” (תמורה). Alternately, the name Tamar can be analyzed into two words, “complete” (תם) and “bitter” (מר), in what is called a notarikon by the sages and alluding to “the completion, or end of bitterness” (תם-מר). This notarikon reflects the ability of Tamar to exchange the bitter for sweet, just like the date-palm, which can turn an arid wilderness into a flourishing oasis. The date palm is also capable of thriving on salt (bitter) water and turning it into a honey-sweet fruit.

Returning to Tamar’s act, we find that it presents a clear example of turning the bitterness into sweetness. There are a number of events in this story that may be bitter pills to swallow, beginning with Er and Onan’s sins and subsequent deaths and ending with Judah’s own behavior, but it is specifically from this bitterness that the sweetest fruit emerges – Mashiach’s light. Indeed, we are taught that Mashiach’s level of consciousness is one that is capable of turning “darkness into light and the bitter into sweetness.” All this begins in the Torah’s account of Judah and Tamar in this week’s parashah.

Beyond the general reference to Tamar’s act, there are other Chassidic elucidations of how she transformed the bitter into sweetness.

Sweetening a bitter thought

The Magid of Mezeritch, disciple and successor of the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose 240th yartzeit was on 19th of Kislev explains, “The meaning of Tamar (תמר) is ‘the end of bitterness,’ the foreign thought is bitter, but in truth it is earnest.” He continues to explain that when an individual is troubled by a foreign thought during his prayers (in the lesser case, thoughts of business or family issues, or in the worst case, when he is troubled right then by sinful reflections), he must understand that even this thought has a positive root and source, “…when he notices that this [thought] originates in the holy letters, but it is merely their order that is foolish.” The Magid states that the source of all thoughts is in the holy letters—the building blocks of creation—but, if a specific thought appears to be foolish and sinful, it is because its letters have been wrongly combined, while its root remains pure and holy – like a puzzle of a beautiful work of art that has been put together incorrectly. One example of such a letter-combination that is turned from good into evil is in the verse in this parashah, “Er, [ער] Judah’s firstborn was evil [רע] in God’s eyes.”

The Magid teaches that when an individual realizes that his improper thoughts are actually a misinterpretation of something good, “he can enter the world of exchanges and from these combinations other words can be formed; from words of folly emerge words of Torah.” A foreign thought is bitter and evil, but recognizing its source brings it to its root, to the “world of exchanges” in which the “puzzle” can be reconstructed and the folly sweetened.

It is important to point out that the Alter Rebbe (the Magid’s youngest and dearest disciple) writes that this particular method of elevating foreign thoughts is the service of the righteous, but the instruction for the general public is to simply ignore or expel the improper thought (as explained in Tanya). Nevertheless, the realization that foreign thoughts are rooted in a positive source is something that we can all relate to, especially in these final generations that precede the coming of Mashiach when the service of the righteous will eventually become part of the public domain.

The Magid’s explanation illuminates the story of Judah and Tamar in a new light. Judah thought the woman he met was a prostitute, but in truth she was his righteous and holy daughter-in-law; Judah thought his daughter-in-law had become pregnant illegitimately, but in truth she was pregnant with his own child. Tamar, who covered her face, was exactly like that improper thought that masks its true source. The moment Judah realized the truth, all the bitterness turned into sweetness. So too, the moment we identify an improper  thought if instead of being overwhelmed by it we realize that it is a misleading interference, at that moment bitterness is exchanged for sweetness.

Nullifying the ego

A second profound interpretation of the mystery of Tamar is that the bitterness (מר) alluded to in her name refers to the act of “nullifying the ego” (בטול היש). Every individual has a natural and clear sense of “ego,” which begins with the realization that “I exist,” but can easily deteriorate into coarse, crude and arrogant egocentrism and self-aggrandizement. The first steps in the Chassidic way of serving God lead us to refine this sense of self with the realization that our ego is absolutely null and void, because it is God who creates us every moment anew. Properly refining our feelings of selfhood, rectifies our ego by making it clear that we have no reason for being inflated with self-pride, or any other negative egotistic tendency that separates us from our Divine source. The Magid of Mezeritch described this by saying that God created the world “something from nothing” and the service of the righteous is to turn the “something” (i.e., the ego) back into “nothing.” This service of the righteous, in the sense of nullifying the ego before the “nothingness” out of which it was created, is universally relevant since, “Your people are all righteous,” and everyone is capable of achieving this state of mind, especially while praying.

The bitterness in this case is experienced while nullifying the ego. We are required to take all the comfortable feelings the ego’s gives us about ourselves, humble them, and nullify them—a very bitter experience indeed. Yet, anyone who appropriately acts this way and merits tasting something of true selflessness, witnesses how this bitter experience turns into the sweetness of experiencing the Divine “nothingness” from which the world was created. It is then reveled that, objectively speaking, the bitterness was the ego’s hijacking of our true selfhood, making us self-centered and self-aggrandizing. How can we imagine that an egotistic stance could be anything but bitter? True nullification of the ego is the sweetener that refines all bitterness, even though we continue to sense our own existence, it is nullified before its Divine source, and this nullification has a taste sweeter than honey.

In the events surrounding Judah and Tamar,Judah’s act of self-nullification begins with the parashah’s opening verse, “Judah went down from his brothers.”Judah took to heart what he and his brothers had done to Joseph and their father, Jacob, and was the first to lower his ego. He reaches a climactic act of self-nullification when he admits that Tamar, “is more righteous than I.” As the sages relate, it was Judah experience of self-aggrandizement that caused God to send an angel of desire to awaken his base cravings. But, thanks to this fall, he was able to reach a climax of selflessness, acknowledging that he was the father of Tamar’s pregnancy. All the bitterness of his initial egotistic state was transformed into the sweetness of a refined self, thus shining the light of Mashiach into the world.

The spirit of God, from Otniel to Mashiach

Having seen these two interpretations of Judah and Tamar’s act, a third interpretation is due, one that is most fitting for our generation, and that will reconnect us with the episode’s literal reading. We will begin with a numerical analysis. The name Tamar (תמר) can be divided into two syllables (ת-מר). The second syllable is made up of two letters, mem and reish (מר, which also spell “bitter”). Their numerical value is 240, also the numerical value of the idiom “the spirit of Havayah” (רוח הוי’), a phrase related to the Mashiach, whom the prophet Isaiah (11:2) tells us, “The spirit of Havayah will rest upon.” Indeed, the very first time the Torah uses the word “spirit” is in its second verse. There it reads, “the spirit of God [Elokim] hovered over the water,” which the sages interpret as alluding to the spirit of Mashiach.

As an aside, this numerical allusion relates perfectly to the current Chassidic year, since on the 19th of Kislev, we commemorated the 240th anniversary of the Magid of Mezertich’s passing. Just before his death in 5533 (1773), the Magid enigmatically told the Alter Rebbe, “Zalman, today is our yomtov (festive day).” Exactly 26 years later on the 19th of Kislev 5559 (1799), 214 years ago, his intention became clear when the Alter Rebbe was released from prison on that very day, a day that has since become the Chassidic “festival of redemption.” This year, 5773 (2012) signifies the singular combination of 214 [the gematria of “spirit” (רוח)] years since the Alter Rebbe’s release and 26 (the gematria of “Havayah” (י-ה-ו-ה)] more years from the Magid of Mezeritch’s passing, perfectly reflecting the numerical value of the phrase “the spirit of Havayah” (רוח הוי’).

This means that this year is a very auspicious time for meditating on the phrase “the spirit of Havayah,” in particular with reference to its numerical counterpart “bitterness” (מר), which is the second syllable of Tamar’s name (תמר), as mentioned above.

The first time the phrase “the spirit of Havayah” appears in the Torah is with reference to the judge Otniel ben Knaz, of whom it says, “the spirit of Havayah came upon him and he judged [the people of] Israel.” In his explanation of this verse, Rashi refers to an exceptional midrash,

Rabbi Tanchuma taught: He [Otniel] looked at them [the Jewish people]. Just as God told Moses inEgypt, “I see, I have seen (ראה ראיתי) the poverty of My people.” What do these two instances of seeing mean? God told Moses, “I see” (ראה) that they are doomed to err with the Golden Calf, nonetheless, “I have seen (ראיתי) the poverty of My people.” From this verse, Otniel taught: whether they are meritorious or guilty, He must redeem them.” This means that the special “spirit of Havayah” that rested upon Otniel is a type of approbation of the Jewish people that sets them high above any regular account of credits or debits, proving from God’s own words that “whether they are meritorious or guilty He must redeem them.”

This type of “spirit of Havayah” is a messianic spirit that is clearly intended in the expression referring to Mashiach “the spirit of Havayah will rest upon him.” The secret of this special spirit begins here with Tamar’s act, in which the light, the spirit of Mashiach is created through an affair that on purpose involves many seemingly guilty individuals, so much so that Kabbalah teaches us that even the souls of Er and Onan were rectified in their reincarnations as Peretz and Zerach (according to the secret of levirate marriage).

God is compassionate and merciful

Continuing our meditation on Tamar’s name and the expression “the spirit of Havayah,” we find that it is also an abbreviation of the Biblical phrase “Havayah is compassionate and merciful” (רחום וחנון הוי’), which has a numerical value of 400 – the value of the letter tav (ת,) the first letter of Tamar’s name. This brings us to the full understanding that Tamar’s name equals the two expressions “Havayah is compassionate and merciful” (ת) and “the spirit of Havayah” (מר), revealing that God is compassionate and merciful as we find in the thirteen attributes of mercy and it is incumbent upon us too to follow this directive, “Just as He is called ‘compassionate’ so you should be compassionate, just as He is called ‘merciful’ so you should be merciful.” This Divine attribute is what allows Him to judge us favorably whether we are meritorious or guilty. It is the “spirit of Havayah” that rests upon the true judges and leaders of the Jewish people from Otniel through the Mashiach. In order to argue our case, that God must redeem us (“He must redeem them”), we must act with compassion and mercy, and then God too will redeem us in a similar manner.

The ability to arouse God’s compassion even upon those who are “guilty” and those who have fallen, is the very sweetening of the terrible bitter taste in the mouths of those sinners, every one of whom will eventually be redeemed and rectified. Then their bitterness will be exchanged for the sweet taste of honey when “the righteous individual will flourish like a date palm.” Indeed, “Your people are all righteous.”

(from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, 19th of Kislev, 5773)