12/09/2014 03:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Power of the Powerless (Parshat Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23)

One aspect of the Torah that has always intrigued me is the way in which its authors recognize the constraints of the society in which they live, and push against those constraints, even if they cannot imagine doing away with them altogether. Embedded within this week's Torah portion, Vayeshev, is just such a story, plunked down in the midst of the larger narrative about Joseph and his brothers.

In Genesis chapter 38, we read about Joseph's older brother, Judah, and Judah's three sons -- Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah finds a wife for Er, the eldest, a woman named Tamar. Before they are able to have children, Er dies, having done something "displeasing to YHVH." By law, Judah's next eldest son is obligated to marry the widow, to enable her to bear a child who will carry her first husband's name and inheritance. The second son, Onan, knowing that any children from their union will technically not count as his, and that his own inheritance will be lessened, chooses to "spill his seed" whenever he has sex with Tamar -- and God promptly brings an end to his life as well. By this point, Judah fears for the life of his final son if he makes him marry the still childless widow, and instructs Tamar to return to her father's home.

After some time, Tamar realizes that Judah does not intend to fulfill his obligation and give Shelah to her in marriage. Taking matters into her own hands, she disguises herself as a prostitute, and gets an unwitting Judah (recently widowed himself) to have sex with her. She becomes pregnant, and Judah, when he hears, is indignant. Accusing her of harlotry, he demands that she be brought out and burned. Tamar, having held onto a few personal items of Judah's from their one-night stand, sends the items to him, with a message: "I am with child by the man to whom these belong." Judah acknowledges that he has been in the wrong, and spares her from any punishment. Tamar is blessed with twins -- one of whom is an ancestor of King David.

Tamar is a fascinating heroine. She is a widow in a strictly patriarchal culture, her options limited and her power nonexistent. Yet within the confines of her social role, she manages to take matters into her own hands in order to gain what is rightfully hers -- a son from the family of Judah. She is also portrayed as a woman of honor and discretion. She does not expose Judah publicly, but sends him his personal items in private as a kind of code, trusting that he will do the right thing. He could have kept the secret to himself and had her publicly killed. But in the end Judah learns his lesson, admits openly that he has been wrong, and lets Tamar reap the rightful fruit of her actions.

It is remarkable that the Torah lifts up a wronged widow, and one-time prostitute, as the ancestor of the messianic house of David. Tamar -- the powerless, the oppressed, the woman without a voice -- makes an unjust system work for her, risks her reputation and her life to make herself heard, and thus merits becoming a mother of the messianic line.

Reading Tamar's story in light of recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island, as thousands of people take to the streets to demand changes in our justice system, the Torah poses to us today these questions: What happens when those in power fail to acknowledge their errors? What happens when those who are disadvantaged are unable to get the system to work for them, when they remain at its mercy, their voices unheard? And what means should they use to make sure that their voices become audible, their mistreatment becomes visible, and their needs get addressed?

Today, I hear in the anger and pain felt by so many African-Americans the voice of Tamar multiplied many times over. "We have been denied what, as citizens, is rightfully ours: to have our children treated as precious; to have our lives valued; to receive a fair and impartial hearing in our courts of law". Their community is waiting for their Judah, for those in power to say, as he did, "You are more in the right than I."

Tamar was all alone in her quest for justice; thankfully, today, there are so many other Americans standing with the Black community, adding our voices to theirs. Like Tamar, we must hold those in power accountable for their actions. Like Tamar, we must push against a system when it fails to deliver on its promises, holding on to what we know is right. Like Tamar, we must be willing to take risks, knowing in our hearts that God's justice is on our side.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.