by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman
Clothing may at times betray our deepest wishes. And at times it may betray our deepest fears.When we dress for success it reflects the former. When we veil our women it reflects the latter.
In the Tamar and Yehudah narrative, Genesis 15:38 states:
"vayireha Yehudah vayachshevaha lezona ki chista paneha-
Judah saw her, and because she had covered her face, he assumed that she was a prostitute."
Note that because her face was veiled, he had assumed she was a prostitute. In fact, that was WHY she dressed that way. She WANTED him to assume that!
Note the odd vowelization in the word for "he assumed," or "thought"-vayachshVAHA. It might ordinarily be vocalized as vayachsheVEHA instead. But here it is not. Now VA means "in it"or "in her." This may signify that there is an element of psychological projection occuring. Not that he is assuming x,y, or z about her based on objective criteriae. Rather, his own fears are projected onto (into) her in his quick yet faulty summation of who she was.
He was driven by fear and guilt for having abandoned his brother Joseph. Guilt for and fear of abandonment had become defining forces in his personality makeup. He had spared his youngest son, Shelah, from the possibility of an untimely death only through abandoning Tamar and postponing/foregoing his levirite obligations. Er and Onan had died. Would Shelach be next? By abandoning Tamar and withholding her due, he would thus save his son. But at what price?
Now the levirite laws were intrinsically righteous in nature in ensuring the social security of a widow in her old age. It was the world's first social security program! Psalm 71 declares: "al tashlicheni la'et ziknah, ki'chlot kochi al ta'azveni. Do not cast me off me in my old age. When my stength leaves me do not abandon me."
Having a child would serve to protect her from abandonment in her old age. Onan's deepest sin, when he "spilled his seed," therefore, was in avoiding his obligation to protect his widowed sister-in-law in her old age (as well as perpetuating his dead brother's name). This misreading of the text in its proper context "fails to see the forest for the trees." This focus has been the source of much guilt, anxiety and depression through the ages. True onanism in its deepest sense is really then the willfull neglect of the widow, the elderly and all society's vulnerable!
We see in our parsha the recurring theme of abandonment. Joseph is abandoned in the pit, then abandoned in Egypt, and lastly - abandoned in prison. He wrestles with sexual temptation in the context of committing adultery with Potiphar's wife, thereby resulting in the potential abandonment of his sole connection to his family's moral code, a succumbing to the alien allures of Egyptian pagan culture. That he did not succumb was the reason he became known as Yosef HaTzaddik, Joseph the Righteous.
Prostitution reflects the disconnect between sex and obligation. It embodies abandonment at the deepest taboo level. Fear of abandonment leads to hatred of that which symbolizes it. That which is hated must be covered up or put away. Rather than seeing someone covered as modest and demur, he projects onto her the opposite, a reflection of his own inner demons and struggles.
A face connotes personality. Veiling the face reduces her to a sexual object, violating her humanity. Many Muslim women would protest this assertion, but they have bought into their own oppression in a Stockholm Syndrome-like way.
In Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as in most of the Islamic world, the Taliban and the imams fear the freedom and sexuality of women. More to the point, they fear their own sexuality and its associated drives and passions. They project their fears onto women and turn them into objects of fear and loathing so intense that they punish the victim for the sins of the predator! Rape victims are lashed at best, and killed for the family's honor at worst. They justify their veiling practices to fend against the predatious demons of male society in the name of guarding their women's sexual purity.
Ironically, according to the sartorial descriptions of the Torah as read in this week's parsha, their women thus assume the costume of the prostitute who must dwell in the utmost darkened cave-like fringes of society. Their society is thus shut off to the ideas and values of female energy and insight. Islamic society became unbalanced when it was open only to the aggressive tendencies of male energy, and thereby lost its vital center and devolved into an orgy of hatred and a lust for warfare.
The beauty of traditional Jewish notions of Tzniut, or modesty, lies in finding a balanced attitude towards sexuality. Embracing a wholesome view of sex, it sees it as intrinsically good and worthwhile. Yet while its energies are viewed as basically positive, there is a recognition that it best be channeled through the vessel of consecrated marriage, or Kiddushin, lest its urges become destructive and all-consuming.
The Eishes Chayil song/poem, which is sung at the Shabbat table each and every week, validates the woman of the marketplace, whose wisdom and insight nurtures and sustains both the family as well as the greater society, and whose industriousness contributes to society and helps provide for the poor and destitute. Men and women equally must learn to focus on their internal as well as external qualities, and thus both equally develop their truest potentials and input society with a harmonious balance of male and female energies.
And as the moral compass of Yehudah reasserted its sense of justice in doing right by Tamar and reversing her very real sense of abandonment, so too will the Jewish People come to reassert the centrality of Israel in their lives and give succor and support to her people through visiting. When family members are in trouble one goes to be with them in their time of need. And Israel must come to see that Jerusalem is the heart and vital center of world Jewry, just as Mecca is for the Moslem world and the Vatican is for Christendom.
The G*d of Israel saw Joseph overcome his sense of abandonment and led him breathtakingly up from his lowly slave status to the rank of grand vizier so as to be a conduit of salvation for his people. And just as the G*d of Israel saw justice for Tamar, reversing her abandonment and causing the ancestors of the messianic Davidic redeemer to descend from her womb, so too will the G*d of Israel today protect and redeem His people in their time of travail as woesome as any in their history.
Shabbat Shalom! Good Shabbos!
© 2000 - 2010 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman
These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen Melman, z"l
Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)
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