Parshat Vayeshav: Genesis 37:1-40:23; Amos 2:6-3:8.
Rabbi Jennifer Lader
As a woman, so often when I read the weekly parshah, I am troubled by the lack of female voices, opinions, bodily autonomy and value in our sacred text.
Our matriarchs, the mothers of our people, are repeatedly acted upon — they are supporting characters in the holy and ancient stories of our people. But this week, we find two women who don’t fit the mold.
First, there’s the nameless wife of Potifar, the Egyptian First Lady, who was so overcome by Joseph’s beauty that she demanded he lie with her. Midrash teaches that she would beg him every day, changing her clothing to entice him, completely distraught over his restraint. She throws him in prison for his lack of desire for her. There he begins to dream his prophetic dreams once again.
Then, we meet Tamar, a young widow who needs to conceive a child with a man from her deceased husband’s bloodline in order to remarry. Ignoring the ethical implications of this law, which is a commentary for another time, she is failed time and time again by this family. One of her husband’s brothers sleeps with Tamar but spills his seed on the ground, angering God, which leads to his demise. Her father-in-law, Judah, fearing the death of his third son, withholds him from Tamar. Tamar takes matters into her own hands, craftily seducing Judah by disguising herself and becomes pregnant with twins.
These two women were change agents, for better or worse. Mrs. Potifar, through her inappropriate sexual prowess (#metoo, Joseph), drives our hero into harm’s way. Tamar, through her ingenuity, gets what is rightfully hers, despite the constant barriers she encounters created by those closest to her.
These two stories of female-driven seduction are not equal. Tamar is celebrated by our sages for preserving Judah’s dignity and continuing her family line. Mrs. Potifar is cast in a more nefarious light, an example of how sinful lust creates discord between families, leading to disastrous results.
Regardless of the rabbis’ judgments, it is refreshing to me to see women in our text portrayed as human beings, fighting their own fights, living their own lives, playing their own roles and raising their own voices.
Rabbi Jennifer Lader is a rabbi at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.