Caring for the Widow, the Stranger, and the Orphan: Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, we learn about the imperative to care for the vulnerable in our midst (in this case, a widow). We also learn that it is not only appropriate but necessary for our ideas to evolve over time.
In the middle of the story of Joseph, we take a break to learn about Judah and his three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah arranges for his oldest son, Er, to marry Tamar. When Er dies, Judah arranges for Tamar to marry his second son, Onan (Genesis 38:6-8). This arrangement is called “levirate marriage.” In this arrangement, a widow marries the closest male kin (usually her deceased husband’s brother) to hopefully produce a male heir. The child produced by a levirate marriage would take the deceased husband’s place in the line of inheritance.
When his second son, Onan, also dies, Judah is reluctant to have Tamar marry his youngest son. Tamar tricks Judah into getting her pregnant by disguising herself (Genesis 38:15-18). This kind of trickery is not uncommon in biblical narratives. For example, Jacob tricks his father Isaac by disguising himself (Genesis 27) and Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel (Genesis 29).
When Judah finds out that he is the father of Tamar’s child, he proclaims, “She is more in the right than I, for certainly I did not give her to my son, Shelah” (Genesis 38:27). Why does Judah say that Tamar is in the right? Viewed through our modern lens, some may assume that his declaration has to do with sleeping with someone he mistook for a prostitute. It’s not. In context, the real failure here is Judah’s unwillingness to help Tamar produce an heir to Er’s estate. In so doing, he failed as a father-in-law to support his widowed daughter-in-law.
Biblical laws saw to it that widows had a way to gain land titles and every child would belong to a household. The biblical legal system also arranged for brides to be given a significant sum of money if the marriage was dissolved. In biblical times, people accomplished these goals in a formal public ritual before the elders at the gate, so that the arrangements could not be disputed. For the cases that could fall through the cracks, they followed the decree to care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. No one was to be left on the streets. However, widows were not given much choice in levirate marriages, since this level of care was contingent on them participating in the system. We have since refined our understanding of what caring for others should mean to give individuals greater freedom of choice.
The text suggests that it is vitally important to care for the vulnerable in our midst, to see to it that no one is left out in the cold. In much of the Torah, special consideration is given to widows, strangers, and orphans – the most vulnerable populations. Those who fell into these categories were also the most likely to experience poverty.
Our methods of looking after vulnerable people have changed, but we still heed the call to advocate on their behalf. For example, my congregation has partnered with those of other faith traditions to establish a community food pantry. We have provided for what the Bible would refer to as “the stranger” (though of course our own communities include immigrants) by partnering with a locally based non-profit organization to aid immigrants. Like many Reform congregations, our efforts toward social action are in direct response to this injunction.
Tamar had operated within the bounds of the law. Her actions were both legally acceptable and morally appropriate in her culture. She is also not the only one in the Torah to engage in levirate marriage through less-than-obvious means. We see a similar situation in the story of Ruth (Ruth 3-4). Both Tamar and Ruth are widows and strangers. They both engage in socially sanctioned practices to achieve righteous ends, and enjoy a happy ending surrounded by their families and communities.
This week’s portion teaches us that it is acceptable and appropriate for societal norms to evolve. Though marriage still affects inheritance and property rights, most people in western cultures now marry for love and to create a bond of mutual support.
This narrative also reiterates that it is our responsibility to support the vulnerable members of our community and ensure that they are given support and care.
Finally, we learn that we benefit when we include and affirm the marginalized in our midst. For example, both Tamar and Ruth are part of the lineage of King David. King David, in turn, is our link to the messianic age. By welcoming the stranger, we bring redemption closer. This is why Reform congregations strive to emphasize inclusiveness and belonging. It’s not only a biblical imperative, it’s the moral thing to do.