From Rebbetzin Eve Ilsen: This story was conceived and performed for the weekend on Joseph and his brothers at the original Wisdom School that Reb Zalman and I did together–I believe in 1989-1990 at Fellowship House Farm in Pennsylvania. First Reb Zalman spoke as Yehudah, at a sulkhah meal between all the brothers. Then I spoke as Tamar.
I am Tamar.
Perhaps you read my story, the story of myself and Yehudah. And if you did, you might believe that it has only to do with lineage, with who finally gave birth to whom all the way down the line, so that you get a sense of the dubious ancestry of the Messiah. You could read all that and never realize that it was a love story. It was a love story. I’ll tell you.
I was very young when he came into my father’s tent to buy a bride. I was so young that my family hadn’t really set a bride price. But I remember the day that he came into the tent because the day Yehudah entered the tent was the day I woke up.
You know how this is when you’re young – there are no words for it – it overtakes you. I didn’t know what it meant for years. But I looked at this man – he had the fierceness of the desert, and a certain tenderness about him. And a nobility that I thought I could see that made me feel that he was someone I could honour and trust, and who I was not afraid to engage in battle or in love. And I felt like he was the reason I had been born and so I left in joy from my parents’ tent. To go to a far settlement, to go to his encampment.
All of me said YES to this man, and when I entered the marriage tent, there was someone else there before me. It was his oldest son, Eir. No one had thought to tell me. Certainly no one had thought to ask me. And I married Eir, and we had … a marriage … of sorts. He was not a bad man. He was not his father. We had no children, and when he died, I was sad for him because he was so young, but for myself I was not sorry. But you know what the law was: and that was that if a man died without having children, it was the duty of his next brother to marry the widow, and to beget children in the name of the deceased, and to raise them up in the name of the deceased, so that they could inherit his portion.
And so before I knew it I was married to his brother Onan. I already knew from watching that Onan had more fire than Eir. He was a brutal and selfish man who would use a woman for his own pleasure and not give her any fulfilment of any sort. Least of all he made sure not to fulfill me with children that might cut into his inheritance. And so when he died, I was neither sad nor sorry.
I was sent as a widow back to live with my parents. And it was a relief to leave that heat … that I felt every time that I looked at Yehudah. I never looked at him straight in the face because I was afraid that he might see in my eyes what I felt, or maybe he was afraid I might see as well. I don’t really know.
But I was to wait in my parents’ tent until the youngest son, Shelah, had finally grown into enough of a man to marry me, by that time an older widow. And I waited. And I waited. And Shelah did grow up but then he was not given to me.
Let me tell you what destiny feels like in a woman. It does not come from here. It comes from the core. The year that we heard that Yehudah’s wife had died, we also heard that he would be coming our way, on the way to the sheep shearing.
I wasn’t aware of what I was doing. My body took me. And it took me very craftily. When no one was in the tent I got out of my widow’s robes and put on my old embroidered robes and a veil. Because the face of a kadeisha – of a holy woman – is always veiled. She is not representing herself – she is representing the holiness of life, the holiness of life’s love for itself, of the attraction that draws us to each other, that draws God down into this Earth.
And it was the Canaanite custom that during this season that a man would go and be with a kadeisha … for holy love. I veiled my face and I stood by the side of the road, where I was sure somehow he would pass. I also knew he was an Israelite, not a Canaanite, and he wouldn’t really be prepared for this. But, his wife had died the year before.
I willed him with all of my being to come to me. And he did.
And so when I asked him What price will you give me? He said, A kid – a kid from the flock. Is that sufficient? And I said That is very honourable – thank you. And what pledge will you leave with me until you will redeem it with the kid because I see you haven’t brought him with you? He was quite flustered at that point and said What would you want? And I said, Well what about the signature seal on the cord around your neck, and your staff? That will do.
And so he gave them to me without a thought. And I led him into the small shelter, and in that shelter, in that shelter, I knew what I had been living for all those years, and it was him. And him alone. He was a man who could give himself utterly unto a woman, and receive utterly what I had to give him. And I knew, as we looked into each other’s eyes, that I could see into his soul, and that this was a holy man, and that for that moment I was indeed a kadeisha, a holy woman. And that what we were doing with each other was a holy act.
He left me gently, and I took his staff and seal. I went back into my parents’ tent, and back into my widow’s clothing with what he had really given me as well.
In three months what he had given me could not be hidden. And for a woman who is promised to another man, to be pregnant was a shameful thing and the law decreed death for that.
So I knew that one day this would happen. And one day they came for me in my father’s tent and they dragged me out to the city gates where the elders would sit in judgment for any case. I prepared as best I could because I knew that I did not know whether I would live or die that day.
They presented me to Yehudah, who was still legally responsible for me, and said Your daughter-in-law seems to have played a harlot and she’s pregnant. What do you want to do? He barely looked at me. He sighed, and he said You know the law. Take her out and burn her.
I did not do this purposely, I did not plan this. I quickly took his staff and his signet seal, and I held them forward. I could easily have said These are yours, and shamed him. But what was coming out of my mouth, although I knew that my life hung in the balance, was The man whose these are is the father. Do you perhaps know them? He looked at his own staff and seal and he looked past them into my eyes, and he saw me, and he saw the kadeisha, and he knew everything. And in that moment he said She has been more righteous than me! I did not give her my son Shelah. Free her!
When we left the city gates, I did not go back to my parents’ tent; I went back to the tent of Yehudah. We had twins.
And the last line that is written of our story … is very ambiguous. Some read it
And he never again knew her.
And others read it
And he never again ceased knowing her.
This is a love story and I won’t tell. You choose.