Is everything predetermined or does a person have complete free will? Are we truly in control of our lives, or is it our spiritual and genetic predispositions? Find out in this class where we also discuss time travel and the “grandfather paradox”, nature vs. nurture, and if there is a “religion gene” that makes some people have more faith.
In the midst of relaying the saga of Joseph, this week’s parasha takes a detour to explore what was happening with Yehudah at the same time. As is well-known, Yehudah married a Canaanite woman referred to as Bat Shua and had three sons. His eldest, Er, then married a woman named Tamar. After Er passed away young and childless due to his sins, Tamar had to marry his brother Onan to fulfil the law of yibum, or “levirate marriage”. The sinful second son also died shortly after, so Tamar had to marry the third, Shelah. However, Yehudah innocently believed that his two older sons may have died because of something wrong with Tamar, and wanted to avoid another levirate marriage to spare his remaining child.
Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands. She dressed up as a harlot and managed to seduce Yehudah himself. Tamar got pregnant from that union and gave birth to the twins Peretz and Zerach. From Peretz would eventually descend King David and, in turn, Mashiach. What Tamar had done out of desperation might be understandable on some level, but it does not change the fact that she did something completely immoral. In fact, Yehudah himself initially condemned her to death, before learning that he had been tricked by his own daughter-in-law. God always makes sure to mete out punishment measure-for-measure, and souls need a perfectly balanced rectification, or tikkun. Where did Tamar’s soul find her rectification?
This week’s parasha, Toldot, begins with the births of the twins Jacob and Esau. Their mother, Rebecca, felt trouble brewing in her womb, and received prophecy that “two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will emerge from your innards” (Genesis 25:23). Jacob, of course, is the forefather of the Jewish people, while Esau would become the spiritual progenitor of the Roman Empire, and then the entire Christian world as a whole (see ‘How Esau Became Rome’).
The Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) comments on the above verse that the words shnei goyim b’vitnekh (שני גוים בבטנך), “two nations are in your womb”, has the same gematria as “this is Rabbi Yehuda and Antoninus” (זה רבי יהודה ואנטונינוס). Recall that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was the president of Israel in the 2nd century CE, and is credited with composing the Mishnah, the first complete corpus of Jewish law, while Antoninus was a Roman official who was his close friend. The Ba’al haTurim is telling us that there is a profound connection between these two sets of people that are separated by nearly two millennia. What is the connection between the pair of Jacob and Esau, and the pair of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi and Antoninus? Continue reading