Tamar’s Spiritual Journey

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.

Rembrandt’s ‘Judah and Tamar’

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?

Palm Tree of Devorah

When we look at what Tamar had done, we find that her sin was twofold: First was dressing up as a harlot and sitting immodestly on the street, b’petach einaim, a double entendre that means both “at the gates of [the town of] Einaim”, but also that she was literally “open to the eye” as a harlot. The second sin was actually seducing her father-in-law, which later in the Torah would be commanded as one of the incestuous prohibitions (Leviticus 20:12). Each of these sins required a separate rectification.

In his Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot (Letter Tav, #3), a textbook on reincarnation based on the teachings of the Arizal, the Rama miFano (Rabbi Menachem Azariah de Fano, 1548-1620) points out something incredible. He begins by stating that “Tamar is Deborah” (תמר היא דבורה). Devorah was the reincarnation of Tamar, and her tikkun for sitting immodestly b’petach einaim was to sit modestly under the palm tree to teach Torah and judge Israel justly! The Tanakh alludes to this by saying that Devorah had to sit specifically under a palm tree, tomer, which is spelled exactly the same way as Tamar (תמר).

What about the second sin? For this, we turn to another ancient mystical text, Sefer haBahir (#197). Here we are told that the Tamar of this week’s parasha is the same as the later Tamar, daughter of King David. Recall that David’s son Amnon was infatuated with his half-sister Tamar, and ended up concocting a ruse to seduce her (II Samuel 13). Thus, we see a measure-for-measure punishment for the first Tamar: just as Tamar tricked Yehudah into an inappropriate relationship, she was (in a future incarnation as another “Tamar”) in turn tricked by Amnon into an inappropriate relationship!

Now, the incestuous relationship between Amnon and Tamar itself needed a rectification. The Rama miFano (Letter Yud, #14) explains that, indeed, there was such a rectification much later in history. In Gitin 58a, the Talmud tells a story about the children of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha. Rabbi Ishmael was a kohen gadol, one of the last high priests in the Second Temple before its destruction by the Romans. The Romans went on to execute Rabbi Ishmael, and he is one of the tragic Ten Martyrs of Israel (for an in-depth analysis of the Ten Martyrs, see ‘The Ten Martyrs & the Message of Yom Kippur’ in Garments of Light, Volume Two).

Rabbi Ishmael’s young children, a son and daughter, were sold into slavery. They ended up in different households, far away from each other, and both grew up to be exceedingly beautiful. One day, their slave masters met and boasted of their extraordinary subjects. They decided to breed their slaves and produce beautiful offspring. The slave masters brought the son and daughter of Rabbi Ishmael together. The children did not know that they were siblings. Nonetheless, they abstained from engaging in intercourse, instead crawling into a corner and crying at being in such a terrible predicament. For this act of abstinence, they rectified the sin of Amnon and Tamar, of whom they were the reincarnations!

As for the original Tamar in this week’s parasha, her tikkun was not yet complete.

Wife of Hoshea, Wife of Mar Ukva

The Rama miFano continues to tell us about the incredible spiritual journey of Tamar’s soul. For her gross misconduct in pretending to be a harlot, a small spark of Tamar returned in the body of an actual, full-fledged harlot: Gomer, the wife of Hoshea the Prophet. Recall, that God bizarrely instructed the prophet Hoshea to go and marry an unchaste woman (Hosea 1:2). He found the most beautiful harlot of all, Gomer (note how her name, גמר, is very similar to Tamar, תמר). Hoshea married her and they had three children.

Ultimately, God commanded the prophet to abandon his wife, but Hoshea could not bring himself to do so. The whole thing was meant to be symbolic of how Israel, God’s “bride”, is unfaithful to Him, but God always takes Israel back. In the same way that Hoshea loved his faithless wife deeply and did not want to abandon her, God loves Israel deeply and never abandons His people.

The Rama does not say that Gomer was a complete reincarnation of Tamar, but only contained a spark of her soul. Nonetheless, it rectified that aspect of posing as, and acting like, a harlot. Tamar had only done so with the intention of becoming a foremother of “kings and prophets” (Letter Bet, #2). As Gomer, she was able to directly marry a prophet, and give birth to children who were each given a specific prophetic name by God (Hosea 1:4-9). Each child served as a vehicle of prophecy.

The Rama mentions a few other women that contained a spark of Tamar. The last and most intriguing was the wife of the sage Mar Ukva, who himself contained a spark of Yehudah (Letter Mem, #13). The Talmud (Ketubot 67b) relates that Mar Ukva and his wife were generously charitable and would give a poor neighbour four dinars every day in secret. One day, the neighbour wanted to find out who it was that gave him all the money, and was waiting to spot the donors. When Mar Ukva and his wife realized they were being watched, they quickly fled to protect their identity—and jumped into what turned out to be a furnace! The fire had been put out but the coals were still burning hot. Mar Ukva’s feet were singed, but his wife was completely unharmed, so she told her husband to stand on her feet.

Later, Mar Ukva was distraught and could not understand why his wife was even more meritorious than him. Why was she blessed with a miracle, and not he? She answered that her charity was usually in the form of food that she cooked, while his was in the form of money. A warm delicious meal is more precious to a pauper than cold, hard cash! The Talmud goes on to conclude that, because Mar Ukva and his wife were so careful to avoid potentially embarrassing a pauper, it is better for a person to jump into a furnace than to embarrass another.

The Talmud then says that we really learn this from Tamar, who was willing to be executed rather than reveal that the father of her children was Yehudah, which would embarrass him publicly. The Rama adds that the mystical secret here is that the wife of Mar Ukva really contained the spark of Tamar. For her mitzvah in not embarrassing Yehudah publicly, she merited a good life as the wife of Mar Ukva, enjoying a household of great wealth and honour, and experiencing a tremendous personal miracle. With this, the long spiritual journey of Tamar comes to a happy ending.