Posts Tagged 'Vayeshev'

On Yehuda & Tamar: Crafting a Culture of Consent

In VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the side story for the Yakov’s children. Most of it follows the trials and tribulations of Yosef. We take a break from this narrative and we learn about Yehuda’s family. He has three sons Er, Onan, and Shelah. His eldest marries a women named Tamar. Er dies and then Onan marries her only to die as well. Yehuda believes she has killed two of his sons, and subjugates her so that she is unable to remarry. However, she ultimately tricks Yehuda into impregnating her and therefore secures her place in the family. There we read:

So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the “entrance to eyes” which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. When Yehuda saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road and said, “Here, let me sleep with you”—for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. “What,” she asked, “will you pay for sleeping with me?” He replied, “I will send a kid from my flock.” But she said, “You must leave a pledge until you have sent it.” And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry.” So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she conceived by him. Then she went on her way. She took off her veil and again put on her widow’s garb.

Genesis 38:14-19

Yehuda then sent his friend to redeem the pledge only to not be able to find the mystery harlot. Three months later, it becomes clear that Tamar is pregnant. It was an embarrassment to the family that despite being in mourning after the death of Onan she would have stepped out and is pregnant. Yehuda proclaims that she should be burned. When they bring her forward, she presents his cord and staff which he gave her as collateral. Yehuda recognized them, and says, “She is more in the righteous than me, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” ( Genesis 38: 26). And Yehuda was not intimate with her again.

There is a ton to unpack from this story. For now I just wanted to offer a reading of this story through the lens of Dr. Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan’s book Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on College Campus. This book transforms how we understand and address sexual assault. Through intimate portraits of life and sex among today’s college students, they present an entirely new way to understand sexual assault. Their insights transcending current debates about consent, predators in a “hunting ground,” or the dangers of hooking up. Sexual Citizens reveals the social ecosystem that makes sexual assault a predictable element of life on a college campus. The powerful concepts of sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies, provide a new language for understanding the forces that shape young people’s sexual relationships. The result transforms our understanding of sexual assault and provides a new roadmap for how to address it.

How does focusing on sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies impact our reading of the Yehuda and Tamar story? Different people have sex to satisfy a diversity of interests. This is what Hirsch and Khan mean by sexual project. Clearly Tamar and Yehuda consenting to have sex together, but it is very clear that they did share the same sexual project.

Sexual citizenship is the assumption that their are basic rights that both parties have regardless of the situation. At the start Yehuda has power and Tamar does not. She is stuck. Clearly Yehuda did not see the harlot for who. But this underscores that even without the costume he did not did not see Tamar for who she was. It is also telling that he “buys” sex with his cord and staff, the symbols of his citizenship. When she presents him with these he has to admit that she is more righteous than he is. He has to admit that they both need their rights as sexual citizens.

And finally Hirsch and Khan discuss sexual geographies. How do simple things like the lay of the land advantage or disadvantage people regarding their entering into a sexual experiment. Tamar clear put herself out there at a place called “entrance to eyes”. Clearly this whole affair was an eye opening experience for Yehuda. There is so much to explore here. The nuances of this entire story of Yehuda and Tamar and the ideas shared in Sexual Citizens is eye opening to all of us as we work on crafting a culture of consent.

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Benefit Mindset: Yehudah as a Role Model

We live in extraordinary times. Everyone is facing complex challenges they haven’t faced before. From Covid to climate change, mental health to systemic injustice, what’s clear is that no individual or institution can transform these issues on their own. Our ability to respond – and break through to a world that works for all life – requires something more than everyone’s best personal efforts. Bringing about meaningful change requires us to get past the cult of “me” and build a sense of a “we.” We need to align a diversity of contributions and become partners in the wellbeing of all. And our ability to actualize this possibility requires a profound shift in mindset. We need to cultivate a benefit mindset.

Developed by Ash Buchanan in collaboration with a global community of contributors, benefit mindset is grounded in the understanding that fulfilling our potential is about more than how smart, driven or growth oriented we are. More completely, it is about how well we are able to transform how we come to understand our place in the world, compassionately attend to our individual and collective shadows, and become partners in the wellbeing of all people and all living beings. While a growth mindset has many advantages over a fixed mindset ( see Carol Dweck here), what truly makes us thrive is our capacity to realize our potential in a way that nurtures our uniqueness and serves the wellbeing, not only of humans, but the entire community of life.

A benefit mindset builds on a growth mindset, when we understand that our abilities can be developed – and we also understand we can transform towards a more caring, inclusive and interdependent perspective.

While there is more to explore around a Benefit Mindset, I wanted to share it this week as we read Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about Yehudah selflessly stepping forward to save his brother Benjamin. There we read:

Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.

Genesis 44:33

At this point he has no idea that he is standing in front of his brother Yosef who he and his brothers had sold into slavery.

A few week’s ago Yehudah stepped forward to save his brother from fratricide. While Yehudah did save his brother from death, his words are haunting. There we read:

Then Yehudah said to his brothers, “What is the benefit by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed.

Genesis 37: 26-27

Yehudah’s argument to save his brother is to make a buck. They stand to benefit by selling him. Yehudah and his brothers had lost their moral compass, integrity, and identity. This stands in sharp contrast to what we see here when he has the chance to save brother. It is clear that he has nothing to benefit himself stepping forward. Here he steps into leadership by exemplifying this Benefit Mindset. It is not hard to imagine Yehudah standing before Yosef with an open heart and a grounded sense of his identity. At this moment he knows exactly who he is, who they are, and why he must stand up for Benjamin. Yehudah steps forward as am authentically engaged global citizen. In many ways this Benefit Mindset is reciprocated by Yosef who also steps forward to relieve his hidden identity and save his family.

Yehudah is far from perfect, but that itself makes him an ideal role model for the Jewish people. We took his name as ours- Yehudim. We strive to be Benefit Mindset people.

-See other articles on Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset:

High School Vanity

Years ago my mother, a psychologist for over 50 years, told me that the greatest period of growth for most people is between their Senior Prom and coming home for Thanksgiving during their freshman year in college. Over Thanksgiving I was up at my mother’s house in the Berkshires and I took a look at my senior high school yearbook. Who was I at that moment over a quarter century ago?  In the middle of the period I had a transformational experience as a Junior Counselor at Jewish summer camp. Here amidst a period that could be seen as incredibly turbulent I was responsible for a bunk of a dozen 15 year-old boys.  At the moment of extreme vanity I was given the opportunity to give of myself fully to other people. In this process of giving I could start to imagine the person that I wanted to become.  What a gift?

Image may contain: one or more people

I was thinking about this age this week reading Vayashev, this week’s Torah portion. There at the begining we read:

Now Yakov was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. This, then, is the line of Yakov: At seventeen years of age, Yosef tended the flocks with his brothers, and he, being a lad to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Yosef brought bad reports of them to their father. ( Genesis 37:1-2)

Here we meet Yosef as this age and he is interacting with his brothers. To explain what it meant to be a lad Rashi brings a midrash:

His actions were childish: he dressed his hair, he touched up his eyes so that he should appear good-looking (Genesis Rabbah 84:7).

Giving a bad report on his brothers Yosef is not a person of character. He is vain and self absorbed. He is a young person who is more interested in how he appears to be than who is he is.

Looking at the vanity manifest my yearbook page it is not hard to imagine the self important quotes and overly curated picture that Yosef would have chosen to put on his yearbook. What would Yosef’s life have looked like if instead of looking after the flocks with his older brothers he was given a bunk of children to counsel?


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