Step up and take some responsibility.
It’s tempting to see the story of Judah and Tamar as a “strong woman takes on male-dominated society” tale. Although that’s true, it’s really about accountability, taking responsibility, getting nailed when you try to weasel out of your promises, and publicly acknowledging your mistakes. What a concept, eh?
Here’s the story: You remember, Judah, son #2 of Joseph, one of the guys who tossed their little brother Joseph into a pit, then sold him to slavery, only to come begging for food from him when he was a hot shot in Egypt? Check out the movie or musical if you can’t remember the other details. Anyway, here’s the gist: Judah moves away from home, marries, has three sons, and marries off his eldest to a woman named Tamar. Son #1 dies before they have kids. Following the law, Judah hands second son over to Tamar, and he also dies. Still no grandkids. Judah is wary of handing over the youngest to his daughter-in-law, though he knows that’s the right thing to do. Instead, he sends Tamar home to wait for the youngest to grow up enough to marry her. Meanwhile, Judah is widowed, and starts hanging around with his buddies to rekindle his social life. Tamar gets wind of the fact that youngest brother is now of age, yet she’s yet to hear a word from Judah. So, she takes off her widow-garb, throws on prostitute-garb, and waits for Judah to wander by. He does, but doesn’t recognize her. They “engage”, but oops, he doesn’t have the cash to pay her. He promises to come by the next day and pay up. No fool, Tamar says ok, but Judah has to leave her his identifying stuff: signet ring, staff and belt as collateral. She goes home, puts back on the widow-garb. Judah (to his credit) comes by the next day, but can’t find her. Three months later, he hears that his widowed daughter-in-law is pregnant, hauls her out of the house and is ready to condemn her to death for her behavior. “Not so fast”, she says, “my baby is fathered by the guy who owns this stuff”, and promptly produces what is immediately recognized by Judah as his collateral. He pardons her, publicly apologizes for not having given her what was her due, and she gives birth to twins.
It’s not just that Tamar was standing up for her rights; she risked everything to speak out and hold the guilty accountable. She was speaking truth to power, just as surely as Abraham did when he argued with God about Sodom and Gemorrah.
It’s worth noting that Judah went on to become the name-sake leader of the Israelites. We are Jew-dahs, Yehudim, led by Yehuda, Judah. His history with Tamar is not exactly leadership material. I mean, based on what he did, why would we count this man as not only among our honored ancestors, but whose name we actually took on as an identifier? It’s not because of what he did to Tamar. It’s because of how he behaved when Tamar took him to task. It’s because of what he got from Tamar – a big, public helping of responsibility, which he ate up. You go, girl.
There are a lot of brave people these days who are risking shelter and security, life and limb to hold their leaders accountable. And it’s not just political leaders; it’s economic leaders who have, for far too long, been totally unaccountable for the havoc they wrought. Like Tamar, many of us were stored out of sight, while the one(s) holding the power went on with life untouched. We were sent home to put on our mourning garb, bemoaning our fate and failure, when like Tamar, the system under which we were told to flourish was stacked against us. Is it as simple as Judah and Tamar? No, but it’s close. Profligate deregulation, unchecked greed and tax loopholes have led to an ever-widening gap between those who flourish and those who can’t find a toe-hole, much less a loophole.
Tamar demanded that Judah fix what he had broken. Judah didn’t hide or make excuses, learning the lesson of great leaders. We are demanding, out on the streets; who is great enough to learn those lessons now?