Parshas VaYeishev – A G-dly Nation

By Avner Friedmann

The Parshah of this week records the incident of Yehudah and Tamar. Yehudah’s son Er was married to Tamar and died childless. Yehudah’s second son Onan performed levirate marriage (Yibum) with Tamar and also died childless. Fearing for the life of his third son Sheilah, Yehudah delayed giving Tamar to him through Yibum. Realizing that Yehudah would not allow Sheilah to marry her, Tamar had no alternative but to trick Yehudah into performing Yibum himself. Posing as a harlot so that Yehudah would not recognize her, Tamar lured Yehudah into a “relationship” and she conceived. Yehudah was informed of her pregnancy, and being the local judge, he sentenced her to death through burning, for having had an illicit relationship.

Tamar could have saved herself by stating the truth about who the father of her child was, but this would have publicly humiliated Yehudah. To avoid doing so, she sent him a sign known only to him and her. Immediately prior to execution, she sent him the personal articles that he had given her as pledge for payment, which conclusively identified him as the father. She did this with the hope that he would acknowledge the truth of what happened and reverse the death sentence, as written,[1] “As she was taken out (to be executed), she sent word (through messengers) to her father-in-law, saying, ‘I am with child by the man who these items belong to.’” She was prepared to die rather than publicly shame Yehudah.

From this the Talmud[2] infers that “One should let himself be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than to humiliate his fellow in public.” The Talmud then adds,[3] “Anyone who humiliates his fellow in public, it is as if he has spilled his blood,” meaning, it is tantamount to murdering him. The blood that rushes from one’s face at the moment of humiliation is like blood bleeding from his body and therefore is considered to be a “small death.” His face loses the image of G-d, just as what happens when a person dies.[4]

The Talmud[5] relates an incident concerning Mar Ukva, the head o the Rabbinical Court and one of the greatest scholars of his generation, who was very careful not to embarrass the recipient of his charity. There was a poor neighbor whom he supported.  Every day Mar Ukva would drop four zuzim near the poor man’s doorstep, but the neighbor did not know who it came from.

One day, Mar Ukva was delayed at the study hall. It became dark and his wife accompanied him. That evening the neighbor decided to wait and find out, once and for all, who his benefactor was. As soon as he saw the Rabbi and his wife dropping money at his doorstep, he came out. To keep their identity secret, thus sparing him embarrassment, they ran away. Mar Ukva and his wife hid in an oven. The coals had been removed from the oven, but it was still extremely hot, so much so, that Mar Ukva’s feet were burned. About this incident our Sages stated, “It is better for a person to surrender himself into a fiery furnace than to shame his fellow in public.”

However, if a person throws himself into a fiery furnace, isn’t it tantamount to committing suicide, Heaven forbid, no matter what the motive? As known, there are three cardinal sins mentioned in the Torah for which one should give up his life, rather commit them. These are

a)      The worship of idols

b)      Committing adultery

c)      Murder

Shaming one’s fellow in public is not counted amongst them. However, our Sages considered it to be so egregious that they felt that one should avoid embarrassing a fellow Jew in public at all cost.[6]

We also find this principle when Yosef encountered his brothers in Egypt.[7] Before revealing his true identity to his brothers, he instructed every else who was present to exit the room, so that he could be alone with them, as the Torah states,[8] “Now, Yosef could not restrain himself in the presence of all who stood before him, so he called out, ‘Remove everyone from before me!’” Yosef was the Viceroy of Egypt who always had body guards, and by doing this he exposed himself to assassination. However, he thought to himself “I would rather be killed, than to embarrass my brothers in the presence of others.”

Even in a place where rebuke is called for, the Torah teaches us to do so in a private and in a gentle manner, as scripture states:[9] “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him.” This means that even if he wronged you, think of him as your brother and be careful not to sin by humiliating or embarrassing him, and certainly not in the presence of others.[10] This mitzvah is a negative commandment,[11] because, as Sefer HaChinuch points out, there is no greater anguish than the anguish of humiliation and shame.

The Talmud states that one “should” let himself be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than embarrass his fellow. However, it does not say that he “must.” This is because this is not a natural tendency that a person is born with. It comes through working on oneself and developing self-discipline and conviction. Rather, such a selfless act is above our nature and requires self-nullification, devotion and sublimation to HaShem though the Torah. Only through Torah can we literally change our nature and become truly refined and G-dly people.

May it be HaShem’s will that all Israel become G-dly people and a light unto the nations with the true and complete redemption through our righteous Moshiach. Amen




[1] Bereshit 38:25.

[2] Babah Metziah 58b-59a. Sotah 10b, Ketubot 67b.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sefer Chidushei Agadot, Chelek 2, page 43.

[5] Ketubot 67b.

[6] Pnei Yehoshua on Babah Metziah.

[7] Sefer Kad Hakemach from our Sages.

[8] Bereshit 45:1.

[9] Vayikra 19:17.

[10] Rashi on the verse, and Gemara in Arachin 16b.

[11]Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzva #240.

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