A Tale of Two Women
A Shavuot Shiur
During the launch of the new Koren-Sacks Shavuot Machzor, Rabbi Sacks delivered a keynote shiur on 7th June 2016 to a packed room in Finchley United Synagogue in London. Co-hosted by Koren Publishers, the Living and Learning Department of the United Synagogue, and the London School of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Sacks talked about the similarities between Ruth and Tamar, and what we can learn, from their experiences, about our identity as a Jewish people.
Wow. I think I should retire more often. Friends, it is such a privilege to be with you. Rabbi Lawrence, Dayan Binstock, Rabbi Laitner, Rabbi Dr. Rafi Zarum, Rebbetzein Epstein. It is an enormous privilege and boost to my self-image that even briefly, I shared shelf space with Jeffrey Archer. You’ve fulfilled a lifetime ambition, Rebbetzein Epstein, and really, it’s been a privilege and it is doubly so, to be able to launch this, the last of the machzorim. All five have now been completed.
To launch it here in the Finchley community, where I began my journey here in cheder. And if any of you feel a little Jewishly challenged, please take comfort from the fact that my brothers all did better than me at cheder, but you just keep trying and eventually you climb the ladder.
But I have such warm memories of this community, it’s where my journey began. And of course, fond memories of now chief Rabbi Mirvis and all that he has done for this community. And it’s great to be with you, but doubly so, a privilege to be able to collaborate with two remarkable people, Linda and Michael Weinstein. We thank you for sponsoring this machzor, especially for choosing to do so in honour and memory of your late parents, beloved Stella and Ernest Weinstein, and Nelly and Solo Greenberg of blessed memory.
You were wonderful children to them and you’ve cherished their memory. And I pray may all the davening that is done using this machzor bring nachat ruach to their souls in heaven. And we hope they are smiling at this way, that you are keeping their spirit and their memory alive. Thank you so much.
Personal thanks to the man who has been my Rav for 20 years, where are you Dayan Binstock? I’ve lost you – there you are – who has single handedly saved Minhag Anglia. You have no idea how important this is. First of all, Minhag Anglia is our cherished treasure, and we felt we were losing it at a certain point in time, about 10 years ago.
And we said we must bring it back, and it has been Dayan Binstock’s incredible erudition that has saved Minhag Anglia for posterity. And I have to tell you that in most cases, Minhag Anglia is just a beautiful Minhag, it really is. It’s clear, it doesn’t have you reading endless reams of things that you don’t understand.
It is very halachically pure, and Dayan Binstock, we salute you for your leadership, for your scholarship and please let us hear a round of applause for Dayan Binstock.
To Matthew Miller and all the team at Koren. You have absolutely, through Koren, through Maggid, revolutionised Jewish publishing in a remarkably short time and with great and vast scope. And Matthew, you have really become the revolutionary behind what in America, they call Modern Orthodoxy. We don’t call it Modern Orthodoxy. We call it Inclusive Orthodoxy, which I hold by because having gone around the world, I still believe that is nothing as beautiful as the United Synagogue ideal, which is also incidentally the Sephardi ideal of including everyone in the community. And that makes our communities, frankly more generous, more open and even more spiritual.
So thank you, Matthew, for all you’ve done for publishing – special thanks! I know it’s invidious to mention anyone, but since I’ve retired and you can’t really get at me, you will forgive me if I single out our niece, Jessica Sacks, who has done the most beautiful translations you will ever find of all the Megillah and there is poetry there, which Jessica has brought. And we thank her in absentia as she’s living in Yerushalayim and just become a mother. And we thank Jessica for that.
There’s so much to talk about on Shavuot, forgive me if I don’t do up my jacket, but I’m carrying three microphones! I wonder why exactly, just to make sure that everything I say is non-deniable, I suspect, but I thought I’d just focus for one moment on a single strand of Shavuot which I think is really important. And that is the Megillah we read, the book of Ruth. And it’s fascinating that if you look at, if you were ordering the books of the Bible, where would you put Ruth?
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a look at a non-Jewish Bible. I said the Hebrew Bible Tanach and the old Testament just happened to be two completely different books that just happened to contain the same words, but they are different because their order is different. In Judaism, we order the books of Tanach depending on the degree of holiness, the quality of inspiration. So Torah, direct word, the word of God to man. Nevi’im, the Prophets, the word of God through man and Ketubim, the words of human beings to God. And that’s why the book of Ruth appears in Ketubim. But if you were just ordering them chronologically, where would you place the book?
It comes after Shoftim. And before Sefer Shmuel, the end of the Book of Judges, the beginning of the book, the four books of Kings, Samuel I and II Kings I and II, because it begins by vayehi bimai hashoftim. It came to pass in the days when the judges judge, and it ends with the birth of Israel’s greatest King, David Hamelech. Now, if I were to ask you in terms of its subject matter, which other book of the Bible does it most remind you of, because it’s not about dramatic political events or grand miracles, like Shemot or Bamidbar, it is not a work of prophecy. Where would, what’s the book that’s most like it? Yeah. Bereishit, because it’s the tale of ordinary human beings demonstrating extraordinary gifts and strength of character, and it is like Bereishit. And the interesting thing is that the same question was asked of both books. Do you remember what Rashi said? The first Rashi on the Torah?
Anyone remember that one? Somebody remember it, because I need a drink of water – the only chance you get for Rabbinical silence. Either you’re drinking water or you’ve just poured it on your hands!
You remember? What is the first Rashi? Oh, come on. You have to help me here. The first Rashi, ‘Amar Rabbi Yitzchaki’, Rabbi Yitzchaki said: the Bible shouldn’t have begun with “Bereishit bara Elokim”, with God creating the universe.
The Torah means Torah, a book of laws. What was the first law given to Israel? Rosh Chodesh, Exodus chapter 12. So that is where the book should have begun. So the question is asked of Bereishit – why was it written?
And Chazal asked the same question on the book of Ruth? This is what they ask. They say “Amar Rabbi Zeira”, (Rabbi Zeira said), “Megillah Zu”, (this scroll), “ein ba lo tumah, velo taharah, velo issur, velo heter.” (It contains no laws of any consequence. Not pure, impure, permitted, forbidden.) “Velamar nichtavah?” (Why was it written?) “Lelamedechah kamah s’char tov legomli chassidim” (To tell you of the reward of those people who perform acts of kindness.) (Rut Rabbah 2:14)
Now, if you think about that, here are two books very similar in tone, very similar in subject matter – two books about which Rabbis asked, why should they have been included at all?
And let me read to you a little passage from the book of Ruth and ask you, what does it remind you of? It says “Vaya’an Boaz,” (this is the first time Boaz and Ruth meet, and Boaz says to Ruth,) “hoogaid hoogad li kol asher asseet et-chamotaich acharei mot ishaich”, it’s been told to me all you did for your mother-in-law after your husband died, “vatta’azvi avich v’imaich” and you left your father and your mother, “v’eretz moladetaich” and the land of your birth, “vattailchi” and you travelled to a people that you didn’t know before. (Ruth 2:11) What passage does that remind you of? Avraham! Exactly! ‘Leave,’ – lech lecha ma’artzecha memoladeticha mibeit avicha. (Gen. 12:1) Avraham leaves all that is familiar to him, environmentally and humanly and sets out on a journey. Ruth does exactly the same thing. She leaves her family and her land and sets out on an unknown journey. Ruth is a kind of female counterpart of Avraham Avinu.
And I think, we now understand why the book of Ruth is there and how it relates to Bereishit. Bereishit is a prelude to the birth of the Jewish people Bereishit is a book about family throughout. It’s the family of Avraham and Sarah – it’s a family book. It is the prelude to the birth of the nation. Ruth is a prelude to the birth of the kingdom. Until Ruth, Israel has been…I don’t know how many y’s there are in Scrabble, but here’s a good word that you might use in a crossword puzzle a,m,p,h,i,c,t,y,o,n,y, and amphictyony is a federation of tribes. Okay? You never knew that word, did you? It’s a good word. You know, if you’ve got all those y’s, it gets rid of them. So Ruth is a prelude from a tribal society which is not a unified nation to the birth of Israel as a memshalah, as a kingdom, as a united body of politics. So we have these two preludes. And they are telling us something terribly, terribly important – that even though the rest of the Torah is about the birth of Israel as a nation, and even though the books of Shmuel and Malachim are about the birth of Israel as a kingdom, intensely political books. Nonetheless, the fact that the book of Bereishit is there and the book of Ruth is there, is telling us of the primacy of the personal over the political.
Don’t believe you can just run politics by politics alone. A society depends on acts of kindness and generosity and moral strength because without those human values told in simple stories of families and their travails and the strength that gets you through those travails, they are the things that matter. And that is why Bereishit is so important, why Ruth is so important, because when all the politics are finished, though Jewish politics are never finished, nonetheless it is human moral values that count most of all. Don’t try and build a political system without a moral underpinning of love and kindness, within and beyond the family. That’s a very, very profound thing. So that is a setting of the book of Ruth as a whole.
But what is really interesting is this: We go through the whole story of Ruth, and I’m not going to tell you the story, because I don’t want to be, what do they call it on IMDB, “a spoiler”. I’m not going to tell you whodunnit. We’ll leave that to Jeffrey Archer and the Megillah. But here we are. We come towards the end and everyone is comforting Naomi, because, you know, she went full, she came back empty, “Don’t call me Naomi, I’m bitter” and all this thing, and at the end, she has a grandchild. And the people say to her, “Vayomru kol ha’am” – all the people bless her and so on and so forth. And they say to her, “May this woman who came to your house be like Rachel and Leah who built the house of Israel and did great things in Efrata”. “Viyehi veytecha k’veit Peretz asher yaldah Tamar liYehudah.” (Ruth 4:11)
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, at the end of the book, they bless her by saying, “May this child be like Peretz who is born to Tamar and Yehudah”.
What on earth are Tamar and Yehudah doing in this story? Right at the end, they played no part. Peretz!? What’s this got [to do with anything]…? And all of a sudden we realise that the Megillah is saving its biggest surprise to the end, because we now go back to the story of Tamar. What is that story? You remember, it’s told in Bereishit 38, in the middle of the Joseph story. And it begins by saying “Vayehi ba’eit hahee vayered Yehudah may’eit echayv...” “At that time, Judah went down from his brothers, and he planted his tent by…” “ish adulai ushmo Chirah, “[a man], whose name was Chirah. And he married a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua,” and he took her as his wife.(Bereishit 38:1-2)
And you remember what happens? He has three children, Er, Onan and Shaylah, Er marries a local woman [Tamar], presumably Canaanite, (although there are Midrashim, but the plain sense of the word is Canaanite). Er dies, Onan marries Tamar as a form of yibbum, as a form of levirate marriage but clearly does not want her to have a child who will be seen as the child of his dead elder brother. And he does what he does, and dies. And having lost two of his children this way, Judah refuses to let Tamar marry his youngest child, Shaylah, because he doesn’t want… The result is he leaves Tamar as an agunah – somebody who is bound to marry Shaylah, and has not been released, but, at the same time, Shaylah is not willing to marry her, or Judah is not willing to let him marry her. And the result is she is left an agunah, a chained woman and so on. And eventually as you know, she dresses up as a prostitute, stations herself at a particular juncture of the way when Yehudah is coming back from the sheep shearing, he takes her to be a prostitute. He lies with her. She takes his staff and his seal as pledges against payment. Eventually he comes back the next day to pay the sum., but she’s not there and no one’s ever heard of a prostitute in this district. And later it is discovered that Tamar has become pregnant. Judah assumes by some strange person who was not part of the family. Since she’s bound to Shaylah by the laws of levirate marriage, this must be an adulterous union. And he has her brought out and sentenced to death.
And with great tact Tamar, without saying a word, just brings out the staff and the seal and says “I’m pregnant to the one to whom these belong”. And Judah realises in a moment, everything that she has done. He realises, “I am the father”, and at that moment, the future of the family is secured.
Now, do you see any connections between the story of Tamar and the story of Ruth? How do they begin, both stories? By somebody moving away from the rest of the Jewish family. Elimelech and his two sons go to Moav, they leave their people. Judah leaves his brothers. So they begin by a story of moral and physical decline. “Vayered Yehudah,” Judah goes down. Here, as it were, both books begin with the ‘senior male’ as it were, Judah and Elimelech, leaving their people.
Secondly, who are the real movers and shakers in both stories? They’re women. Exactly. They are the ones who make everything happen. Thirdly, of course, they begin with the same narrative. Two sons die. Judah’s two sons, Er and Onan, Elimelech’s two sons, Machlon and Chilion. Then fourthly, the woman is left in both cases as a childless widow, and both of them are unable to undergo the standard form of levirate marriage. In the case of Tamar, because Judah won’t let his third son marry Tamar. And in the case of Ruth, what does Naomi say to Ruth and Orpah? ‘Go back to your family because I’m too old to have any other children. I know that technically, if I were to have another child, you would be bound to marry that child, or he would be bound to marry you, but I’m too old to have children. So go back.’
So they’re about childless widows who are unable somehow to ameliorate their situation in any conventional way. Both Tamar and Ruth are left as widows, they are left as childless. And in both cases, the story turns on a kind of levirate marriage that is non-normative. Are you with me? Because in levirate marriage, yibbum, you marry your brother-in-law. But in the case of Tamar, who does she become pregnant by? Her father-in-law. And as Rambam and the other Rishonim point out, this was the form of levirate marriage before the giving of the Torah. That it wasn’t restricted to brother-in-law but a male within the family. So this was a non-normative form of yibbum and the case of Ruth – again, she’s marrying Boaz. Boaz picks this law up, we don’t know quite where it came from, but if you’re going to buy the field, you’ve got to marry the woman. No one quite knows where this law is, this is common law rather than biblical law, but one way or another both turn on unconventional forms of levirate marriage, because Boaz is not the closest relative, and so on.
In both stories, who was the closest relative? In the case of Tamar, it was Judah’s son number three, Shaylah. In the case of Ruth, who was the closest relative? Polony Almony, Mr. Anonymous. So, in both cases, the person nearest to performing the duty is somehow not going to perform that duty. In both cases, why does Tamar, and why does Ruth, want to have a child?
(Audience member calls out: “She knew the situation.”)
Yeah, what’s it called? “lechakim shem ha’meit” – to make sure the name of the dead husband is perpetuated by having a child who will carry his lineage forward. And both Tamar and Ruth are determined to do this. As Boaz says to Ruth himself, it has been told to me your kindness to the living and to the dead. So in both cases, it is the women who are mindful of the moral duty to perpetuate the names of the dead. And of course both have to do rather daring acts. I don’t know whether this would pass, I mean, this is… what do they call it now? I haven’t been to cinema for a very long time, but it’s an adult rating here. I mean, here we have Tamar dressing up as a prostitute. Here we have Ruth coming to Boaz at night and saying, “Spread your cloak over me” and et cetera, et cetera. These are daring acts, not the kind of things you’re taught to do at school in any shape or form. And here we have two women who are the ultimate, ultimate outsiders, because number one, to be a widow… Well, sorry. Let me be blunt. Number one, to be a woman was not exactly, you know, didn’t exactly, immediately get you to the portals of greatness and power. The Torah is telling us here, it’s the women who really matter. It’s they who have the moral courage, but note who these women are.
Number one, they’re widows, and don’t forget the vulnerability of a widow. At every festival you had to include the ger, the yatom and the almanah, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow [the most vulnerable in the community].
Number two, they were childless widows, which is doubly vulnerable because nobody’s bound to look after them and provide for them. Number three, as we said, the people who might’ve taken them in, the candidates for levirate marriage, are both stopped from doing so, but number four, because these are women from the least favoured nation. You don’t get worse in the Torah than being a Canaanite, or being a Moabite, that’s it. I mean, you understand how the Sages had to really strive to understand why it was that Ruth who came to Moab (and the Torah says, “a Moabite shall not enter the congregation of the Lord to the tenth generation”) How were we to understand that? And as we know, it was attributed to Shmuel Hanavi, that Moavi velo Moavi’a, (a Moabite man not a Moabite woman), but one way or another, there was no love lost between the Israelites and the Canaanites. There was no love lost between the Israelites and the Moabites. And here we are, two women, at the very, very margins of society, who nonetheless emerge as the heroines. They are the people who allow the Jewish story to continue, and I find that absolutely extraordinary. And of course, right at the end, the book of Ruth has a little surprise in store for us. And it lists the genealogy, the family tree of David HaMelech, which begins with Perez.
Did you ever do the count of how many generations? There are ten generations from Adam to Noah? There are ten generations from Noah to Avraham. There are ten generations from Perez to David HaMelech. Who is there at number one, the parents of Perez, were Judah and Tamar. Who is number seven at the key spot? Ruth and Boaz. Now the Torah is telling us something really extraordinary. There was a… There was a narrative, it was told by one of Sigmund Freud’s pupils called “The Birth of a Hero”. You come across this idea that there’s a standard narrative, “The Birth of a Hero”. It’s told of Sargon; it’s told of the founder of Christianity; it’s told of Oedipus and Laius and so on.
You know the story that, always a child is about to be born, a king sees that child as a threat to his kingship. He arranges for the child to be killed. Somehow or other, the child isn’t killed, is found and adopted by very ordinary, simple people. And eventually everything that is foretold actually happens. The child grows up, does defeat or kill the king, and is subsequently discovered to have royal blood. He was royal after all. And that is the story told about Oedipus and Laius. It is the story he told about Sargon. It is the story he told in early Christianity about King Herod and the birth of the founder of Christianity and so on and so forth. It’s this standard story, the birth of the hero. So in every standard story of the birth of the hero, the hero turns out to have royal blood.
Now, Judaism doesn’t tell a story, because, who is the genealogy that the Torah wants us to understand for David HaMelech? Are you with me? The Torah only tells us two major narratives about King David’s background, his family background. And who does it tell us were his key figures in the narrative? Tamar and Ruth. It is from these ultimately marginalised figures that become the character, the strength that marks David as Israel’s greatest king. It’s an extraordinary statement.
There is incidentally, a similar story told about Moshe Rabbeinu. I call it ‘Freud’s greatest Freudian error’ because Freud was convinced that Moses was an Egyptian. And that the same story told about Oedipus was true about Moses, that he was an Egyptian who was a threat to Pharaoh, so Pharoah says, “kill all the male children” and et cetera, et cetera. He believes that the same story is told of Moses as is told of all the other great mythical figures. What Freud didn’t understand is that the Moses story takes that story and turns it upside down. Moses actually was adopted by a royal family, but actually he’s totally ordinary. He could come like we did from the lower East side. And in fact, this is hinted at in the Torah itself.
I once pointed out that the Torah contains little hints here and there that make us go back and read the text a second time, and show us something we never saw before. Who gave Moses the name ‘Moses’? Pharaoh’s daughter, right? And the Torah says she called him Moses ki min hamayim meshibihu – because I drew him from the water. That works fine in Hebrew, but did Pharaoh’s daughter speak Hebrew?
I mean, if she’s going to name her adopted child, she is probably going to give him an Egyptian name, which she does. She calls him Moses, and Moses is an Egyptian word! As you see in bat Moses, and you see in Ramses, right? “Amses”, the “amses of Ramses is the “amses” of Moses. There are only two letters difference between these two people. R A, what does R A stand for? No, not the Royal Academy. Ra is the Egyptian sun God. And now you see the story that the Torah is telling us that here we have Ramses and Moses, this one whom everyone thinks is the child of the sun God, semi-divine, and who was on the other side? Just a child.
Because your dignity, your strength and your character doesn’t depend on who you were born to. Every child is special. And that is what the Torah telling us. In place of all the conventional narratives that the hero turns out to have been predestined, it’s in his DNA. He is the child of royalty. It’s turned upside-down in the case of Moses, it’s turned upside-down in the case of David HaMelech.
In fact, the whole story of David HaMelech is telling us that he’s the one person who no-one thought of as King. You remember when God tells Samuel that He is displeased with Saul, and He’s going to take the Kingship away from him, “Go to the house of Yishai… one of his sons is going to be the King”. You remember this story? He goes to Yishai and Yishai brings out his number one son, Eliav, who looks every inch the King. He says, “This must be the guy”. And Hashem says to Shmuel, ‘think again.’ God doesn’t look at outward appearances, God looks to the heart. And he goes through the seven children of Yishai, you remember? And none of them is right. And he says, “Have you got anyone else?” Yishai says, “Oh, hang on, I forgot about David, the little kid, he’s out there looking after the sheep”. And God says, “That’s the man”.
Everything that we take as conventional in the story of a hero is turned upside-down in Judaism, because Judaism is telling us that heroes are not born, they are made. And they are sometimes made by the women who gave birth to the family tree, and their strengths of character. Because what Tamar and Ruth share in common is very simple. Number one, they show loyalty, they show kindness, and that is what God wants. He doesn’t want military heroes. He doesn’t want miracle workers. He doesn’t want a High Priest who has no contact with the people. He wants somebody with loyalty to his people, somebody who’s willing to make personal sacrifices and take risks for the sake of the people, for the sake of the continuity of the people. And that, the Torah is hinting, Tanach is hinting, David got from these two remarkable women at the beginning of the ten generation sequence and at stage number seven, from Tamar and from Ruth.
Number two, it is their moral courage that allows David HaMelech to become the really courageous King that he was, and at the same time, the infinitely vulnerable human being that he was. Here is a man who united Israel, who made Jerusalem, I mean, we just had Yom Yerushalayim, David HaMelech made Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. He united Israel. He conceived the plan to build the Temple, but he was also the man who wrote the Psalms, the most intimate insight into the vulnerability of the human soul that’s ever been written. And this he got from these two women. It is telling us, don’t stereotype whole nations. You may think, who are the Canaanites, who are the Moabites, but God has so distributed the gifts of human character, that they can appear where you least expect them. So never write anyone off, just because of who they are, what their name is, what their ethnic origin is. The people you least expect it from may surprise you the most.
And here then, is the story of David. I think…[we should discuss] something else. You see, there is a little device that is very rare, which I mention, called a contronym. Have you ever come across this word, a contronym? Do you know what that is? It’s a word that means one thing and its opposite.
These are very, very rare words. To ‘cleave’ means to split in two or to join as one. ‘Fast’, as in rush hour. Fast means moving rapidly, or if something is stuck fast, it means it’s immovable. Are you with me now? There are not that many contronyms, because it’s very rare indeed.
But there is one contronym that appears only in two places, in Bereishit and in the book of Ruth, and it is the verb hakeh, to recognise. Right? And in another form of the verb, lehitnakeya means to act as a stranger, to act as somebody you don’t recognise and who doesn’t recognise you. That appears in the story of Joseph. Do you remember when the brothers come to buy grain, vayika he recognised them, vayitnakeah but he acted like a stranger too. It’s a stunning verse.
And it appears in the Ruth story as well. The first time Ruth and Boaz meet, Ruth says, lama hakiraynu? Why have you recognised me? Ani nochria. Given that I am a stranger, a foreigner. That word is absolutely key. The second time we hear that word hakeh, we realise that it first appears even before the meeting of Joseph and his brothers. Do you remember where it appears? It appears in the story of Tamar and in immediately, in the previous story of Joseph going out to see his brothers. Do you remember? And they sell him as a slave. And they take his cloak and they dip it in the blood of the goat or sheep. And they bring it back to Jacob and they say, hakeh nah? Please recognise, is this your son’s cloak, or not? And Jacob recognises it and begins mourning. Judah has used an act of recognition to deceive his father. When Tamar in the next chapter, is accused by Judah of illicit sex, she hands over the staff and the seal and says, hakeh nah. Please recognise to whom these belong is the father of this child.
Judah has used the idea of recognition to get his father to recognise a story that wasn’t true. Tamar uses the same device, the same word, to get Judah to recognise the real truth. And that turns out to be the key moment in Judah. Because, you remember, if you read Bereishit on the surface, who do you think is the hero of the last third of the book? It’s all about Joseph. But who actually became the father of Israel’s Kings? Judah! And why is it that Judah overtakes Joseph? And my theory is because of Tamar. Because Tamar by forcing Judah to recognise the truth, Judah becomes the first person in history to say “I was wrong, she was right”. Every Jewish husband has to learn those two lines. But Judah was the first person to say it. And when you say that you’ve begun… You have become the first ba’al teshuvah in history.
And we always say, the Gemara says in Brachah, daf 33, the place where ba’alei teshuvah stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand. Now, what do we call Joseph? Yosef ha’tzaddik. But Judah was a ba’al teshuvah. What was the rank Joseph got to? Mishei Melech – second to the King. Judah reached even higher. He became the ancestor of Israel’s Kings. And the interesting thing is, do you know why Judah was called Judah?
It was Leah’s fourth child. And she says hapa’am ayda et hashem. This time I will thank God. And she called him Yehudah. But without knowing it, the same root, yada in a different conjugation of the verb, becomes lehitvadot, or what we call, when we say ashamnu bagadnu or al chayt shechatanu. We call that vidui. It’s the same word in Hebrew, to thank and to confess. In both cases, it means “to admit”. When you thank, you admit your debt to somebody else. When you confess, you admit your sins to God. Judah becomes the first person to confess. “I got it wrong.” He becomes the first ba’al teshuvah. And he becomes the hero of Jewish history.
Why are we called Jews? Because we are children of Yehudah. Even though in biblical times, we were called Yisrael, because we lost ten tribes. And all that remained was the Southern kingdom of Yehudah and we’re all descendants. So, we are called Yehudim. And the question is, did this have an impact ten generations later on King David? I don’t know if you ever noticed this, but Israel’s first two Kings, Saul and David, both committed a sin. Saul failed to execute vengeance against King Agag, the Amalekite King. And David hamelech with Bathsheba. They both committed a sin. Both of them were reprimanded by a Prophet. Saul reprimanded by Samuel. David reprimanded by Natan HaNavi, the Prophet, Nathan. Both said, “Chattati” – “I have sinned”. And yet Saul’s kingdom was taken away from him, whereas David’s kingdom was confirmed for all time. What was the difference between these two confessions?
Saul tried bluster. You remember? “It wasn’t me, it was the people, and it wasn’t that important”. He tries to defend himself and when Shmuel is completely unpersuaded, he says, “chattati”. As they used to say about Chief Rabbi J H Hertz, he never despaired of a peaceful solution to any problem once every other alternative had been exhausted. So Saul tries every other alternative. When they’re all exhausted, he finally says “chattati”, “I sinned”. But when Nathan tells King David, the story of the rich man and the poor man and the sheep. And David gets all morally indignant about the rich man. And Nathan turns to him and says, “ata ha’ish”, “you are that man”. David, without a second’s hesitation says, “chattati”. Doesn’t try and justify, excuse or minimise. David has his throne confirmed because he learned to confess.
He got that from his antecedent, ten generations back, called Yehudah. And who taught Yehudah to confess? Tamar. So you see how a single story, extended over ten generations, comes down to this strange contronym of lachakir and lehitnake’a. Of recognising and strangers. It’s what… Whoever it was, I’ve forgotten who it was. Tennessee Williams called the “kindness of strangers”. That is what this story is about. The kindness of two women. Both of them outsiders in Israeli society, who nonetheless adopted Judaism and its values, even more than the people you would expect to be the key protagonists.
And it is their concern for Jewish values, for loyalty, the kindness of strangers that made David HaMelech Israel’s greatest King. So I hope we’ve seen here a little story, that is extended over vast tract of time, but an incredibly powerful one. That actually it was strong women who made David the strong King. And that we should never write anyone off, for their rank, for their ethnicity, because sometimes the most beautiful deeds are done from the people we hardly notice. And it is they who are the heroes or, in this case, the heroines of the Jewish story. Let us be inspired by Tamar and by Ruth, to show loyalty and kindness to strangers. And we will be living the great tradition hopefully, this Shavuot, and for many Shavuots to come.
Thank you very much indeed.