Our Dirty Messiah
This week’s parsha begins the saga of Joseph and his brothers and the conflict and tensions that ensued between them. A lesser-known event that appears in the middle of this story is the affair surrounding Judah and his sons.
Judah’s oldest son, Er marries Tamar. Apparently Tamar was such a beauty and Next Top Model finalist that Er did not want to waste her figure on pregnancies, stretch marks and the like. So he avoided having a child with her. God was not thrilled with Er’s behavior and Er dies. Through the biblical injunction of yibum marriage, where the brother marries his childless sister-in-law, Tamar is now wedded to Er’s younger brother, Onan. Apparently Onan is of the same ilk and he does likewise to avoid children and unfortunately ends up with a similar fate to this brother. Tamar continues down the family line and wishes to wed the next brother, Shelah. Needless to say at this point Judah is a little reluctant to have his third son wed Tamar in light of what happened to the first two, so he pushes her off with excuses and delays.
As if Judah’s life is not rough enough from losing two of his sons, he then loses his wife as well. Tamar is quite insistent on having kids with this family so she dresses up as a prostitute to entice her father-in-law. And guess whom her first and only trick is with? Judah is not as careful as his sons when he unsuspectingly sleeps with his daughter-in-law and foregoes the stop at the local drug store. Tamar becomes pregnant. Tamar gives birth to twins, the first being Peretz who is none other than the forbearer of King David who is the forefather of Mashiach (Messiah). Hmmm.
When people look for a shidduch, a marriage partner – they will often do much homework on the family’s yichus, the family history, to ensure that he or she comes from a nice home with pure and good values and no skeletons in the closet. That is understandable yet quite curious when you consider that the Messiah himself does not come from the most illustrious family lineage. Not only do we have the issue of incest (albeit unknowingly on Judah’s part) but also the fact that he is visiting what he thinks is a woman of ill-repute.
And indeed as Shakespeare once said, “that’s the rub”. As Rabbi Riskin has pointed out, the Jewish view of the Messiah is in many ways the exact opposite of the Christian view. Theirs is that the Messiah came to be without any stain of sin associated with sex. Their notion of Messiah is that he come to be from both the “immaculate conception” of Mary as well as “the virgin birth” of Jesus. On the other hand, the Jewish view, as indicated in this event, is that not only did sex happen but a very taboo form gave rise to the forbearers of what will one day be the Messiah. We have not only incest but also visiting (what Judah perceived to be) a prostitute! Yikes!!
Rabbi Riskin points out that this illustrates a vastly different world-view between Judaism and Christianity. How can a Jesus-Messiah, whose origins are so pure, white and nice, fully relate to our world with its trials, tribulations and temptations? His origins make him detached from the daily challenges of desire, lust, ego, and impurities. How does such an individual serve as a vehicle to perfect our world and bring it to holiness when he comes from a place which is so foreign to our understanding and experience of that world? This notion became amplified and found a parallel later in history with the challenge that a Catholic priest has in offering advice on marriage or raising children when he himself has no personal experience of either!
On the other hand, the Jewish take of Messiah is that he originates from the lowest possible place and anything but a squeaky-clean existence. And precisely because of this he is the ideal candidate to be the paradigm for world perfection. If he can raise himself from his lowest and darkest origins to have a close relationship to God and serve as a moral leader and beacon, then anyone can. Since he is a living example of overcoming past difficulties, the Judah-Messiah thereby becomes the hallmark and example to all of the ability for anyone to rise to moral greatness despite his or her background and past behavior. The Jesus-Messiah is a detached unrelatable demigod that cannot serve as an inspiration to those who inhabit and struggle with real-world Evil versus Good, Lust versus Holy and Truth versus Falsehood.
Judah had many moral challenges in his lifetime and did things that would break most men and make them feel guilty, hopeless, hate themselves and give up. But those very struggles and difficulties that he overcame show us that we all have a chance to rise to the highest and holiest despite our many past failures and flaws. And just as Judah will give rise to the Messiah who will redeem Mankind, so too each and every one of us has a chance at redemption despite what we may have done or what may have transpired in our past.
I had been down in the valley of tears so long
I had almost run out of respect
got in right up to my neck
Battered and bruised I had pulled myself through
Every scene I would never repeat
Wearing a smile like the rim of a cup
I will get down to my final point
There is no one left to anoint