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Home » Vayigash

Vayigash: Temper Reined In

Submitted by on January 2, 2006 – 11:09 pmNo Comment | 2,447 views

Great Characters

A member of my congregation once told me that I am incapable of anger and that I never take offense. I dare say that I wasn’t humble enough to dissuade him, but I chuckled quietly and mused, “Would, that my mother hears this.”

It is rare to find one who possesses neither pride nor conceit. The fact is that we all have shades of it, some more heartily than others. We hold a higher opinion of ourselves than we do of others, and when we are wronged or insulted, our pride dominates. Yes, we humans are susceptible to anger.
Surely the reader is the exception for I shan’t accuse one and all, but a measure of honesty is in demand as we humbly reflect upon ourselves.
It is no surprise that we are capable of anger. Our emotional constitution demands it. Our pulse quickens when we are hurt or wronged. Pride rises in our chests and demands an emotional response. We all have tempers. That’s normal. It is what happens after our tempers have waned that distinguishes the great characters among us.
After our initial reaction, we all examine our consciences, and here we discover our true selves. Do we affirm our indignation and wrap ourselves in a self-righteous cloak or do we pause to reconsider our interpretation of events and conclude that we have probably overreacted?
The rare character never angers. The strong character quickly recovers.

I was Wrong

Jacob’s fourth son, Judah, married his son to a young woman named Tamar. His son died at a tragically young age and Judah honorably offered his second son to the widowed Tamar.
When his second son died soon thereafter, Tamar was told to wait for the third and youngest son to grow older. This, she soon discovered, was a ploy. Worried that Tamar was a plague upon her husbands, Judah had no intention of risking of his third son’s life. (1)
Tamar desperately wanted to give birth to a child in the line of Judah’s succession. She dressed as a harlot and concealed her face beneath a veil, thus rendering herself completely incognito. She waited for Judah to pass, and when he did, she propositioned him. Judah, a recent widower himself, assented to her wiles and lay with her.
Judah had not expected to encounter a woman with whom to lie and had brought with him no gifts of compensation so he presented her with his staff, shirt and seal as a deposit. However, when he later sent for her to reclaim his deposit, she was nowhere to be found.
It was soon discovered that Tamar was pregnant with twins. Judah, ignorant of his own fatherhood, suspected Tamar of promiscuity. He reacted in self-righteous indignation and consigned her to death at the stake. (2)
As she passed before him she chastely displayed his staff, shirt and seal and declared that the owner of these items was father of her children. Judah soon recognized his property and quickly reconsidered. “Spare her life and bring her back,” he said. “Her children are my own and she shall be my wife.”
That Judah reacted in anger is of little surprise to us. That Judah was capable of overcoming his anger and of reproving himself in public is a mark of his great character.

The Viceroy

This story sheds light upon a curious verse in the Torah portion that we read this week. Judah and his brothers visited Egypt during a famine to purchase food for their family back home. The Egyptian viceroy greeted them with contempt and subjected them to insult and investigation. (3)
When the viceroy framed the youngest brother and accused him of theft, Judah was highly vexed. The Torah informs us that Judah approached the viceroy and requested a private audience. Judah then launched into a description of the anguish that the accusation and resultant incarceration would cause their father and begged the viceroy to pardon them. (4)
The narrative does not seem to match the introduction. Judah tells the viceroy that he would like to discuss a delicate matter, appropriate for the viceroy’s ears alone, and then proceeds to speak of matters well known to the brothers. For this alone, he had no need for a private audience. Judah must have spoken to the viceroy of other matters as well, matters that are not necessarily mentioned in the Biblical narrative.
According to at least one commentator, Judah relayed his experience with Tamar during the private audience. Taking note of the viceroy’s furious expression,temper reined in - innerstream he judged that the viceroy was convinced of the veracity of his accusation. Judah strove to explain that even when we are fully convinced we might still be mistaken. “Question yourself and your motives,” Judah prompted. “Ask yourself if there is reasonable doubt about our guilt.” (5)
Dear reader, Judah’s advice applies to us all. How often do we wrongly speculate on the intentions of another and impose our own interpretation on the words that we hear? We take offense where it is not given and are insulted when it is not intended. To nurse our injured pride on occasions such as these is nothing short of foolish. Begging forgiveness is difficult, but to remain imprisoned within the walls of our pride is even more difficult.

Time for Confession?

So what of that congregant’s description? Was he right or wrong? Am I in fact in possession of a temper? I feel certain that the reader is at this point eminently curious and I shall not disappoint. To the eternal surprise of my congregation and to the eminent dismay of my wife, I have been known to succumb to the occasional bout. I cannot deny it. I should be a fool to do so. My temper does come on occasion, but it is my duty to ensure that as it comes, so does it go. I should be a fool not to do so.
There, I have confessed. Now dear reader, wouldn’t you?


  1. Genesis 38.
  2. Many commentators wondered about the justice of this verdict. Why did Tamar deserve the death penalty and why was it reversed as soon as it was discovered that she had slept with Judah? In those days the nations accepted the notion that a promiscuous woman should be punished by execution. When the pregnancy was first discovered, an assumption was made that she had been promiscuous and she was therefore sentenced to death. However, when Judah acknowledged that he was the father, it became clear that it had been a one-time affair. The ruling covered only regular promiscuity and she was therefore exonerated. It must be remembered that they were both single at the time and that Judah did later take Tamar, according to one opinion, as his wife. For more detail, see Likutei Sichos V, pp.185-195 (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994).
  3. Genesis 42 – 44.
  4. Genesis 44: 18. The verse does not explicitly state that Judah sought a private audience, but it does imply it. “And Judah approached and said, “If you please, my Lord, may your servant speak a word in my Lord’s ears and let not your anger flare up at your servant?””
  5. Divrei Yisrael, Genesis 44: 18. This interpretation is based upon the last words of Judah’s statement, “And let not your anger flare up at your servant.” Divrei Yisrael contends that Judah shared advice on anger management based on his own life’s experience. Such advice would naturally be given in private.

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