This Torah commentary is dedicated to those in San Bernardino who need to be strong in the face of yet another senseless storm.
There is a species of tree that exists in which each tree is actually either a male or female. The male trees produce pollen and the female trees produce flowers which will become fruit IF (and it’s a big IF) they are pollenated. You see, bees and other insects are attracted to the pollen from these male trees, but they are not so attracted to the flowers of the female tree. This variety relies on wind to carry the pollen from the male to the female, and if the trees aren’t close enough together, it just won’t happen. “Tree procreation” for these guys is not so easy.
I can see one of these trees out my bedroom window: tall, slender, covered in 5 inch thorns for protection, blowing in the breeze, not only surviving in the wind but begging for the gusts that might harm most other plants… for this is her only way to have her children. No romance. No birds. Not even bees. Just wind.
This is the date palm. In Hebrew, “Tamar.”
A date palm can grow in unusually salty soil that would destroy most other plants. It thrives in intensely hot, dry, and sunny environments. As I just mentioned, it’s pollination relies on chance. In other words, The date palm, “Tamar,” is a survivor!
So it is with our Tamar of the Torah this week. She was married to a son of Judah, one of Jacob’s grandsons, but he was a man so despised by God, God chose to wipe him away rather than allow him and Tamar to have a child. After her husband’s death, Tamar was given to her brother-in-law (as was the custom of the time for a younger brother to have children in his older brother’s name), but this was a man so selfish he rather spill his seed to the ground than allow his inheritance to be diminished by having the children who would be his older brother’s heirs. After he died, Tamar was cast aside by her father-in-law, Judah, and sent to live with her own father. Judah promised that when his third son came of age, they would marry, but never acted out of fear that that son would also die by her side. So she lived with her father… waiting… promised to the third son, but never delivered.
What was this woman to do with her life?
As she sat in her own father’s household, now widowed twice and childless, bound to a husband that was never going to come, she realized what she had to do.
Tamar had learned that her father-in-law, Judah, was coming near. He had just completed his own grieving period for his wife and was surely lonely. So this “date palm,” Tamar, removed her widow’s garb, planted her feet onto the salty earth, wrapped herself in a veil of thorns, and sat, waiting for a wind storm to blow so she could have a child. And blow it did as Judah approached her, and entered into her arms, believing she was a veiled prostitute.
Of course, when it was discovered that Tamar — a widow still bound to Judah’s household — was pregnant, Judah called for her death. But when Tamar could prove Judah was the father of her unborn child, he admitted that he was as wrong as she because he never gave her the promised third son. Tamar lived, and gave birth to twin boys.
It is certainly no accident that our heroine this week is named after this tough tree that survives in harsh environmental conditions and faces such challenging pollination. Date farmers actually have to hand pollinate their date trees in order to ensure a healthy harvest. They do so at great risk, having to cut away the thorns of the tree, climb to dizzying heights, and participate in an intricate process of fertilization and harvesting. So, Tamar too, had to withstand great planning and danger in order to have the offspring she so desperately needed.
What made Tamar so strong? So able to withstand the circumstance she was handed? So clear on her mission even when she knew it was morally questionable at best and punishable by death at worst?
Nowhere in this text does it say that Tamar heard the voice of God, but I believe she was a prophetess, worthy of praise on the level of Abraham who heard “Go to yourself,” Rebecca who heard, “And the older shall serve the younger,” or Jacob who heard, “Remember, I am with you.” I believe Tamar heard the voice of God, perhaps a feminine Godly voice, that said, “You were named Tamar by me, for I knew in your life you would have to withstand terrible conditions in order to have a child. But you will be the mother who will birth the ancestors of great leaders and saviors. Go to your father-in-law, Judah, and by his seed blowing in My wind, you will be impregnated with twins who will replace the wretched two he lost. They will take their rightful places at Jacob’s table. You will be the mother of a future generation of Kings.” And it is said that Tamar was the matriarch of King David’s line.
There have been times or will be times of tragedy in all of our lives when we feel we must be date palms — feet rooted in the salty earth, bodies holding strong against a windy storm, somehow able to survive the elements against all odds and walk boldly into the future. It is in those times when many of us, no matter how religious we are, turn to prayer. When we do… when we speak to God, sheepish and unsure if anyone is listening, do we ever hear an answer? Do we hear a voice, whether we believe that voice to be from a God on high or just our inner-selves shining a light on what we know we must do? And if we do hear a voice, will that response ever be recorded in a scroll, or a book? Probably not. Our conversations with our Godselves will remain private like Tamar’s. But in Tamar’s time of tragedy, she heard a voice, and that voice showed her that motherhood was her destiny. In our quiet moments of pain, don’t we, too, sometimes see or hear Truth more clearly? Don’t we realize what is important? What is right or wrong for us? Who and what we could or should be? And don’t those realizations sometimes go against the social norms of our family or community or society, just like Tamar? Are we as strong as she to act anyway? Do we follow the voices from within or without?
I invite all of us, you and me, to think of Tamar when we find ourselves needing to be grounded deeply in the earth while our limbs are waving in a storm. In those moments when we ask the Universe, “Why? How? When? Me?,” let’s promise to try to listen. The answers may not be easy to accept, but if we act upon them, perhaps we will not just survive but thrive.
Perhaps we are to be the mothers or fathers of greatness.
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