Part of the Parsha of this week is Vayayshev is an interruption of the Joseph narrative. That section tells the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah, the most formidable of Jacob’s sons, is convinced that Tamar has betrayed him and his third son, to whom she is betrothed. When he sees that she is pregnant, he does not realize that the child she is carrying is actually his. So he accuses her of immorality and sits as a judge in the trial. As she is brought in to face the court, she sends him the security he had left with her when he himself had consorted with her. When he sees the damning evidence, he immediately sees that she is the one in the right. He declares, She is more righteous than I.
This is the same Judah who was willing to sell his brother Joseph into slavery. The same Judah who will later be willing to give himself up into slavery to save his youngest brother Benjamin. This brief interlude suggests to us that Judah is changing, that he is beginning to show compassion for others and to take responsibility for his actions.
But the real hero of this story is Tamar. Though she is virtually silent throughout the narrative, we know that she was willing to go to her death rather than to publicly humiliate her father-in-law. I would like to think that she accepted his apology and that she held no grudge against Judah for the accusation that he made. She chooses NOT to shame him, even when she could have. Our sages draw from this the life lesson, that it is better to go into a fiery furnace than to shame a person publicly.
Here’s a simple, concrete analogy: Think about how we cover the challah on Shabbas. Some say that we do so in order that the challah not be shamed while we pass over it to bless the wine. We show our respect for the bread that sustains us. But that respect should not stop at the Shabbas table. I bet that we all know people who are zealous about covering the challah but have no compunction when it comes to shaming or embarrassing other people. This is what happens if we remember the halakha—the rule—but forget the moral principle behind it. If we show that kind of consideration for an inanimate object—BREAD—how much more obligated must we be to other people. Never put anyone to shame. Seek NOT to embarrass another person. This is what Tamar taught Judah and what we should all strive to practice in our daily lives.