This website is made possible by generous donations from users just like you. $18 helps keep JWA online for one day. Please consider making a gift to JWA today!
Close [x]

You are here

Share Share Share Share Share Share Share

Tamar at the Crossroads

This condensed version of the Girls in Trouble curriculum, a project by Alicia Jo Rabins, is based on Alicia’s art-pop song cycle of the same name, and follows individual women through their stories in the Torah. In each lesson, students are encouraged to engage with both the Torah text and Alicia’s songs, to consider the story’s relevance to their own lives, and to generate their own creative interpretations.  This curriculum brings Biblical women to life, demonstrating the power of these often under-studied stories, and highlighting the ways in which they can help us navigate our own complicated lives.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • While some situations are truly beyond our control, in many ways, we do have the power to change our own lives for the better
  • Those who see us every day (parents, teachers, etc) are sometimes unable to see who we really are, the struggles we face, and our deepest hopes and dreams
  • Creating art about women in Torah continues the millennia-old tradition of interpretation, while bringing female characters to the center of the process.

Essential Questions

  • Why is Tamar’s story important?
  • How can we take ownership over our lives, rather than waiting for others to solve our problems?
  • How does Alicia’s song contribute to our understanding of Tamar’s story?

Notes to Teacher

We encourage you to make this curriculum your own. For instance, if there isn’t time during your class period to have students sketch out their own creative interpretations, you can either leave this part out or treat it as an extension activity.

We also encourage you to include as much hevruta (partner) study as possible. If you are new to hevruta study, you can think of it as discussion between two partners who can help each other learn by challenging each other’s first impressions. Breaking the group into pairs and having them read texts out loud, rather than silently, is an essential part of hevruta study.

Lastly, when studying the Torah text, we find it helpful to have students identify every problem, difficulty, or moment of confusion they can find in the text, as if they were on a scavenger hunt. This opens up the door to midrash, the Jewish tradition of creative Torah interpretation, which imagines answers to those questions.

Introductory Essay(s)

I Was a Desert: Explanation of a Musical Midrash

by Alicia Jo Rabins

Tamar’s story fascinates me for its utter adult-ness: its narrative complexity, its reversals of fortune, and its unabashed consideration of sexuality and fertility.

If I were writing an academic paper, I could have talked at length about all of these themes, but for a first-person song I needed one specific moment to focus on. In writing Girls in Trouble songs, I am always looking for the place where a Torah story intersects with contemporary life. When I find this meeting place, it becomes clear to me how the experience of an ancient mythic character mirrors our own inner experiences. This is where I begin a song.

I decided that the most fascinating part of Tamar’s story, for me, was what she might have been thinking and feeling during the seduction of Judah. After all, he has twice been her father-in-law. How can he not recognize her voice, even if her face is veiled? Tamar’s plot to seduce Judah implies an intimate knowledge of his patterns and proclivities. Judah’s failure to recognize Tamar makes me think that despite their close family relationship, he hardly noticed her. 

I admire Tamar’s brave decision to take control of her future. It would have been easier and safer for Tamar to simply have lived out her life as a powerless widow, relying on the kindness of others. Instead, Tamar comes up with a wildly risky plan to rewrite her story. Although the particulars of her tale are ancient and bizarre, I believe we all struggle to balance what we are given with what we wish for ourselves. What decision will we make? When we find ourselves a desert, will we find a way to make the sky rain down on us?

I also feel that Tamar’s experience of being unseen by those closest to her is something many of us struggle with today. Those who see us every single day - our parents, partners, children, colleagues, teachers or students - are sometimes unable to see who we really are, the struggles we face, our deeper hopes and dreams.  The fact that Tamar and Judah meet at a place called “Petach Enayim,” the Opening of the Eyes, supports the idea that seeing and not-seeing is at the core of this story.

Sometimes we are unseen; sometimes we are the one who does not see. Writing this song, I thought about Tamar as an inspiration to think about the power of invisibility, how it can be an asset as well as a frustration.  But I also thought about each of our responsibility to open our eyes to the people around us.

Lesson Plan

Intro

  • Invite participants to introduce themselves.  Introduce useful things to know about Tamar (see “Helpful Things for Teachers to Know about Tamar” in the Documents section), especially levirate marriage: the fact that in the ancient world, if a man died without leaving any children, his wife was entitled to marry his younger brother.

Core Text

  • Introduce hevruta, divide class, pass out “core text” sheets
  • Hevrutas read core text to each other and explore discussion questions
  • Come back together to discuss what arose in hevruta. Begin by inviting students to share their most interesting questions and listing them on the board. Explain that finding unanswered questions in the text is the starting point of midrash; ask students to refrain from answering questions unless the questions address the basic plot of the story.

Song

  • Listen to “I Was a Desert” with lyrics
  • Discuss questions as a group

Create Your Own Midrash

  • Time for individual brainstorming/freewriting/drawing with “Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations”
  • If time, opportunity to share creative responses. Students should resist the temptation to critique others’ responses.
  • Share students’ midrashim by adding them to the Gallery of Biblical Women on the Girls in Trouble website

Document Studies

Song Recording

Song Recording

I Was a Desert

Full image
Audio recording of Alicia Jo Rabins' song, "I Was a Desert."

Helpful Things for Teachers to Know about Tamar

Helpful Things for Teachers to Know about Tamar

Helpful Things for Teachers to Know about Tamar

  • Tamar in Biblical Hebrew means “date-palm.”
  • To understand this story, you have to know that it involves a Biblical practice called levirate marriage (in Hebrew, yibum.)  If a woman’s husband died without leaving her any children, his brother was obligated to marry her and have children with her, who would be considered offspring from the first brother. This tradition protected a childless widow, and continued the older brother’s line.  So when Judah denies Tamar the right to marry his third son, he is breaking the law, and when Tamar manages to become pregnant through Judah, she is arguably acting within her legal rights.
  • There is no description of Tamar’s origin, but it is unlikely that she’s an Israelite. She is not defined not by her tribe, but instead, as the daughter-in-law of Judah (Genesis 38:11).
  • Our story ends with Tamar giving birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach. Peretz’s line leads to King David, whose line is said to lead to the Messiah.  This surprising ending should be taken into account while reading the story.
  • To avoid confusion: the Tanakh tells the story of two other Tamars, the daughter of King David (2 Samuel 13) and the daughter of Absalom (2 Samuel 14:27).
  • Side note: later in the Torah there is an interesting ritual to release widows and brothers-in-law from the obligation of levirate marriage, more details herehttp://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Halitza.html

Biblical text with discussion questions

Biblical text with discussion questions

Genesis 38:6-27

6 Judah got a wife for Er his first-born; her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah's first-born, was displeasing to God, and God took his life. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, "Join with your brother's wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law, and provide offspring for your brother [see sidebar on levirate marriage]." 9 But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother's wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was displeasing to God, and God took his life also. 11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, "Stay as a widow in your father's house until my [last] son Shelah grows up" — for he thought, "He too might die like his brothers." So Tamar went to live in her father's house.

12 A long time afterward, Shua's daughter, the wife of Judah, died. When his period of mourning was over, Judah went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, with his friend Hirah the Adullamite.13 And Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is coming up to Timnah for the sheepshearing." 14 So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enayim [“Petach Enayim”], which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. 15 When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face. 16 So he turned aside to her by the road and said, "Here, let me sleep with you" — for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. "What," she asked, "will you pay for sleeping with me?" 17 He replied, "I will send a kid from my flock." But she said, "You must leave a pledge until you have sent it." 18 And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?" She replied, "Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry." So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she went on her way. She took off her veil and again put on her widow's garb.

20 Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to redeem the pledge from the woman; but he could not find her. 21 He inquired of the people of that town, "Where is the cult prostitute, the one at Enaim, by the road?" But they said, "There has been no prostitute here." 22 So he returned to Judah and said, "I could not find her; moreover, the townspeople said: There has been no prostitute here." 23 Judah said, "Let her keep them, lest we become a laughingstock. I did send her this kid, but you did not find her."

24 About three months later, Judah was told, "Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child by harlotry." "Bring her out," said Judah, "and let her be burned." 25 As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, "I am with child by the man to whom these belong." And she added, "Recognize these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?" 26 Judah recognized them, and said, "She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah." And he was not intimate with her again. 27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb.

(JPS translation, edited)

ו וַיִּקַּח יְהוּדָה אִשָּׁה, לְעֵר בְּכוֹרוֹ; וּשְׁמָהּ, תָּמָר.  ז וַיְהִי, עֵר בְּכוֹר יְהוּדָה--רַע, בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה; וַיְמִתֵהוּ, יְהוָה.  ח וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה לְאוֹנָן, בֹּא אֶל-אֵשֶׁת אָחִיךָ וְיַבֵּם אֹתָהּ; וְהָקֵם זֶרַע, לְאָחִיךָ.  ט וַיֵּדַע אוֹנָן, כִּי לֹּא לוֹ יִהְיֶה הַזָּרַע; וְהָיָה אִם-בָּא אֶל-אֵשֶׁת אָחִיו, וְשִׁחֵת אַרְצָה, לְבִלְתִּי נְתָן-זֶרַע, לְאָחִיו.  י וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה; וַיָּמֶת, גַּם-אֹתוֹ. יא וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה לְתָמָר כַּלָּתוֹ שְׁבִי אַלְמָנָה בֵית-אָבִיךְ, עַד-יִגְדַּל שֵׁלָה בְנִי--כִּי אָמַר, פֶּן-יָמוּת גַּם-הוּא כְּאֶחָיו; וַתֵּלֶךְ תָּמָר, וַתֵּשֶׁב בֵּית אָבִיהָ.  יב וַיִּרְבּוּ, הַיָּמִים, וַתָּמָת, בַּת-שׁוּעַ אֵשֶׁת-יְהוּדָה; וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהוּדָה, וַיַּעַל עַל-גֹּזְזֵי צֹאנוֹ הוּא וְחִירָה רֵעֵהוּ הָעֲדֻלָּמִי--תִּמְנָתָה.  יגוַיֻּגַּד לְתָמָר, לֵאמֹר:  הִנֵּה חָמִיךְ עֹלֶה תִמְנָתָה, לָגֹז צֹאנוֹ.  יד וַתָּסַר בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וַתְּכַס בַּצָּעִיף וַתִּתְעַלָּף, וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם, אֲשֶׁר עַל-דֶּרֶךְ תִּמְנָתָה:  כִּי רָאֲתָה, כִּי-גָדַל שֵׁלָה, וְהִוא, לֹא-נִתְּנָה לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.  טו וַיִּרְאֶהָ יְהוּדָה, וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לְזוֹנָה:  כִּי כִסְּתָה, פָּנֶיהָ.  טז וַיֵּט אֵלֶיהָ אֶל-הַדֶּרֶךְ, וַיֹּאמֶר הָבָה-נָּא אָבוֹא אֵלַיִךְ, כִּי לֹא יָדַע, כִּי כַלָּתוֹ הִוא; וַתֹּאמֶר, מַה-תִּתֶּן-לִי, כִּי תָבוֹא, אֵלָי.  יזוַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח גְּדִי-עִזִּים מִן-הַצֹּאן; וַתֹּאמֶר, אִם-תִּתֵּן עֵרָבוֹן עַד שָׁלְחֶךָ.  יח וַיֹּאמֶר, מָה הָעֵרָבוֹן אֲשֶׁר אֶתֶּן-לָךְ, וַתֹּאמֶר חֹתָמְךָ וּפְתִילֶךָ, וּמַטְּךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדֶךָ; וַיִּתֶּן-לָהּ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ, וַתַּהַר לוֹ.  יט וַתָּקָם וַתֵּלֶךְ, וַתָּסַר צְעִיפָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ; וַתִּלְבַּשׁ, בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ.  כוַיִּשְׁלַח יְהוּדָה אֶת-גְּדִי הָעִזִּים, בְּיַד רֵעֵהוּ הָעֲדֻלָּמִי, לָקַחַת הָעֵרָבוֹן, מִיַּד הָאִשָּׁה; וְלֹא, מְצָאָהּ.  כא וַיִּשְׁאַל אֶת-אַנְשֵׁי מְקֹמָהּ, לֵאמֹר, אַיֵּה הַקְּדֵשָׁה הִוא בָעֵינַיִם, עַל-הַדָּרֶךְ; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֹא-הָיְתָה בָזֶה קְדֵשָׁה.  כב וַיָּשָׁב, אֶל-יְהוּדָה, וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא מְצָאתִיהָ; וְגַם אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם אָמְרוּ, לֹא-הָיְתָה בָזֶה קְדֵשָׁה.  כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה תִּקַּח-לָהּ, פֶּן נִהְיֶה לָבוּז; הִנֵּה שָׁלַחְתִּי הַגְּדִי הַזֶּה, וְאַתָּה לֹא מְצָאתָהּ.  כדוַיְהִי כְּמִשְׁלֹשׁ חֳדָשִׁים, וַיֻּגַּד לִיהוּדָה לֵאמֹר זָנְתָה תָּמָר כַּלָּתֶךָ, וְגַם הִנֵּה הָרָה, לִזְנוּנִים; וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה, הוֹצִיאוּהָ וְתִשָּׂרֵף.  כה הִוא מוּצֵאת, וְהִיא שָׁלְחָה אֶל-חָמִיהָ לֵאמֹר, לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-אֵלֶּה לּוֹ, אָנֹכִי הָרָה; וַתֹּאמֶר, הַכֶּר-נָא--לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה, הָאֵלֶּה.  כו וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה, וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי, כִּי-עַל-כֵּן לֹא-נְתַתִּיהָ, לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי; וְלֹא-יָסַף עוֹד, לְדַעְתָּהּ.  כז וַיְהִי, בְּעֵת לִדְתָּהּ; וְהִנֵּה תְאוֹמִים, בְּבִטְנָהּ.

Discussion Questions

  1. Some commentators suggest Tamar was selflessly carrying on the line of Judah, others that she is working for her own survival or benefit. Some portray her as brazenly sexual and others as pious. What do you think Tamar’s motives are?
  2. Choose one of these themes and discuss where you see it in the text, and in modern life:
    • using any means necessary to right the balance of power
    • fertility as a personal and social issue
    • hiddenness of the self in intimate or familial relationships

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Song lyrics with discussion questions

I Was a Desert

A song in Tamar's voice, by Girls in Trouble/Alicia Jo Rabins

I was a desert until I learned
to make the sky rain down on me
And I was a barren field until
I planted myself with borrowed seed.

You, you’re a strong one
they say you ground lead into dust with your teeth
But even a strong one
gets lonely at night when he can’t sleep.

All night long I bit my tongue
to keep from calling out your name
Saying don’t you know the voice of the one
Who brought you tea in the early dawn

I’d watch you sleeping
like a lion at rest, so gentle your breath
But when you’d awaken
your shouting would startle the birds from their nest

You did not know
You did not see

Questions

  1. In this song, the artist imagines Tamar’s thoughts behind her veil. What do you imagine Tamar was thinking during her seduction of Judah?
  2. The artist imagines Tamar singing, “I was a desert until I learned / to make the sky rain down on me.” What do you think this means? Can you think of ways that you, or other people in real life or fiction, have “made the sky rain down” on them? Make a list of examples.

Footnoted song lyrics

Footnoted song lyrics

"I Was a Desert," annotated

by Alicia Jo Rabins/Girls in Trouble

I was a desert until I learned
to make the sky rain down on me
And I was a barren field until
I planted myself with borrowed seed.1

You, you’re a strong one
they say you ground lead into dust with your teeth2
But even a strong one
gets lonely at night when he can’t sleep.

All night long I bit my tongue
to keep from calling out your name
Saying don’t you know the voice of the one
Who brought you tea in the early dawn3
I’d watch you sleeping
like a lion at rest4, so gentle your breath
But when you’d awaken
your shouting would startle the birds from their nest

You did not know
You did not see5

1 This idea of self-pollination is derived from the wonderful writings of scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky.   She writes:  “[Tamar’s] name matters, for like names in so many biblical stories, it reveals the issue of the story.  Tamar is the date palm tree, a tree that can bear copious and precious fruit. But the fertility of the date palm is not assured; it must be pollinated by direct human action.  The name Tamar hints that this new daughter-in-law has the potential to bear, but her fertility will be endangered.  The plot will determine whether she disappears (as did Tamar, the daughter of David) or becomes the ancestress of a precious hero.” --Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, p. 266

2 In Genesis Rabba 93:6, Judah’s power and anger is described by the fact that he grinds iron bars into dust with his teeth (and his chest hairs pierce his shirt!)  This description of Judah’s physical strength and anger raises the stakes for Tamar’s bravery.

3 This detail is drawn from my imagination of what Judah’s double-ex-daughter-in-law might have done for him daily.

4 In Genesis 49:9, Judah is compared to a lion in Jacob’s blessing of his sons;  “You are a lion's cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness--who dares to rouse him?”  The image of a lion becomes the symbol of the tribe of Judah. To me this animal implies Judah’s strength, power and danger.

5 Another reference to “Petach Enayim,” the Opening of the Eyes, where Judah and Tamar encounter each other late at night.

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Choose one of these verses and write, draw, dance or sing about it:

  • She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife (Verse 14).
  • When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face.  (Verse 15)
  • "I am with child by the man to whom these belong." (Verse 25)
  • Judah recognized them, and said, "She is more in the right than I” (Verse 26)
  • What the Midrash learns from Tamar:  “Better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than shame someone else in public.”

Or try one of these:

Visual

Costume design: draw Tamar might have worn for her seduction if it happened in ancient times, or today

Create a collage based on the theme of “willful un-seeing” and hiddenness

Music

Write a seduction song, with or without words, that Tamar might use to lure Judah in

Write a chant for Tamar using these words, which the Midrash puts in her mouth:  “May it be your will, Adonai my God, that I not go out empty from this house.”

Movement

Create a dance describing Tamar’s transformation over the course of the story

Using a veil (or scarf), create a dance that depicts Tamar’s feelings during the seduction scene

Writing

Write a journal entry by Tamar the morning after the encounter

One of the themes in this story is willful unseeing.  When have you felt willfully unseen?  Have you used it to your advantage?  Have you felt hurt by it?  When have you willfully not seen others?

Summarize Tamar’s story in six words

0 Comments
Cover Art for "Tamar at the Crossroads"
Full image
Cover art by Uri Berkowitz for "Tamar at the Crossroads," a lesson plan from the "Girls in Trouble" curriculum by Alicia Jo Rabins.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Tamar at the Crossroads." (Viewed on December 15, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/girlsintrouble/tamar-at-the-crossroads>.

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

The JWA Podcast

listen now

Sign Up for JWA eNews

 

Discover Education Programs

Join our growing community of educators.

view programs