I had this thought while saying Qabbalas Shabbos this week. (Actually, part of it during Qabbalas Shabbos 7 years ago, after which I wrote an earlier version of the post. A further development was a product of this week’s davening, yeilding this version.) It’s a “Chassidishe Vort” in style, intentionally stretching the meaning of a quote in order to create a mnemonic for an important point — but with a mussar message.
צַ֭דִּיק כַּתָּמָ֣ר יִפְרָ֑ח, כְּאֶ֖רֶז בַּלְּבָנ֣וֹן יִשְׂגֶּֽה׃
A righteous person will flower like a date-palm,
Will grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
So, as I’m saying these words, my mind was wandering through the parashah. (Not advising this. As Tamar’s descendant, King Solomon, wrote “for everything there is a proper time…” [Qoheles 3:1]) And it hit me…
What is it we laud about Tamar’s actions? She forced Yehudah’s hand to do the right thing, and then even though he had to be tricked into fulfilling his duty, Tamar was still willing to absorb a lot of personal risk rather than shame him.
וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כְּמִשְׁלֹ֣שׁ חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וַיֻּגַּ֨ד לִֽיהוּדָ֤ה לֵאמֹר֙ זָֽנְתָה֙ תָּמָ֣ר כַּלָּתֶ֔ךָ וְגַ֛ם הִנֵּ֥ה הָרָ֖ה לִזְנוּנִ֑ים וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוּדָ֔ה הֽוֹצִיא֖וּהָ וְתִשָּׂרֵֽף׃ הִ֣וא מוּצֵ֗את וְהִ֨יא שָֽׁלְחָ֤ה אֶל־חָמִ֨יהָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְאִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁר־אֵ֣לֶּה לּ֔וֹ אָֽנֹכִ֖י הָרָ֑ה וַתֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַכֶּר־נָ֔א לְמִ֞י הַחֹתֶ֧מֶת וְהַפְּתִילִ֛ים וְהַמַּטֶּ֖ה הָאֵֽלֶּה׃ וַיַּכֵּ֣ר יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ צָֽדְקָ֣ה מִמֶּ֔נִּי כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֥ן לֹֽא־נְתַתִּ֖יהָ לְשֵׁלָ֣ה בְנִ֑י וְלֹֽא־יָסַ֥ף ע֖וֹד לְדַעְתָּֽהּ׃
And it was at about three months, and it was told to Yehudah saying, “Tamar your daughter-in-law had promiscuous sex! And also, she is pregnant from this promiscuity!” Yehudah said, “Bring her here, and she shall burn.”
She is brought out, and she sent message to her father-in-law saying, “To the man who these belong I have gotten pregenant.” And she said, “Please recognize, to whom are these signet ring, the cords, and the staff?”
Yehudah recognized, and said, “She is more righteous than I. For as much as I did not give her to my son Sheilah.” And he wasn’t again intimate with her.
– Bereishis 38:24-26
This stands in an interesting contrast to the tree in the second half of the pasuq — the cedar of Lebanon. It appears in a number of mitzvos alongside the eizov (hyssop), a tiny plant that makes a contrast to the cedar’s height, often with a tongue of wool dyed red. The erez and eizov are used to purify the one afflicted with tzaraas (a spirito-somatic illness often mistranslated “leprosy”); they are burnt with the parah adumah (red heifer) and their ashes mixed into the water of purification for after exposure to the dead.
The Rashi (quoting the medrash Tanchuma) explains the pair as follows:
וְצִוָּה֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְלָקַ֧ח לַמִּטַּהֵ֛ר שְׁתֵּֽי צִפֳּרִ֥ים חַיּ֖וֹת טְהֹר֑וֹת וְעֵ֣ץ אֶ֔רֶז וּשְׁנִ֥י תוֹלַ֖עַת וְאֵזֹֽב׃
The kohein will command and take for the one becoming pure [from tzora’as] two living birds of a kosher species, cedar wood, worm-dyed scarlet wool, and hyssop.
– Vayiqra 14:4
“ועץ ארז” – לפי שהנגעים באין על גסות הרוח”
“ושני תולעת ואזוב” – מה תקנתו ויתרפא ישפיל עצמו מגאותו כתולעת וכאזוב
“Cedar wood” — because these afflictions [tzara’s] come from egotism.
“Worm-dyed crimson wool and hyssop” — How is it fixed and he is healed? He should lower himself from his haughtiness like a worm or a hyssop.
– Rashi, ad loc
The first job of the righteous is to stand up for the dignity of others, as Tamar risked her life to do. Once that is one’s flowering, one’s acts, enhance the importance of those around them, the erez, the dignity and importance of the tzadiq him- or herself grows.
There are many stories told of Rav Yisrael Salanter that share a common theme. For example:
One of his disciples had invited him for Friday night dinner. R. Israel had stipulated that he would not dine anywhere till he had satisfied himself that the kashrut was above reproach. The disciple informed R. Israel that in his home all the Halachos were observed with utmost stringency. He bought his meat from a butcher known for his piety. It was truly “glatt” – free of any Halachic query or lung adhesion (sirchah). His cook was an honest woman, the widow of a Talmid Chacham, daughter of a good family, while his own wife would enter the kitchen periodically to supervise. His Friday night meal was conducted in the grand style. There would be Torah discussion after each course, so there was no possibility of their meal being “as if they had partaken of offerings to idols.” They would study Shulchan Aruch regularly, sing Zemiros and remain seated at the table till well into the night.
Having listened to this elaborate account of the procedures, R. Israel consented to accept the invitation, but stipulated that the time of the meal be curtailed by two full hours. Having no alternative, the disciple agreed. At the meal, one course followed another without interruption. In less than an hour, the mayim acharonim had been passed around in preparation for the Grace after Meals.
Before proceeding with the Grace, the host turned to R. Israel and asked: “Teach me, rabbi. What defect did you notice in my table?”
R. Israel did not answer the question. Instead he asked that the widow responsible for the cooking come to the room. He said to her: “Please for give me, for having inconvenienced you this evening. You were forced to serve one course after another – not as you are used to do.” “Bless you, rabbi,” the woman answered. “Would that you would be a guest here every Friday evening. My master is used to sit at the table till late at night. I am worn out from working all day. My legs can hardly hold me up, so tired do I become. Thanks to you, rabbi, they hurried this evening, and I am already free to go home and rest.” R. Israel turned to his disciple. “The poor widow’s remark is the answer to your question. Indeed your behavior is excellent, but only as long as it does not adversely affect others.”
– From “Tenu’as haMussar”, by R’ Dov Katz, as translated in “Salanter and the The Mussar Movement” by R’ Zalman Ury
Another, from the same source:
Or consider this true story. Once, in Salanty, he could not be present to supervise the baking of his matza shemura (observance matza). His disciples who undertook the supervision asked him what they were to guard against. He replied that he asked of them only one thing: that in their zealousness they were not to scold the woman kneading the dough for being slow: “Bear in mind,” he said, “she is a widow and one ought not to grieve a widow.”
A true tzadiq flowers like Tamar, only at her own expense. Never assuming “piety” to the detriment of others. If we just worry about the image of the Divine of those around us, the holiness of our own image shines through more surely than if one struggles at self-sanctification directly.