Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shared the following story in relationship to this past week’s parasha, Vayeshev:
I will never forget an episode that occurred when I was a rabbinical student in the mid-1970s. A group of us, yeshiva students together with students from a rabbinical seminary, were praying together one morning in Switzerland, where we were attending a conference. We were using one of the rooms of the chateau where we were staying. A few minutes into the prayers, a new arrival entered the room: a woman Reform rabbi, wearing tallit and tefillin. She sat down among the men.
The students were shocked, and did not know what to do. Should they ask her to leave? Should they go elsewhere to pray? They clustered around the rabbi leading the group – today a highly respected rosh yeshiva in Israel. He looked up, saw the situation, and without hesitation and with great solemnity recited to the students the law derived from Tamar: “It is better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace than shame his neighbor in public.” He told the students to go back to their seats and carry on praying. G-d forbid they should shame the woman. The memory of that moment has stayed with me ever since.
It says something about the Torah and Jewish spirituality that we learn this law from Tamar, a woman at the very edge of Israelite society, who risked her life rather than put her father-in-law to shame. Psychological pain is as serious as physical pain. Loss of dignity is a kind of loss of life. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was the episode of Judah and Tamar that began a family tree from which 10 generations later came David, Israel’s greatest king. (See Jewish Press for full dvar Torah.)