We read in Parashat Vayeishev the story of Yehuda and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. After the premature death of her first husband, Yehuda’s oldest son, Yehuda had her marry his second son, following the practice of yibum (levirate marriage). However, Yehuda’s second son also died, at which point Yehuda sent Tamar back to her parents’ home, fearful of having her marry his third son. Tamar, determined to have children, later posed as a prostitute along the road as Yehuda traveled, and he solicited her services and impregnated her. When it was discovered that she was pregnant, it was assumed that she had engaged in a forbidden relationship, for which she was going to be executed. At the last minute, Tamar produced Yehuda’s personal items which he had given her as security, and announced that the owner of those items was the father of the twins she was carrying. Yehuda at that point acknowledged that he had impregnated his daughter-in-law, such that the relationship was acceptable, as a form of yibum, and Tamar was therefore not punished.
The Gemara, in several places (Berakhot 43b and elsewhere), famously comments on the basis of this story, “It is preferable for a person to cast himself into a furnace of fire than to publicly humiliate his fellow.” Tamar did not allow herself to save her life by explicitly disclosing the identity of the man who had impregnated her, and instead allowed that man to make the decision for himself whether or not to come forward. This demonstrates, the Gemara teaches, that one should be prepared to surrender his life rather than subject another person to humiliation. Meiri (Berakhot 43b) writes that this comment was made “derekh tzachut” – rhetorically, to emphasize the gravity of causing somebody embarrassment, and should not be taken as an actual halakhic directive. By contrast, Tosafot (Sota 10b), Rabbeinu Yona (Sha’arei Teshuva 3:138) and the Tashbetz (Magen Avot, 3:11) seem to have understood the Gemara’s remark literally, as requiring surrendering one’s life to avoid embarrassing another person. (See Rav Asher Weiss’ discussion of the topic.)
Regardless, Rav Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza noted the significance of the fact that the Gemara made this inference from the particular circumstance of Tamar, who refused to name Yehuda as the father of her twins. Tamar was prepared to sacrifice her life even after producing Yehuda’s articles – meaning, had Yehuda decided to remain silent in order to protect his reputation, Tamar would have allowed herself to be killed. It thus turns out, the Rebbe of Ostrovtza observed, that Tamar was ready to surrender her life in order not to shame somebody who was ready to allow an innocent pregnant woman to be killed for the sake of protecting his reputation. We might have assumed that once Tamar determined that Yehuda would prefer that she die rather than admit to being the father, she would no longer deem him worthy of being protected from shame. But even at that point, Tamar refused to cause Yehuda humiliation – even though it could certainly be argued that he would have then fully deserved to be publicly shamed, as he was ready to allow Tamar and her fetuses to die to protect his reputation.
The Rebbe of Ostrovtza’s observation reminds us that even people who have acted wrongly do not necessarily deserve to have their wrongs publicly exposed. We cannot assume that just because somebody acted improperly, he ipso facto forfeits his or her right to dignity. Certainly, those who pose an actual danger must be exposed. Generally, however, we are not entitled to cause others humiliation, even if we have valid reasons to dislike them, as even those who are guilty of misconduct must be given the right to live in dignity and not have their reputations destroyed.