Written by Tamar Fox. Check out last week’s post in this series, Double Mitzvah – B’Shalach.
This week’s parsha has a few moments where it addresses sexuality outright, and in each case it’s (surprise!) by way of prohibition. Let’s check them out on a case-by-case basis.
The first instance is perhaps the most problematic. Moses is preparing to receive what turns out to be the Ten Commandments. In the beginning of chapter 19, God gives Moses elaborate instructions about how the people should get ready for what’s about to happen. This includes getting close to, but not touching Mount Sinai, and washing their clothes in preparation for receiving the Ten Commandments. But Moses, when reporting this to the people, adds something on to God’s instructions. He says, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.”
In many ways, this strikes me as similar to many of the modesty precepts that are constantly being applied to Jewish women. It implies that women are distractions that should be minimized when holy matters are at hand. But on second look, I appreciate that it’s not, actually, an admonishment of the women. Moses’ addition is not asking the women to do anything differently, it’s asking the men to separate from the women, presumably to ensure appropriate focus and gravitas for the moment at hand.
The implication is that the men should do what they can to minimize their sexual distractions for a few days. Though I’m frustrated that Moses felt the need to tack something onto God’s instructions, it makes me wonder if Moses knew what was likely to distract the Israelites, and decided to act accordingly. In any case, this particular request seems both reasonable, and reasonably worded. There are times, we all know, when we need to distance ourselves from sexual distractions so that we can focus on other things. Sometimes these other things are Jewish, or Torah-related, and sometimes they’re job-related, family-related, or just general good-behavior-related.
The second instance of overt sexuality in this week’s parsha is in the Ten Commandments, when the people are told, “Lo tinaf,” do not commit adultery. Though the specifics of what constitutes adultery aren’t laid out here, it’s important to note that God asks us to reign in our sexuality in the Ten Commandments. Not to do away with it, but simply, to be aware that there are limits, and that general societal limits should be observed. Though we’ve struggled a little with this at Jewrotica it’s hard to get around the basic fact that at its core, Jewish law restricts some acts of sexuality, and that there isn’t much wiggle room around this particular restriction (the same can’t be said for most of the other restrictions of sex and sexuality).
The third restriction of sexuality comes in the very last line of the parsha, when the people are instructed not to go up onto an altar for God while naked. Since the priests had a complex uniform to wear while going up onto the altar, one has to assume that this is addressing people who might be constructing their own personal altars. So it’s an injunction against getting too casual or sexual with your personal observance of spirituality.
Up to now the Torah hasn’t been particularly invested in limiting sexuality — there’s been a lot of rampant sexuality, and sexuality used for constructive means. But in this week’s parsha we get some solid rules about reigning it back.