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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, and Coitus Interruptus.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, is chock full of sex-related commandments. It includes:
Any one of these commandments would be a great subject for this column; however, I would like to focus on one commandment in particular that is not on this list – the first commandment of the Torah portion.
The Torah portion begins with the laws relating to a beautiful captive. Here’s the scenario: the Israelite army prevails against its enemies, and takes captives. One particular Israelite spots among the captives a beautiful woman, and desires her, wishing to marry her. The Torah permits this, but details a series of steps that he must first take: he must take her into his house, shave her head, do her nails, remove her clothing of captivity, and give her a month to mourn for her parents. At the end of her mourning period, he may now be intimate with her, and take her as his wife.
The famous commentator Rashi makes a profoundly fascinating statement about this commandment. He says: “the Torah [in permitting this marriage] is accommodating the evil inclination – for if the Holy One, blessed is He, would not permit her to him, he would take her illicitly.”
Consider that! Rashi suggests that this is the kind of marriage that Torah might ordinarily have prohibited – but that because G-d recognized that it is a temptation that man would be unable to resist, G-d decided to permit it – albeit with some preliminary conditions.
(Rashi’s view is consistent with his later opinions in which he interprets each one of the conditions imposed upon the Israelite as conditions designed to dissuade him from marrying her. According to Rashi, he shaves her head and lets her nails grow long in order to detract from her beauty; he removes her “clothing of captivity,” which Rashi explains are clothing designed to seduce the enemy, to be replaced by less attractive clothing; he is required to encourage her to mourn in a conspicuous place in his house, so that her tears and splotchy face will be off-putting. After a month, the hope is that the fire of his desire for her will have subsided, and he will no longer be interested in marrying her. An alternative reading of the same verses, however, might be that Torah is simply concerned with ensuring that her dignity is upheld and maintained, while integrating her into a new culture and environment.)
In other words, this is a mitzvah in which G-d takes man’s base urges into account – something which we do not see with respect to any other commandment (such as adultery, homosexuality, etc.) – and allows those urges to dictate Divine “policy.”
Why this particular one? Perhaps it is because of the powerful bloodlust that is awakened by battle that is far more difficult to control, and that must be tempered, rather than simply denied. Regardless of the specific reason, however, it is clear that this policy is unique to this scenario; G-d provides no such leeway when it comes to other prohibitions, which He forbids without qualification.
But it is nevertheless encouraging to see that He is aware of the struggles that we undergo every day as we try to keep His commandments.
This reminds me a similarly profound and thought-provoking story in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 64a):
It was a dark time for the Jewish people, who had been repeatedly slaughtered, persecuted, and decimated by their enemies. They understood that all that had befallen them was punishment for the cardinal sin of worshiping idols. Yet they felt the sense of despair that one has when there is a destructive urge that one cannot seem to resist or control, regardless of the havoc that it wreaks in one’s life.
So our sages cried: “Woe, woe, it is that the evil inclination for idolatry, destroyed the Sanctuary, burnt the Temple, slew the righteous, and exiled Israel from their land; and still it dances among us!”
Anticipating G-d’s response, the sages continued: “Have you not set it before us so that we might be rewarded for resisting its temptations? We desire neither the temptation nor the reward!”
They fasted for three days, entreating G-d for mercy. Then, a single piece of parchment fluttered down from Heaven, on which was written one word: Emet. Truth. They understood this to be G-d’s approval of their argument.
Suddenly, a fiery lion emerged from the place of the Holy of Holies, and the Prophet Zecharia said to them, “that is the evil inclination for idolatry. Now is your chance to be rid of it once and for all.” They grabbed hold of the lion and were able to subdue it, placing it in a lead box, so that it’s cries would be muffled. From that moment on, the evil inclination for idolatry was gone.
The sages then said, “since the time is propitious, let us pray that the evil inclination for sexual lust may likewise be subdued!”
So they prayed and, sure enough, the evil inclination for sexual lust was delivered into their hands. They imprisoned it for three days; however, after that they were searching for a newly-laid egg throughout the whole of Israel and could not find one. Thus, they realized that the same sexual lust responsible for illicit sex was also responsible for ordinary and necessary sexual desire, without which the world cannot exist, and that there is no way to isolate the sexual lust for only illicit sexual liaisons.
In the end, they blinded it, and this helped to reduce the temptation for incest.
In this story, too, G-d acknowledges His people’s plea that our evil inclination is a difficult enemy to vanquish, and the promise of everlasting reward is simply insufficient to inspire the kind of control and self-discipline that we need to rein it in. Indeed, in the case of the evil inclination for idolatry, we were able to eliminate it altogether.
Sexual impulse, on the other hand, is another story. Our “good” sexual impulses are too closely intertwined with our “bad” sexual impulses (indeed raising the question as to whether there even are “good” and “bad” sexual urges, or if it is merely that some sexual urges need to be controlled and restrained, whereas others are to be celebrated and indulged). Although in the story G-d appears to acknowledge the frustrating strength and scope of our sexual impulse, thus giving the sages an opportunity to subdue it, the sages realize that our sexual impulse is to intrinsic and essential to life to do away with. Thus, for better or for worse, the struggle must go on – with G-d’s sympathies and understanding.