Netflix and Chillin’ at the Foot of Mount Sinai

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing 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.

Rated PG-13

How many ways do we have of referring to casual sex?
Today, if you’re invited to have casual sex, it could be:

  • A “booty call”
  • To “hook up”
  • “Friends with benefits”
  • To “Netflix and chill”
  • To “fool around”
  • To “score”
  • To “play”

None of these are expressions that we would use for deep or meaningful sex – they are reserved for strictly casual, NSA sex.

Does Torah have a word for casual sex?

We know the way Torah refers to serious, intense, or procreative sex:

  • To “know” someone (see, e.g., Genesis, 4:1)
  • To “lie with” someone (see, e.g., Genesis, 19:32)
  • To “come on to” someone (see, e.g., Genesis, 16:4)
  • To uncover someone’s nakedness (see, e.g., Leviticus 18:6)

But how about just fun, frivolous, meaningless, casual sex. Is there a term for that?

There certainly is!

In this week’s ParshahKi Tisa — the Israelites find themselves concerned that Moses, their leader and guide, has not yet come back down Mount Sinai, despite the fact that 40 days have passed and he took no provisions with him for an extended stay on the mountain. So they turned to Moses’s brother, Aaron. The traditional account is that they asked Aaron to make them a god, who would replace Moses, and lead them through the desert. Aaron, in turn, commands them to bring all of their golden jewelry, which he then casts into the fire, and the Golden Calf emerges. Aaron builds an altar before it, and he proclaims the following day to be “a festival to the Lord.” Exodus, 32:1-5.

The following morning, “they arose early, offered up burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and they got up to make merry.” Exodus, 32:6.

The expression “to make merry” is a loose translation of the Hebrew word “l’tzachek” — לצחק. So what does l’tzachek really mean?

Rashi’s first comment is that “this word connotes sexual immorality, as it is said: ‘to mock (לצחק) me’ (Genesis, 39:17)”. Rashi’s reference to Genesis is to the episode in which Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of trying rape her. She first told her household: “Look! He brought us a Hebrew man to mock us. He came to me to lie with me, but I called loudly.” Then, when her husband came home, she said: “The Hebrew slave that you brought to us came to me to mock me.” It is this second reference to “mocking” that Rashi says is euphemism for sex (the first reference — “to mock us” — would be unlikely to refer to sex, as it complained of mockery that was directed at the entire household).

Yet, this cannot be the sole basis for reading a sexual connotation into the word l’tzachek. After all, Potiphar’s wife might well have been referring to the humiliation of a mere Hebrew slave taking liberties far above his station — that was certainly what she meant the first time she used the word “mockery.” Moreover, the translation itself is imprecise — how can the same word be translated as “to make merry” in one place, but “to mock” in another?

This same statement by Potiphar’s wife — “to mock me” — is used to interpret a nearly identical expression earlier in Genesis. When Isaac was but a toddler, his mother Sarah “saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making merrym’tzachek (מצחק).” Genesis, 21:9. As a result, she confronts her husband, Abraham, and insists that Ishmael be disowned and sent away.

In what kind of “merriness” was Ishmael engaged that so earned Sarah’s ire?

There too, Rashi states that m’tzachek is “an expression of illicit sexual relations, as it is said (regarding Potiphar’s wife) ‘to mock (לצחק) me’.” The Midrash elaborates, explaining that “Sarah saw Ishmael seduce married women and dishonor them.” Genesis Rabbah, 53:11.

Where is that from? Can it possibly be based solely upon an offhand expression by Potiphar’s wife?

There is yet one more place where the expression “m’tzachek” is used.

After Isaac and Rebecca had their children — the two twins, Jacob and Esau — the family moved to the city of Gerar in the Land of the Philistines. Concerned that Rebecca’s beauty might provoke one of the inhabitants to kill him in order to marry Rebecca, Isaac pretended that Rebecca was his sister, rather than his wife. After they had been living there for a while, however, they let down their guard, and one day, Abimelech, the king of Gerar looked through the window and saw that “behold, Isaac was jesting — m’tzachek — with Rebecca his wife.” Genesis, 26:8.

Virtually all of the commentaries agree that this “jesting” meant lighthearted, loving, casual sex.

The Ba’al Haturim notes, however, that this meaning of m’tzachek is limited to its context — sex with a married woman; as Rebecca was, in fact, a married woman. Therefore, when that same word is used in the context of Ishmael’s misbehavior, it similarly means that he would “hook up” with other married women.

Years later, whether deliberately or unwittingly, Potiphar’s wife used the perfect expression to describe Joseph’s supposed attempt to “score” with her — “to mock me,” or, more precisely, to “jest with me” or “make merry with me.”

Thus, when the identical word was used to describe the Israelites’ activities early that fateful morning, the commentaries understood it to mean an orgy of hedonistic sexual abandon.

Why did the Golden Calf have that kind of effect? Why would idol worship necessarily lead to a descent into sexual depravity? In fact, as we discussed here, 40 years later, sex was used to seduce the Israelites to idol-worship — not the reverse.

Yet, perhaps Torah’s point is that what separates those of our actions that are laden with meaning from those that merely serve our basest impulses — what separates significant and consequential sex from casual sex — is having a connection and a commitment to something higher than ourselves, to an absolute and uncompromising source of righteousness.

So long as we are connected above, nothing that we do is ever truly devoid of meaning. Even our misbehavior is laced with guilt, regret and/or a future commitment to improve — all of which are signs of spiritual vitality, such that even our mistakes are pregnant with meaning. Promptly upon abandoning that bond, the Israelites slid into the numbing fog of unrestrained hedonism…

But as soon as our relationship with G-d was mended, our self-dignity — and our ability to imbue all that we touch with everlasting meaning — was restored.

Shabbat shalom!