Freedom from Abstinence

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.

In last year’s column, we explored the relationship between Passover and sex, and briefly discussed the following passage in the Haggadah:

“‘And he saw our affliction’ — this refers to abstinence from marital intimacy, as it is written: ‘G-d saw the children of Israel, and G-d knew.’”

Let’s have a close look at this.

Why does “affliction” necessary mean sexual abstinence? And how is the proof text of G-d “seeing and knowing” a demonstration that the suffering referred to in this verse mean sexual repression?

By now, we have spent several columns discussing the connection between “affliction” and sexual frustration. When Laban took leave of his son-in-law, Jacob, he warned him not to afflict his daughters. When Dinah was kidnapped by Shechem, he afflicted her. On Yom Kippur, we are commanded to afflict ourselves. From all of those sources, we have learned that the word “affliction,” or, in Hebrew, “Inui,” refers to withholding sexual gratification.

This sexual abstinence was an integral part of Pharaoh’s plan, both as a means of subjugating the Hebrews by depriving them of such a natural source of pleasure and nurturing, as well as a means of population control — for without sex, there can be no new, little Hebrews. The Midrash relates that Pharaoh’s taskmasters would often not allow the Hebrew men to return at night to their wives. One famous example occurred with Shlomit bat Divri, when the taskmaster called her husband to work at night; in Shlomit’s case, however, unbeknownst to her, the taskmaster took her husband’s place in her bed. The next day, when the taskmaster sensed that Shlomit’s husband was aware of what the taskmaster had done, he beat him mercilessly, attracting the attention of young Moses, the prince of Egypt, who smote and killed the Egyptian, burying him in the dirt.

The Arizal adds that the Pharaoh’s guards would also prevent the Hebrew women from immersing in the mikvah, the ritual bath that signals the end of a woman’s menstrual period and the restoration of marital intimacy with her husband. Without the ability to immerse in the mikvah, those women would remain in a perpetual state of niddah, and marital relations would continue to be prohibited.

Finally, by cruelly decreeing that all newborn male Hebrews be drowned in the Nile, Pharaoh created a powerful incentive for the Hebrews themselves to practice abstinence. Indeed, the Midrash relates that Moses himself was born after his own parents had practiced abstinence for a time; for why would they risk bringing a boy into a world in which he would be immediately killed? Nevertheless, their young daughter Miriam convinced them that abstinence was playing directly into Pharaoh’s hands, and prophesied that they would in fact bear the child who would grow to be the righteous redeemer of all of the Hebrews. Thus, they resumed sexual relations, and Moses was the result.

It would be a mistake to think that the “affliction” associated with abstinence was simply the resulting squeeze on reproduction. Indeed, the Midrash states that G-d found a way to deal with the Hebrews’ diminished reproductive opportunities by each pregnancy resulting in sextuplets. Thus they continued to increase, multiply, and “swarm.” Clearly despite their reduced sexual activity, they they were still reproducing at a comparable rate.

In any event, however, the mere loss of propagative potential would not be the “affliction” described by the Torah. When Laban warned Jacob not to withhold sex from his daughters, Jacob’s wives had already given birth to 11 of the 12 tribes. Laban was not admonishing him to have more children. He was telling him not to withhold sexual pleasure. When Dinah was kidnapped by Shechem, he taught her sexual pleasure, and she was pained when he withheld it; not because she was being deprived of children — indeed, we know that Dinah emerged pregnant from her brief liaison with Shechem — but because she was being deprived of sexual pleasure. Similarly, the prohibition on having sex on Yom Kippur applies equally to pregnant women, impotent men, and both men and women who are past childbearing age — because it has to do with pleasure and intimacy, not reproduction.

Pharaoh deprived us of this basic and fundamental human need. “And G-d saw, and G-d knew.”

Some commentaries explain that G-d “knowing” suggests that G-d knew something that only He could have known, the kind of thing that happens intimately behind closed doors: sex. Others remind us that the biblical meaning of “knowledge” is sexual intimacy: “And Adam knew his wife, Eve”; “and Cain knew his wife”; “and Adam knew his wife again”; “and [Judah] did not cease to know her.” Thus, when it says that G-d knew, it is reference to His awareness of our sexual frustration, of our abstinence.

This was something that G-d could no longer tolerate. He needed His people to be having lots of sex!

And so “G-d took as out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with a great manifestation, and with signs and wonders.”

Have a happy and sexy Passover!