We are introduced to the mitzvah of tzitzis at the end of this week’s Parsha.
Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations…and when you see it, you will remember all of G-d’s the commandments…and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. (15:38-39)
Tzitzis (strings-fringes) are attached to four cornered garments. One of their functions is to remind a person that he is Jewish and not to mindlessly follow his emotions. The Talmud (Menachos 44a) relates an incident regarding tzitzis involving a student of Rav Chiya, a 3rd century sage living in Israel during the Roman occupation.
Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the precept of tzitzis, heard about a prostitute in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold dinars for her services. He sent her four hundred gold dinars and made an appointment with her.
When he arrived, her maid announced him and was given instructions to take him to a room in which there were seven beds…She (the prostitute) then went up to the top bed and laid down naked upon it. He too went up after her; when he undressed his tzitzis struck him across the face. He immediately slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. She also slipped off and sat upon the ground and swore, ‘By the Roman Capitol, I will not leave you until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.’ He replied, ‘I have ‘never seen a woman as beautiful as you; but there is one precept which the G-d has commanded us called tzitzis. [When the tzitzis accidentally swung across my face, I was remined of the verse that speaks of G-d’s great reward for keeping the Torah and its moral standards.] Now the tzitzis appeared to me as four witnesses testifying against me.’
She said, ‘I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, and the name of the school in which you study the Torah.’ He wrote all this down and handed it to her. Thereupon she arose and divided her estate into three parts; one-third for the government (a payoff to allow her to convert), one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand. In addition, she retained the sheets she had originally put on the bed (she had intended to use the student-custmer.)
She then came to the Beit Midrash (study hall) of Rav Chiya and said to him, ‘Master, give instructions (to your students) to allow me to convert to Judaism.’ ‘My daughter,’ he replied ‘perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the disciples?’ (I.e, maybe you have a romantic infatuation with one of the students; that’s not a reason to disrupt your life and go through the conversion process.) She thereupon took out the note and handed it to him and explained what had happened. He said, ‘Go,’ said he ‘and enjoy your acquisition.’ (I.e., begin the conversion process and upon completion you can marry the young man who had originally come to you for other purposes.)
The Talmud concludes with an observation; Those very sheets, which she had intended to use for him for an illicit purpose, now would be used for a praiseworthy purpose.
Who is the hero of this story? Is it the student, who was a man undressed in bed next to a beautiful naked woman (obviously dealing with a libido on steroids) yet he was able to take back his sanity and refrain from doing something that was not in consonance with his value system? Is it the woman, who was willing to change her entire existence due to one incident she had been part of? Was it Rav Chiya, who did not do what most of us would have-expel, embarrass, and chastise the student for almost participating in behavior that would have cast aspersions on him personally as well as ruing the reputation of the academy he headed? In addition, he did not send away the woman with an ignominious reputation nor dissuade her from marrying his student, even though it might have cast aspersions on his academy. (“A shanda; what will the neighbors say?”)
My vote goes for the woman. Granted, the student was in a morally compromising situation and was able to overcome his yetzer hara-evil impulse-and refrain from something not compatible with the life he was striving to live. The necessary requirement to make that decision is the ability to allow rational thinking to prevail over certain feelings and the lies that accompany them. Although this young man was a student, he is our teacher because throughout life we encounter similar, although not as extreme, challenges. He is our teacher for showing us that even in the most extreme circumstances, one can take back his or her humanity and do the right thing.
Rav Chiya is also our teacher because he was able to overcome his ego. We get caught up with our personal and professional reputations and especially the institutions we either build or represent. When someone does something to potentially destroy us or the school, business, society, association or even tradition that has become a significant part of our life, our default has us expel or remove the person, discredit him and maybe even throw him under the proverbial bus. We rarely think about the person; we think of ourselves and our careers. Rav Chiya was motivated by what would best benefit his students rather than the institution he directed.
The reason the former prostitute is the ultimate hero is because hers was a permanent decision with a lifetime of ramifications. Both Rav Chiya and his student were confronted with a choice of choosing sanity over insanity-mind over body, character over ego ; but these choices were momentary. She didn’t make one choice at one time, her commitment required her to make numerous choices for years to come. Firstly, she was willing to give up everything she possessed and even travel (a dangerous undertaking in the ancient world) to a foreign destination, explain her story (without knowing what the outcome would be), and then do the necessary lifestyle and changes of behavior, attitude, and values required for the life of a Jew. This level of inner strength makes her a unique paradigm for the power of human potential. Being witness to one incident of a young man who was able to say ‘no’ was enough for her to rethink her own life.
When her visitor had a sudden change of heart, she initially feared that he had found her to be repulsive. He reassured her that his change of heart had nothing to do with her appearance; in truth, he had never seen a woman as beautiful as her. But his answer left her troubled and anxious. After witnessing his impressive behavior, his willingness to give up the object of his desire in which he had already greatly invested and instead respond to a higher calling, she realized that although she had no blemish of the body, she did have a blemish of the soul; her way of life was not whole. She made a radical decision, abandoned her lifestyle and wealth, and followed the path of the person who granted her this insight.
One of the most fascinating and instructive aspects of the story is how the former prostitute related to the tools of her trade; the sheets. One would think that on her way to a new life, she would quickly discard the things most intimately associated with her former life but she obviously made a conscious decision to keep them. She isn’t the only one who sees them as important; when relating the story, the Talmud itself makes a point of noting that after her conversion, she used the same sheets when she lived intimately with her husband. This seems to be integral part of the story.
“The same sheets she had put out for him illicitly she now used permissibly.” The inclinations will be used and expressed in a place of holiness, in marriage. The story teaches us that human urges and inclinations are not inherently wrong or evil, but when they hold the reins, they are liable to lead to negative places. The goal is not to uproot and destroy one’s inclination, but to channel it toward expression in the proper contexts.
This story has many layers of depth as well as lessons for life and is a testament to the beauty of the ways of the Torah. The same way that a prostitute who had made poor life choices did not feel that she was defined by them, so too we can learn a lesson from her that we do not need to be restricted by the place in life in which we find ourselves. If the Talmud, the most authoritative Jewish text since the Bible, chose to tell the story of this remarkable woman, it behooves us to learn from her. The same way she was able to react to an incident and change her life accordingly, so too with us. It can be done.
May we all have the good sense and inner strength to achieve what we are destined for.