|We are introduced to the mitzvah of tzitzis (strings attached to a four cornered garment) at the end of this week’s Parsha. The following remarkable incident occurred in the 3rd century and is recorded in the Talmud (Menachot 44a).|
Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the mitzva of tzitzis, heard about a prostitute who charged four hundred gold dinars for her services. He sent her the money and made arrangements to meet with her. When he arrived, he was taken to a room with seven beds…She (the prostitute) then went up to the top bed and laid down naked on it. He went up after her but 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 a precept G-d has commanded us called tzitzis. Now the tzitzis appeared to me (i.e. when the strings of the tzitzis accidentally struck him) as four witnesses testifying against me.’
She said, ‘I will not leave you until you tell me your name, your town, your teacher, and your Yeshiva.’ He wrote it all down and gave it to her. Thereupon she arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the (Roman)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.
When she arrived at the Yeshiva of Rav Chiya, she said, ‘Please 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, a romantic infatuation is not a reason to disrupt your life and to go through the conversion process.) She thereupon took out the note and handed it to him and explained what had happened. He said, ‘Go and enjoy your acquisition.’ (I.e., begin the conversion process and ultimately marry the student who had originally come to you for other purposes.)
The Talmud concludes with an observation; Those same sheets 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; a naked man in bed lying next to a naked woman but was able to remember retain the presence of mind to refrain from doing something that was not in harmony with his value system? Is it the woman, who was willing to change her entire existence due to one incident she had witnessed? Was it Rav Chiya, who did not expel, embarrass, or chastise his student for almost participating in behavior that would have cast aspersions on him personally as well as ruing the reputation of the institution he headed? In addition, he did not send away a former prostitute nor dissuade her from marrying his student, even though it might have caused a scandal. 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. Although this young man was a student, he is our teacher because throughout life we encounter similar, although not as extreme, challenges and he has taught 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 represent. When someone does something to potentially destroy us or the school, business, society, sorority, fraternity, association or even tradition that has become a significant part of our life, our default has us expel or remove the person, discredit them and maybe even throw them 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 mind over body, character over ego, but these choices were momentary whereas her commitment required a lifetime of coming out of her comfort zone. She was willing to give up her wealth and travel (a dangerous undertaking in the ancient world) to a foreign destination, to explain her story (without knowing what the outcome would be), and then do the necessary lifestyle 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 repulsive but he reassured her that it had nothing to do with her appearance. After witnessing his willingness to give up a lust, one in which he had already greatly invested, she realized that although she had no blemish of the body, she did have a blemish of the soul. She made a radical decision to abandon her wealth and lifestyle.
One of the most illustrative details of the story is how the former prostitute related to the tools of her trade; the sheets. Rather than discard the things most intimately associated with her past, she made a conscious decision to kept them. The Talmud includes the detail 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. 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 inclinations but to channel them.
This story shouts a message; if a prostitute wasn’t defined or limited by poor life choices, so too with us. It can be done.
May we all have the good sense and inner strength to achieve what we are capable of.