Sexuality as Sanctity

The first words of this week’s parsha have been co-opted, to some extent, by Ramban’s reading them as a call to general sanctity, even where not specifically commanded by law. That’s particularly famous because of his reference to a נבל ברשות התורה, one who leads a dissolute life without violating any specific Torah laws.

Before Ramban came along, Rashi understood the call to be קדושים, which we commonly translate as “holy” or “sanctified,” to mean we should separate ourselves “מן העריות ומן העבירה, from sexual immorality and sin.” He adds that every place the Torah mentions the need to restrict ourselves sexually, it refers to קדושה, sanctity.

In a world where many claim that activity is a matter of two consenting adults and not anyone else’s business, Rashi asks us to understand the Torah to be saying that handling that area of life appropriately is the essence of sanctity.

Slippery Slopes

Several times in this week’s parsha, Rashi notes that one seemingly insignificant step will lead to worse ones. On 19;4’s warning אל תפנו אל האלילים, don’t turn towards idols, Rashi explains that “turning” means to worship them, but then translates אלילים as rooted in the word אל (I think with a patach underneath the aleph, for the word that means “not”), that it is thought of as nothing. On the next phrase, not to make אלהי מסכה, metal gods, Rashi says at first, we think of them as nothing, but if we start to follow them, in the end we will experience them as gods.

Behavior we take on insincerely (presumably for other reasons, like to fit in with those around us, or to close a business deal) works its way into our beings, for Rashi, becomes a part of who we are. We start out worshipping nothing for some other reason, then become attached.

That’s a deepening of commitment to a certain behavior, but the process can also lead from one behavior to others. 19;11 warns us against stealing, denying (falsely), lying, and swearing falsely. Rashi reads that as a sequence—one who steals ends up denying, then lying, then swearing falsely. Similarly, when the Torah warns that if the people ignore Molech-worship in their midst, it uses a doubled verb, העלם יעלימו, for “close their eyes.” Rashi says it’s to signify that if they close their eyes to one matter, they will in the end close their eyes to many matters; if a small court closes its’ eyes, in the end a large court will.

Rashi saw behavior feeding on itself, leading us to come to believe that which we had not believed before, to act in ways we never would have thought, by taking a gateway step (theft leading to denial and so on, hiding one crime leading to covering up others, leading our courts to stop ferreting out and uprooting wrongs). We convince ourselves that the step we want to take is a) not so bad and b) a single instance, that it won’t affect anything else.

These Rashis say that we are often wrong to make either of those claims.

God Knows Our True Motives

When the Torah warns us against putting a stumbling block before the blind, 19;14, Rashi expands that to include those who are blind about a particular area—meaning that bad advice is also a sort of stumbling block before the blind. I think that’s well-enough known that I wouldn’t have commented on it here.

His next comment, on the words ויראת מאלקיך, and you shall fear your Lord, is also somewhat well-known, but I think I can add a piece. Rashi says since people can’t know our motives—we can claim we thought we were giving good advice—the Torah warns that Hashem knows our thoughts and motives, that the Torah generally appends the words ויראת מאלקיך (five times: twice in this chapter, three more in chapter 25) where people can’t tell what we intended.

Rashi most likely meant that the person knows his or her own bad motives but can hide them from others. It strikes me that the comment applies even when we don’t recognize our own motives. The mental-health fields have shown how many of us act without understanding what’s going on inside our heads, unless we sit and analyze in-depth. Part of what Hashem is telling us here, I think Rashi might agree, is that we have to be careful about our motives, because we might subconsciously be giving bad advice, hiding from ourselves what we truly intend, as well as from others. But we have to fear Hashem, Who knows all.

Nature Responds to Mitzvot

19;25 assures us that when we begin using fruit trees for our own purposes—the prior two verses had established the three years of orlah, when we cannot use the fruit at all, and the year of neta revai, when we have to bring the fruit to Yerushalayim and eat it there—it will be להוסיף לכם תבואתו, to add for us its yield.  Rashi reads those words as an assurance that the reward for observing those mitzvot will be an increased yield in the following years.

On verse 29, when the Torah warns against leaving one’s daughter open to licentiousness (for Rashi, sexual intercourse other than for marriage), the verse warns ולא תזנה הארץ, that the land might not fall into prostitution. Rashi explains that opaque term—in what way can a land be prostituted?—to mean the land will not give its fruits where it is supposed to (as the daughter did not express her sexuality in the context she was supposed to), it will give them elsewhere.

The common denominator is that Rashi sees the Torah as identifying some observances as affecting what we might call the natural order. Part of the nature of Israel, according to Rashi (perhaps only when the majority of the Jews are living on it, perhaps always) is that the people’s level of observance affects the Land.

A Land of Israel in which everyone observes orlah and neta revai and in which marital relations only happen in the context of marriages will be more agriculturally productive (and, perhaps, more economically productive in general, if we take agriculture to symbolize ways of supporting oneself generally) than one in which those are not true. For those who want to predict agricultural or economic yields in Israel, Rashi tells us, requires an awareness of the people’s religiosity in addition to all the other factors that enter the equation.

A Chip Off the Old Block

We earlier noted Rashi’s comment that ignoring Molech worship will lead to ignoring other wrongs.  The next verse, 20;5, warns that in such a case Hashem will “place My face” (meaning turn His attention towards, as it were) on that man and his family. Rashi, on the word ובמשפחתו, his family, cites R. Shimon’s question—what did the family do? His answer is that if a family has a tax collector (much hated in Talmudic times, since they were allowed to squeeze people for as much as they could get), they were all tax collectors, and they will cover for him.

It’s a challenging claim, especially in our times, when many “good” families have members who take a problematic path (religiously, ethically, morally, etc.). One possibility, it seems to me, is that the end of the Rashi gives us the way to distinguish between families where the black sheep is a complete deviant and where he is drawing on issues within the family—if they cover for him.  If the family of a Molech worshipper brings him to the authorities, or denounces his Molech worship, they can legitimately say it’s not their family fault that this happened, that this person made his/her own unfortunate choices.

But if the family turns a blind eye—and the definition of a blind eye is beyond our scope here—that would seem to be what R. Shimon means. And while he says it in terms of Molech, it seems applicable in other areas as well, that when a family or group member acts in a way we disavow, we need to disavow it. The failure to do so implicates us as well, and is what the Torah was warning us to avoid.

Five Rashis that teach us about sanctity: directly, in the form of proper sexuality, and indirectly, by being aware of the impact of our actions (in leading to others and in affecting nature), being concerned with our motives, and realizing the obligation to protest when those close to us act wrongly.