I have been thinking about a famous Talmudic story. I have added a few embellishments and modern idioms, but the salacious details are the Talmud’s. Such stories are not new to the Twittersphere. They are part and parcel of our Talmud, and even our Bible as well.
Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the mitzvah of tzitzit, heard of a certain prostitute in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred dollars for her services. He wired her the four hundred dollars and scheduled an appointment. When the day arrived he came and waited at her door, and her attendant came and told her, “That man who sent you the four hundred dollars is here and waiting at the door;” to which she replied, “Let him come in.”
When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked, seductively motioning to the man to climb to the top, golden bed. He quickly climbed the silver beds in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of sudden the four tzitzit of his tallit struck him across the face as he climbed on top of the golden bed; whereupon he jumped off the bed and sat on the ground.
She followed him off the bed and sat on the ground next to him and said, “By the Roman Capital, I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.” He replied, “By the holy Temple, never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you; but there is one commandment which the Lord our God has commanded us, it is called tzitzit, and with regard to it the expression ‘I am the Lord your God’ is written twice, signifying I am the God who will exact punishment in the future and I am the God who will give reward in the future. Now when the tzitzit hit me in the face they 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, the name of your school in which you study the Torah.” So he wrote all this down on piece of paper and handed it to her, returning to his town. She then arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the government, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; her sexy lingerie, however, she retained.
She then came to the school of Rabbi Hiyya, and said to him, “Master, give instructions to me that you might make me a convert.” He replied, “My daughter, perhaps you have set your eyes upon one of my disciples?” She thereupon took out the handwritten note and handed it to the Rabbi. Rabbi Hiyya said, “The two of you should go and get married.”
And that very lingerie which she had spread out for him for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully. And so this is the reward of the mitzvah in this world; and as for its reward in the future world we do not know how great it will prove to be. (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 44a)
The Torah portion states: “That shall be your tzitzit; look at them and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.” (Numbers 15:39)
Whether it is Twitter, Facebook, sexting, or a gold bed, our eyes do stray. It is not a sickness to be treated or a disease to be cured. It is instead human. Rabbi ben Zoma states: “Who is a hero? The person who conquers his, or her, evil inclination.” (Pirke Avot 4:1) I am forgiving of human weaknesses. I am unforgiving when people’s mistakes, and sins, are excused as addictions. When we err, we have no choice but to admit our errors and change our ways. When we face addictions, as difficult and painful as it may be, we have no choice but to conquer them.
Everyone does err, and even stray. Our tradition teaches that rituals help to focus our attention towards our divine purpose. It is always helpful to have reminders. It can be the mezuzah on our doorposts, or the tallit on our shoulders. The intention is that they help to bring out the best in us.
And when we think of veering, rituals can help to redirect our thoughts—and we hope and pray as well, even guide our actions.