A Look at the Benefits of Prostitution
We wonder if Jewish kids ever can go wrong-- or if troubled kids from the Hood can go right?
Some years ago, some “ good” Jewish girls-- from middle, and upper middle income houses-- well to do—from the better side of the Valley-- hang around with gangs. It had gotten to the point that one of these Jewish girls, from a good house, drove her boyfriend, a gangbanger, as he drove in a mall parking lot to shoot and kill a Jewish boy who had said something to her about hanging out with such types.
Good Jewish girls don't hang around such guys--or do they.
Good kids, from supposedly good homes, do get in trouble-especially if the parents don't have a strong hand on who they are out with or what they are doing.
On the other hand, and there's always the other hand, the one who has had every thing go wrong in life, from the very beginning, and nevertheless , pulled his or her act together. Look at Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas-- I don't care if you like his politics or not--but you know, that with his childhood background, he should have been in some gang. Instead, somebody at Yale decided that he was worth taking a risk with, and he made it to the highest court of the land.
Our lesson is that we can never be very smug about our standing, nor look down the nose at those less fortunate.
That is why our heroine of the Haftarah is such an engaging personality.
This great woman was the heroine of the reading of our Haftarah, the famous Rachab, who helped the spies enter and escape from Jericho. She single-handedly delivered to the children of Israel their first conquest.
Who was she, first of all, this mother of the great prophets?
The Hebrew word to describe her is very unusual-- Rachab haZonah.
If we look at the classical Jewish commentator, Rashi, he quotes the Aramaic translation, the Targum Yonathan, and described her as Pundakita--an innkeeper, and he adds-she sells a variety of foods. She runs a Motel 6 with a MacDonalds, or a bed and breakfast. That's why the spies find her, and that’s why they stay with her. Rashi explains that Zonah is from the word for food, Mazon. Even our commentator, Rabbi Hertz, whose Humash we use, adopts this explanation. It may not be so far off. Perhaps one of the oldest novels in history, the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating to the time before Abraham, talks of his discussions with a “ tavern-keeper”, perhaps the ancient feminine equivalent of the modern bar-tender to whomone opens one’s heart out.
However, one of the commentators, Rabbi David Kimhi explains the Aramaic translation" Pundakita" as a metaphor. She is like a hotel-she makes herself available to anyone who pays the bill! Therefore, a “zonah” is a “zonah”, a prostitute, “pshuto kemashmao”- the explanation is its simple meaning. Now, you have a better guess as to what the Hebrew word Zonah means. By the way, in contemporary Israeli usage, a surrogate mother is referred to a “ rechem pundakit”, which we may translate as “ womb for rent.”
Rashi, our great commentator, is embarrassed. He is writing his comments for his grandchildren, the einiklach, and he is embarrassed by what he reads-- So is Rabbi Hertz, who, writing in the beginning of this century, was still concerned for Victorian propriety. But the authors of the Bible were not embarrassed--they believed in calling a spade a spade.
This is very embarrassing. Our success depended on the conspiracy of a woman of ill repute with the spies Joshua sent. The Talmud made the case even more embarrassing. The Rabbis declared: There was no prince or ruler who had not gone to visit Rachab the prostitute. (A High society call-girl!) She was ten at the time of the Exodus, and had worked for all the forty years that they wandered in the desert"
( Pesahim 115 b).
So why is she such a hero, that later on the prophets themselves describe her descendants as models to be copied by the children of Israel?
The same comment in the Talmud continues--at the age of 50 , she accepted Judaism, and declared --may I be forgiven for my past on account of the flax whereby I hid the spies and the rope by which they escaped."
She went on, the legends say, to marry none other than Joshua, and to be the ancestress of 8 prophets, among them, no less than Jeremiah himself. It is furthermore said, that whenever the Jewish people do God's will, the Holy One himself goes around the world seeking righteous people, like Rahab, to bring into the fold.
The lesson, as all Jewish literature can attest, is “It is never too late”. Every human being can change.
This account raises yet another question. How did Rahab get to be where she was, and what happened to the people who let it happen to her?
She declares to the spies that the people had heard of the great wonders and triumphs of the children of Israel-- yet that itself is no a reason to betray her own city. Many peoples have been in lost-cause battles and fight yet harder.
Look at her occupation.
Rachab hazonah--Rachab the prostitute, is engaged in the occupation of least repute. She sells herself, she is left without pride or dignity.
Where does she live? She lives, our text tells us, on the city walls. Is it for the beautiful view of Jordan river and the mountains of Moab? That's a modern desire. In antiquity, the poor people lived in the outskirts, surrounding the city, while the wealthy lived in the center. Jews, in Yemen, for example, were made to live on the outside perimeter of the city walls, not inside, where they might pollute the Moslem majority.
In the cities of antiquity, the most vulnerable part of the city, the first part to be attacked in event of war, was the wall. It represents the outskirts of the society--the outer perimeter-- the first to be dumped and let go in time of shortage. It is intended as an indication of the degradation to which the society of Jericho had fallen, that there were such women who had to sell themselves in order to survive. Jericho is the world's oldest continually inhabited city, the oldest known city on the face of the earth, yet it could not properly care for its citizens. The grandeur of civilization was built upon the degradation of certain elements of its society.
Is it any wonder that Rahab betrays her city. She has been forced to sell herself to the first bidder, constantly. She has been forced to live on the margins of her society. What does she owe her people, what does she owe her country – nothing!
Is it any wonder that she helps those who would undo that world?
The new society, to which she gave herself over, was to be the very opposite. The spies represented something new on the face of the earth--
They stood for a society in which the well-to do were responsible for the security of those at risk-- A society which sought to instill new values, such as the values of the dignity of woman, not as an object to be used and discarded, to be placed on the wall, but as honored citizen, as center of the family and with it the establishing of the family as the centerpiece of society.( Deborah, in her famous Song, rains disdain upon the Canaanite mother of General Sisera who imagines her son capturing women, referred to as only “wombs”, to be divided as spoil, likes pieces of cloth.)
It was also a new society that said that the poor may not be allowed to remain poor, that those who have help those who do not have. It was not a free for all society, it was not a society of winner take all, nor was the bottom line the rule of thumb. Torah spoke of rights of property combined with obligations and responsibilities that come with property. It was not a hand-out society, but a hands-up society.
Of course, one can ask, of what interest is this to me? The walls of Jericho came tumbling down some 3000 years ago; the ruins are visible for tourists to see even today.
The implications for contemporary society are obvious. We have one of the most successful societies in history, and we have probably lifted more people out of poverty, not only here, but world-wide, as a result of American energy and innovation.
Nevertheless, much remains to be done, but to be done effectively.
We know that much money has been pumped into projects that have gone no where. We also know, that much money, given out thoughtlessly, has supported an education system that thought more to protect incompetent teachers and not to protect the children who need solid education( Certainly that is what the courts have just determined in California!).We know government systems designed to protect our veterans have failed despite the money pumped in. We know that foreign aid has gone to line the pockets of dictators.
Our problem is not wishing to do good. Our problem is not working out the system to do good so it works, so it is effective, so it uplifts instead of enables!The wish to do good needs to be matched by the achieving of good results. It must be effective, or it is all just an eye-wash to make us feel righteous about ourselves.
One last thought-- if a Rahab, despite all that she has gone through, becomes the great heroine of our story, then what can we make of young people who have all the breaks, have all the material benefits, and despite that, get into trouble. After all, if a Rahab was a destitute prostitute gone straight, there is also the rich girl, born in comfort, who becomes the madame to the stars, like a Heidi Fleiss, a “good Jewish girl”. Children of the well-to-do become drug-addicts. Income is no guarantee of well-being.
Moral preachings belong to the well-off. Success and wealth and good education are not enough. Those who have success and wealth and all the breaks in life, those who have it, need the moral preachings the most. As for the one’s stuck in the outer walls of the citadel, they need our help out of the walls.