Prudish or Proper?

Friday, 28 July, 2017 - 12:30 pm

We live in a time in which communications are dominated by social media. This has advantages, such as the ability to get information that is productive, to the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time. Imagine if Paul Revere had had access to Twitter; or if Moses could use Whatsapp instead of the trumpets to gather the people in the desert. It also enables people to stay in touch in real time despite great distances between them (or sometimes sitting on the next couch…). Every tool has both positive and negative applications.

In my opinion, one of the negative applications of social media is people using it to conduct their personal, even intimate, relationships in full view of the world. Granted, social media is not the sole culprit in this public display of most private matters. Entertainment media can shoulder its fair share of blame. Entire magazines and shows are dedicated to gossiping about who did what in public. This has now seeped into the “mainstream” culture of Western society.

It used to be that, at least on the outside, modesty was valued. Today “those kind” of folks are regarded as prudish rather than proper. In the 1980s, my uncle, Rabbi Manis Friedman wrote a book entitled, “Doesn’t anyone blush anymore?” I shudder to think what the 2017 version of this book what have to deal with. So what is Torah’s view on this?  

In this week’s Torah portion Moses is recounting the travels and battles of the 40 year desert sojourn. He tells of the instruction by Hashem to the nation of Israel to avoid armed conflict with the nations of Moab and Ammon. This is meant to be a reward to Lot, the ancestor of these two nations, for protecting Abraham and Sarah’s secret during their trip to Egypt. Though the lands of Moab and Ammon are part of the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, that heritage was delayed so that Lot’s descendants could enjoy the use of those lands for a time.

Yet there is a subtle difference in how those instructions are relayed regarding Moab vs. how they apply to Ammon. Regarding Moab it says, “Do not distress the Moabites, and do not provoke them to war.” About Ammon it says, “When you approach the children of Ammon, neither distress them, nor provoke them.” The Ammonites are not to be provoked at all, while the Moabites may not be provoked to war, allowing a little frightening, but no battle.

Rashi explains, that the Ammonites were given preferential treatment for the following reason. Both Moab and Ammon were the result of an illicit relationship between Lot and his daughters. When the babies are born, the older daughter names her son Moav - from my father. She unabashedly proclaims the illegitimate origin of her son. The younger daughter on the other hand, names her son Ben Ami - son of my people, thereby merely alluding to his origin, while maintaining a public sense of modesty. Because of that slight nod to modesty, her children are protected from any sort provocation during the Israelite journey to the Promised Land.

So we see how much Hashem values modesty. He is willing to give security to a wicked nation born of incest, just because of mere lip-service to modesty by their ancestress. How much more so would Hashem regard the modesty of His treasured people. Let us take heed and begin to implement this lesson into our lives. Prudish? I think not. Proper and G-dly is more like it!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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