Sex. Passion. Power. Influence.
We almost-instinctively label these things, overlaying them with judgemental words… good sex, abuse of power, evil influence, and so on.
But of course, there is nothing inherently good or bad about passion or power, at least not in a vacuum. Just like sex, power and influence can be degrading and disgusting, raw and brutal in thought and word and deed. But these things can also be uplifting, amazingly wonderful…. Even holy. Especially holy.
I choose that word, holy, because it is the word the Torah uses as a noun for the first time not to describe holiness, but to describe its inverse: sex as commerce, prostitution. Tamar is described as a harlot in Gen 38:21, and the word used by Judah is not the word zonah, which might mean a loose woman, but is instead spelled in the Hebrew K-D-Sh-H, which is the very same root as the word for holy. (You can see all instances of the word “Kodesh” in the Torah at this link, and all the instances of “Zonah” at this link.)
The Torah takes holiness seriously, as it would be expected to, since the text tells us it is all about how we are to be a holy nation, to emulate G-d, to choose the holy path. So it is pretty crazy that the first time the noun for “holy” appears, it is not to describe holiness, but to describe what we could easily label its inverse.
Sex can be a mere commercial transaction, satisfying physical desires. OR sex can be an elevating bonding of body and soul. The same word is used in the Torah for both! Well… not exactly the same word. There is one twist: the word used to describe the would-be harlot has an extra letter at the end, the letter “heh”. That is all we have as a clue. (And it is a pretty subtle one, since every one else in the story (and elsewhere in the Torah with one exception) uses “zonah,” – see this link to see all of the instances.)
Being a keen student of the Torah, I was intrigued to realize that the letter “heh” also inverts the meaning of other words, as well. Take, for example, the word the Torah uses for incense. The root word is K-T-R, and you can see every time it is used in the Torah by clicking this link.