Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)
With one hundred seventy-six verses, Parshat Naso is the longest single portion in the Torah. While many diverse subjects are addressed, the case of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress, is unique.
The Torah describes a situation in which a man is jealous of his wife, suspecting that, despite her denials, she had been unfaithful to him. He brings her to the Beit Hamikdash (Temple), where she is made to drink a special type of water that will ascertain whether she had remained faithful to him.
The procedure is described in great detail. The Kohen (priest) adds dirt and a piece of parchment on which the verses concerning the Sotah are written into the water, even though the letters on the parchment – including those making up the ineffable Name of God that appears in those verses – will be erased. Then the woman is given the mixture to drink.
This ordeal strikes us as odd. Generally, Jewish law, like other judicial systems, relies on clear-cut rules that dictate how a person may be found guilty in both civil and criminal law. Here, for whatever reason, the Torah explicitly calls for Heavenly intervention in managing this family crisis. Indeed, rabbis throughout the generations have insisted on the uniqueness of this case. In his commentary to the Torah, Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, 13th Century Spain and Israel), notes: “Truly, other than this instance, the Torah never relies on a miracle [for judgment].”
Questions arise: Why did the Torah make an exception in this case? Why did it instruct us to proceed differently in judging matters of marital fidelity?
The relationship between a husband and wife is one of the most complex and important among human relationships. Therefore, when a crisis strikes at the heart of a couple’s relationship, the Torah decides to take out “the big guns” to resolve the issue.
A verse in Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs), the great parable of two lovers, describes the woman’s desire to be her beloved’s center of attention:
“…for love is as strong as death, zeal is as strong as the grave; its coals are the coals of the fire of a great flame!” (8:6)
The relationship between two people in love can be full of mutual sensitivity, concern and openness, but it can also instantly devolve into one of jealousy, hostility, and suspicion. The same emotion that had just recently made one partner completely dedicated to the other could be the death of that partner one day later. This is the world of love – potentially as stark as death, and as terrible as Hell.
Both the source of this conflict and its solution reside in one word – trust. Trust, acquired over time through word and deed, is not merely the sum of all of words spoken and of deeds performed. Rather, it is a fundamental feeling that one partner feels toward the other: faith in love, faith that my beloved will not hurt me, and faith that my partner wants what is best for me.
The trust that these partners feel toward each other is a fundamental component of what maintains us as a society. If these partners cannot rely on each other, how, then, could a son depend on his mother and father? How could an employee and an employer, or a soldier and a commander, depend on one other? We couldn’t imagine an army in which soldiers would demand to receive every order in writing so that they could defend themselves in case a commander denies giving an order (something that happens quite often). The same goes for family matters.
If the faith that one partner puts in the other is compromised – the same faith that serves as the very basis of their connection – and a husband is moved to becoming jealous of his wife, it is an indication that the bond between them has reached the point where their problems cannot be resolved in a purely judicial or technical manner. It must be resolved through Divine intervention.
However, this can only work if most people in our society trust each other, if their trust can still be seen as natural and desirable, and if very few people have strayed. If trust ceases to be a core value in our lives, miracle potions won’t do much good. Our Sages (Mishnah Sotah 9:9) taught that “when adulterers grew more numerous, the Sotah waters were no longer used”.
A society that has already lost its respect for the trust and fidelity that serve as its underpinnings, one where materialism and a lack of faith are commonplace, cannot be fixed even by Heavenly intervention. The saga of the Sotah calls on us to restore the faith that sustains our relationships with our partners, our children, and everyone around us.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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