Unlike the “trial by ordeal” unleashed on suspected witches in Salem, the Torah’s ordeal for a suspected wife contains a hidden dimension, with the power to rekindle the love of her strained marriage.
Table for Five: Nasso
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
[The Kohen] shall make her drink the water, and it shall be that, if she had been defiled and was unfaithful to her husband, the curse-bearing waters shall enter her to become bitter, and her belly will swell, and her thigh will rupture. The woman will be a curse among her people. But if the woman had not become defiled and she is clean, she shall be exempted and bear seed. -Num. 5:27-28
Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”
Well, now, here are some pasukim you’ll want to hide from your secular friends and relatives! To modern sensibilities, this scene appears barbaric. In this moment, a woman appears on the verge of a gruesome death for the crime of adultery. Where is her partner in crime? Not mentioned!
Looking inside, however, a woman who arrives at this juncture has already A) secluded herself with a man who was not her husband; B) was warned by her husband not to do so; and C) had two witnesses to the event. If she committed adultery and admits to it, she does not have to endure this trial. While adultery is a capital crime, she can pay for the sin through her husband divorcing her.
A woman can categorically prove her innocence of the adultery charge through drinking the waters, which not only won’t harm her but in fact will result in her having children. An adulterous woman who won’t confess drinks the waters and dies – as her partner simultaneously suffers the same fate.
This is the only instance in the Torah where Hashem allowed His holy name to be erased, instructing the Kohen to write it on paper and let it dissolve in these bitter waters, demonstrating the paramount value of peace in a marriage. As I discovered on my own journey to greater Torah knowledge, surface readings of Torah are almost meaningless. The treasure of discovering the true meaning, context, backstory, and lessons requires a deeper look inside.
Kylie Ora Lobell, Contributing writer, Jewish Journal
Erasing the name of G-d is forbidden in Judaism. And yet, during the sotah ritual – in which a woman is tested to see whether or not she has been faithful to her husband – the name of G-d is blotted out in the water. In Judaism, getting married is one of the holiest things you can do. When a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of adultery, or a wife commits adultery, G-d is removed from the marriage, just like His name is removed in the water. The husband and wife are not honoring the contract they made with each other and with G-d when they stood under the chuppah. Things have gotten so toxic between them that they are airing their grievances in public.
In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, divorce is on the rise. It can be easy to start fighting or turn on your partner in this challenging time. But to keep HaShem present in our marriage, even now, we have to be willing to do the work. Marriage is not meant to taste like the bitter waters of the sotah – it’s meant to be sweet. As we say under the chuppah, “Let these loving friends taste of the bliss you gave to the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden in our earliest memory.” With this blessing, we can get through this tough moment and ensure our marriages not only stay intact, but come out on the other side sweeter than ever.
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Adat Shalom
It is easy to condemn the Sotah ritual in the Torah through our modern lens and our awakened sensibility. When I read this passage, I find my learning drifting away from the traditional Torah commentators and toward a more contemporary Jewish voice in Arthur Miller and his classic work The Crucible, which was first performed on Broadway in 1953.
The New Yorker published an interview with Miller on October 14, 1996, in which he explained that it was the politics of McCarthyism, the troubles of his own marriage, and the history of the Salem Trials that over time accumulated to inspire him to pen the play. Like The Crucible, the Sotah ritual holds a mirror up to the issues in our own lives. It reminds us to examine the level of trust in our most intimate relationships, and reflect on the power dynamic we share with those we hold most dear.
The passage demands that we should rationally judge cases, politics aside, and that all claims about abuse of power by women and men must be heard in a just society. Those who dismiss the Sotah ritual miss out on its lessons for today. For if that woman in the Torah is found to be defiled through the ritual, then we are all defiled. Like John Proctor in The Crucible, the Torah demands that we find “our goodness.” Jealousy must give way for justice. Litigation must give way for love.
Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple
It doesn’t really seem to matter if the Sotah woman is exempt or not. She is called out as an adulteress, unfaithful, needing to prove her innocence among glaring eyes and gossiping lips. Whether or not she is telling the truth, the question becomes, what is the state of one’s reputation after such a horrendous ordeal? Even if this poor woman has done nothing but live an honest life, will the curse of this staining occasion follow her all the days of her life?
In studying the premises of existential therapy, when the psyche experiences a world in which one feels out of control, the mind can choose to take charge. Meaning, when it feels as if the universe is presenting an indigestible menu of options, we hold the power to reframe our reality. If it seems as if the neighbors are continuing to chatter or something in our past keeps us down, the most important person in the equation of moving forward is you. We cannot control what others say. But we can control how we let our mind react.
God imbued each of us with wisdom and understanding. Let us use that sagacity to hold confidence in our purpose and place in this world. The Holy One encourages us to listen within; so why are we letting any other voices hold us back?
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
The waters of the sotah are at first glance somewhat paradoxical. The very same waters will either prove a curse or a blessing depending on the honesty of the one drinking them. A similar idea is expressed in Ta’anit 7a concerning the Torah. The Torah can either be an “all-healing medicine” to the one who studies it with pure intentions, or it can be a “deadly poison” to the one who studies it with improper intentions. This commonality between the Torah and the sotah waters is heightened by the fact that the Torah is often compared to water, and that the waters of the sotah, like the Torah, contain God’s name (once the sotah scroll has been erased in them).
This comparison between the sotah waters and the Torah yields an additional insight. Just as the Torah is a divine gift so powerful that it is hazardous to misuse, so too any instance wherein we are forced to come to terms with a truth about ourselves is an advantageous yet perilous time. Like the sotah, we are sometimes forced to question ourselves and to be honest with ourselves. To ignore such an opportunity, to have insight into ourselves and to ignore it, would be corrosive to our psyche and could stunt our personal development. The potential benefits of this opportunity, however, are great. By accepting our own mistakes and aspiring to a finer mode of behavior, we can repair our relationships with others and properly orient our personal growth.
With thanks to Judy Gruen, Kylie Ora Lobell, Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, and Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.
Read more at the Jewish Journal.