Turning Weakness into Strength
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Parsha, Naso, takes up a number of Mitzvot whose purpose is to help an individual extricate himself from a mess into whose clutches he has fallen. One of these is referred to as Sotah. This pertains to a married woman whose “loose” behavior has aroused the jealousy of her husband.
The Torah allows him to officially warn his wife that she may not be alone with a man whom he suspects of nasty intentions. If she obeys this injunction, all is fine and marital harmony has been preserved. However, if she violates the warning and becomes secluded with the designated rival, as is attested by two valid witnesses, we have a problem: Is this marriage destroyed, or can it yet be salvaged?
There is very convincing reason to believe that forbidden sexual contact has taken place between the lovers. According to Judaism, if a married woman has voluntary carnal relations with anyone other than her husband, he must divorce her (and she is prohibited from ever marrying the paramour). However, according to Jewish Law, the determination that this has occurred can only come about through the testimony of two legitimate witnesses. Halacha (Jewish Law) does not rely on circumstantial evidence, no matter how compelling.
The discovery that a married woman has spent the night in a hotel room with a guy her husband has warned her to stay away from might produce an inevitable consensus that “sex” happened. Because all the experts will say, “what else do you think they were doing all night long?” True, but in a Jewish court this is nothing more than hearsay.
So the matter is locked in a stalemate. The woman cannot be subjected to any punishment, for there are no witnesses to the crime of adultery. However, she cannot resume normal marital relations with her husband (even if he is willing to forgive her indiscretions) because of the presumption of guilt engendered by her scandalous behavior. As matters stand, he will have to divorce her.
In fact, there is only one way out of this dilemma: The “bitter waters that cause curse.” This alone constitutes the pathway to the restoration of a broken marriage, which now lies in tatters. It is a test whose outcome will ascertain, beyond a doubt, if she is truly guilty or innocent. If the former, she (and her lover) will experience, from Heaven, a fearsome death. If, however, the test result is negative, she may return to her husband and will be blessed with easy childbearing and beautiful children.
(It must be pointed out that, contrary to the popular understanding, a woman is never coerced to take the test of the Sotah. Indeed, the court does everything possible to dissuade her from this course of action, which subjects her to severe social degradation and the possibility of death. Not to mention that it requires the erasure of Hashem’s Name from the specially prepared scroll of admonitions.)
It is only if the woman insists that she wants the opportunity to clear her name and save the marriage and her husband agrees that she is permitted to drink the bitter waters. If she, in fact, committed adultery, she will experience a gruesome death. But if she did not go that far and, at the last moment, came to her senses and refused to contaminate herself, the special waters will declare her innocence; and, as a result, she will have a joyous marriage and healthy good-looking children.
The chapter of Sotah reflects a theme which assumes great importance in the Book of Bamidbar i.e. Tikkun Olam (Mending the World). Judaism is very vested in the doctrine of repair on the level of the individual and the collective. We don’t give up on people and relationships simply because they have deteriorated, and are in a seeming state of dissolution. The sinner, who has fallen to a very low level, can rectify his deviations and rise to a pinnacle of greatness he could never have imagined. Ironically, without sin, many great people would never have reached the lofty position they now occupy.
A marriage which has been torn asunder and appears absolutely doomed, can be stitched together and become a source of happiness and wonderful children. This requires a rare blend of honesty, humility and courage. Can we take the blame for our stupid and reckless actions and resist the temptation to implicate others? Can we muster the courage to subject ourselves to public scorn in order to take the necessary steps to make amends for selfish and insensitive behaviors?
The innocent Sotah who drinks the bitter waters, displays the characteristics of someone who is absolutely and fearlessly committed to restoring a broken relationship and building a faithful house in Israel. This contains an inspirational message for all of us; as we contemplate areas of failure where we unintentionally caused a breakdown in significant relationships due to ill-conceived, immature actions. If we now have the courage to take the appropriate steps, we may yet restore that which was lost.
And this contains a great teaching for Klal Yisrael (the Jewish People). The second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. The element of Ahavat Yisrael (love of Jews) and concern for the well-being of Hashem’s Nation was sorely lacking. And today, while national sovereignty has been restored, Israel is surrounded by hostile enemies bent on her undoing. The internal divisiveness and hatreds prevent us from displaying a united front in defense of vital Jewish interests.
Let us commit to do all in our power to restore and repair the Succah of David which is fallen, to a level of glory even greater than that of our past.
My newest book, Eternally Yours: G-d’s Greatest Gift To Mankind on VaYikra was recently published, and is now available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09SHRXS3Q
I hope that my essays will enhance your reading and study of the Book of VaYikra and would greatly appreciate a brief review on Amazon.com.
—Rabbi Reuven Mann