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Parashas Nasso – The Sotah

Written by Daniel Sandground

Parashas Nasso – The Sotah :

This week we have the second instalment from the book of Bamidbar which is that of the action-packed Parashas Nasso. Again as discussed last week, Nasso begins with a census which continues on from Parashas Bamidbar with the final two families of the Levites being counted and given their responsibilities for the dismantling and carrying of the Mishkan whilst in the desert. The sedra then gives over the command for the purification of the Camp which involved the expelling from the camp of… “everyone with tzaraas, everyone who has had a zav-emission and everyone contaminated by a human corpse” [5:2]. This was of course necessary in order to make the camp a worthy home for the newly erected Mishkan, and according to the Ramban, also the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) which had begun to rest among them. For those sensitive one’s amongst you, don’t worry this didn’t mean that the people who fell into these categories were literally thrown out or escorted out by a six foot bouncer as the Torah uses the double expression of…“Did so… so did they do” [5:4], to allude to the two groups that participated in carrying out the commandment to decontaminate the camp, being those that enforced the order and the contaminated people themselves, who willingly left the camp. The Torah then gives over the laws surrounding theft from a Jew and the very detailed guidelines on how to deal with the famous wayward wife, the Sotah, which we shall discuss at greater length below. The sedra then gives over the laws regarding the Nazirite/נזיר, a status the Torah permits a man or woman to adopt voluntarily through taking a vow in which they will avoid eating or drinking grapes or grape products, cutting their hair or becoming contaminated by a human corpse. This chapter then ends with the Birchas Kohanim/The priestly blessings which we discussed when they were commanded on to the Kohanim in Parashas Emor but the actual words which are to be used by the Kohanim to bless the nation are given over in this week’s Parasha. These blessings are literally smothered in deeper insights from the mefarshim as to their actual meanings and we have to of course remember that the Kohanim do not have any independent power to confer or withhold blessings but they are simply used as the conduit through which G-d’s blessings can be pronounced on to His people. Parashas Nasso concludes with the detailed lists of offerings of the Tribal Leaders who brought their own personal gifts and offerings on the first day of the Tabernacle in celebration of the momentous event.

When giving over the laws regarding theft from a Jew or a convert to Judaism the Torah’s first description of what has to be done is that of… “they shall confess their sin that they committed…” [5:7]. Rambam in fact finds the source for the general commandment of repentance for all sins to be rooted in this verse as we learn that confession of a sin is a paramount first step to doing teshuvah. This is logical as one can surely only repent if he recognises and regrets his sin and this obligation is also stated here to teach that even where the Torah mandates a specific offering, as in this particular case here for theft, there cannot be atonement for a sin without an oral confession. Unfortunately when most people think of confession, it congers up an image of someone talking to a man in a booth which is of course, like most concepts in other religions, is a distorted version of what the Torah says which is that we confess to Hashem directly in an attempt to rectify our sin, not to simply say three ‘hail Margeries’ and then go on acting in the same way. There is of course no concept of confessing ones sins to a human in Judaism and this is why we daven silently to ourselves during the Amidah as our relationship with Hashem is direct and does not need to go through someone else. Besides this, there is the risk that certain actions would become acceptable if everyone was ‘confessing’ them to eachother as it could be seen as the norm and therefore not an issue that needed to be dealt with through the proper teshuvah process.

The word Sotah/שטה literally means ‘she has strayed’ and is used to describe the very unfortunate situation of a woman who has behaved in an inappropriate manner, giving her husband good reason to suspect her of adultery. The first important thing to note is that the Sotah is only applicable to a case where there is no proof of either guilt or innocence. The second key point is that a husband can only put his wife through such an ordeal if he had specifically warned her before that she is not to be secluded with this certain person due to earlier suspicions. The Torah describes the case as… “…a man could have lain with her carnally, but it was hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she became secluded and could have been defiled – but there was no witness against her – and she had not been forced…” [5:13-14]. This would mean that a man and a married woman had secluded themselves in such a way and for a sufficient amount of time that they could have sinned. We would also require at least two witnesses to testify that the two had been together and had the opportunity to commit adultery, but they did not see whether or not they had actually done so. So to summarise our case we have three key factors;

1.The Wife- Has been secluded with someone for long enough that adultery could have taken place and she is denying that she committed it (because if she admitted she would simply be divorced and let free as her own testimony wouldn’t be sufficient judicially acceptable evidence of her guilt),

2.The Husband- Already suspected and warned his wife prior to this event

3.Two or more witnesses- Had to have seen that they were secluded but could not see whether or not relations took place

So what happens?… The suspected woman is taken to the Kohen in the Beis HaMikdash and she is to drink the ‘Bitter Waters/מי המרים’ which will either prove that she is innocent by having no effect or prove her guilt by killing her. Rashi notes that the water was not literally bitter rather it’s effect on a guilty person is bitter for it will cause them to die. There is a misconception that she explodes… and no this is obviously not true, although the Mishnah in Sotah (20a) does describe a very unpleasant death which involves the swelling of her stomach and collapsing of her thigh she doesn’t ‘detonate’ in any way. Before the woman drinks these bitter waters she is of course given ample opportunity to confess her sin as the last thing we want to see is her having to die and in fact the Torah describes the exact words the Kohen needs to speak out before she drinks in order that she has full accountability if she is guilty and then drinks the waters. This miraculous process would then cause both her death and that of her lover or conclusively show that she was faithful and thereby restore trust and love to the marriage. So what is exactly going on here?…

What we have here is the only halachic decision in the whole Torah that depends on a supernatural intervention, it was a miracle that occurred continuously as long as the Jewish people were G-d fearing and deserving of Hashem’s presence in their midst. We only became unworthy of such a miraculous procedure when it was discontinued by the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple era. Such is the importance of marital harmony that a divine decision is made to prove either guilt or innocence through the drinking of this ‘bitter water’. The water was made from two components; “Sacred water” [5:17] which was drawn from the Temple Laver and a parchment scroll which was destroyed in the water bearing the oaths with which she was to swear her innocence and most importantly Hashem’s holy name, which was written in its entirety. There is deep symbolism embedded in these two ingredients; The water was to be drawn from the Temple Laver which, by its very essence, recalled the purity of Jewish women and their devotion to their husbands as we learnt in Parashas Vayakhel, it was made from the brightly polished sheets of copper that women used as mirrors in Egypt in order to make themselves appealing to their husbands after the men came home from long backbreaking labour in the fields. These mirrors which were then melted down to form the Laver were therefore ultimately instrumental in the survival of the nation. Rashi comments that the implement which brought husbands and wives together in Egypt were used exclusively to fashion the utensil that would end suspicion and animosity within families and was also a fitting vehicle with which to punish an unfaithful wife. Ordinarily it is forbidden to erase Hashem’s name in any way but G-d commanded us here that His Name be erased in order to bring peace between man and wife. It is a psychological reality that once a husband has come to suspect his wife, he will not trust her even if a court rules that he is wrong therefore through G-d’s testimony which is done through the permission to erase His own sacred Namer, this miracle was performed to set a suspicious husbands mind at ease or to punish the guilty adulteress.

We can learn two key lessons from this passage in the Torah. Firstly and most prominently is the fact that Hashem is willing to set aside His own honour through the erasure of His holy name in order to bring about marital harmony, so therefore how much more so should we put aside our own ego and honour for the sake of peace between our beloved ones or even between friends. Secondly Rabbi Dessler teaches that from the case of the Sotah we must learn that we can never trust ourselves or think we are immune to some of the more serious sins which can G-d forbid occur at our hands. The case of the Sotah doesn’t just happen over night but builds up in stages from one level to another… what might start as innocent small talk between a man and a woman can lead on to a whole heap of trouble which anyone who has ever unfortunately been involved in such a case will testify to. Even the frumest most snius of Beis Yaakov girls could fall into the hands of her own Yatsa Horra is she lets her guard down and we therefore stick very strictly to the laws of modesty between men and women in order to avoid these possibilities.

Shabbat Shalom and I wish everyone a successful week ahead.

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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