Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
The Adulterous Wife and the Offering of Jealousies
It has been a few weeks since we have had a parsha learning. The past few weeks have been difficult struggle with my health so I’ve been taking it slow. And as many of you know, I also have this thing about sticking with a parsha as long as it takes to feel it “click” on a heart level. But I realize that many of you really enjoy the time spent going through the Torah, hopefully I will bring you the past two weeks soon to fill in the gaps. To hang you over, this is a remix of a parsha study from 2009. The message has been tugging at me lately and I don’t feel like I’ve presented right in the past, so now I would like to share it with you all.
This parsha opens with the words:
“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:
‘Take a census of the decedents of Gershon”
| “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor:
| ‘Nasso et-rosh benei Gershon'”
Thus our parsha is named after this key word “Nasso,” whose root “nisa” literally means “to lift up.” You literally lift the head of each person and account for them as individuals. (see Parshat Bemidbar)
This parsha opens with a census being taken of those that are eligible for caring for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting). We quickly see their responsibilities laid out and then we move on to certain rituals that took place in these holy places.
One of the most difficult to understand of all of these, and probably the most difficult for us to stomach in a egalitarian day and age, is the ritual of the Sotah; a woman who was suspected of infidelity, here in Numbers chapter 5.
Now one could debate the back-and-forths of the fairness of this ritual. I have read an excess of debates that call this ritual a symbol of sexism, as much as I have read support for this tradition as a step forward during an age of brutality. I lean toward the latter, because if we really understand the culture of the near-east, as well as ancient tribal culture, we clearly see that suspected adultery was and sometimes still is considered a justifiable cause of “honor killings.”
Our tradition opposes this extremism in the strongest terms. How can I say that? There are two ways in classical Hebrew to emphasize something. In the absence of punctuation the only methods of stating something with emphasis is 1) using strong words, or 2) repeating something a second time. I believe for this reason the verses regarding the ritual of the Sotah begins with the words, “Ish ish ki-tisteh ishto uma’alah vo ma’al / A man, any man, whose wife shall go astray and act unfaithfully (foolishly)…” The scriptures aren’t stuttering. It is making a point that taking justice into ones own hands is absolutely forbidden. In fact, unlike any of the other commandments we see an almost impossible form of adjudication in that the only way to know culpability and for judgment to be leveled is through a miraculous act of G-d. No man, not any person, is able to take this matter into their own hands; it’s something that needs to be brought to G-d.
For a student of halacha (Jewish law), it is well known that this ritual was abolished most likely in the second Temple period by Rav Yohanana Ben Zakkai (who lived, 30–90 CE; Sotah 9:9) although Tosefta is of the opinion that it was nullified much earlier and this fact was merely restated by Ben Zakkai (Tosefta to Sotah 14:1); the reason given is that adultery had increased in prevalence.
However, there is also a minor opinion that I have always been fascinated by that suggested that the ritual was discontinued because women turned the ritual around for ulterior motives. The result of a women being found innocent is that she bears a child (v.28). We see in Talmud Berachot 31b Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet, considering using the ritual to her advantage in wanting to be subjected to the ritual of the Sotah so she could be found innocent and give birth to a child, as she was barren.
What ever reason we have for the ritual falling into disuse, it is such a part of our tradition that a whole section of the Talmud is dedicated to it. As with all things that we do not perform in this day and age, be they precepts that have been annulled or ones that we cannot practically perform in galut (exile), we still study that so that our study of them be elevated to G-d as though we were actually performing them, and furthermore to grasp the underlying lessons displayed in these commandments.
If we take a good look at the ritual of the Sotah we quickly see that this ritual seems to have little to do with G-d as much as it seems to be focused on offering an outlet for the overwhelming emotions brought up amidst the breakdown of an intimate relationship.
An Offering of Jealousies
Now the halacha is clear, a person who accuses his wife of being unfaithful to him and demands the ritual of the Sotah must himself be known to be blameless of any sexual offense (verse 14; Sotah 28a). Furthermore, this ritual can only be suggested if a women has previously be warned (Sotah 3a; Rashi). We are told clearly in verses 13 that the situation applicable is one in which it appears that there was an attempt to conceal the illicit act, therefore there were no witnesses.
Now the order of the ritual was as follows; the husband would bring the suspect wife to the priests, along with a grain offering of plain barley (v.15). The woman is called forward by the priest in order to stand before G-d at the Tent of Meeting facing the Holy Sanctuary (v.16). Then the priest takes water from the copper Lavern placing it in a clay bowl, and mixes it with dust from the floor of the Tabernacle (v.17). The offering is taken and placed in the woman’s hands, the waters are held by the priest (v.18). The woman’s head is uncovered and an oath is administered to the woman that if she is guilty of adultery she will die as her bowels burst, and if not guilty she will become pregnant with a child; to which she agrees (v.19-22). Then the oath that is given is written on a parchment and the words dissolved the water (v.23). The woman then drinks the water (v.24) and the offering is taken by the priest and offered up (v.25-26).
No matter how many times I study this ritual, it amazes me every time. To our sages, this stands out as the most perplexing and other-worldly of Temple rituals. As I look at the practice, it’s hard to understand what form of merit rests in this style of adjudication. But the text gives us very distinctive clues as to its purpose, if we examine the irregularities of the sacrifice itself.
Furthermore, it purpose lies in a single key word that arises again and again, the word “kinah” meaning “jealousy.” Verse 14 makes it clean to us, this ritual is to be used because a woman might or might not be guilty of the adulterous act; either way, the husband is still jealous, and that is common denominator here. The purpose of the ritual therefore must be related to jealousy and not culpability.
This word “kinah,” is a very interesting word. When you and I think of of jealousy we think of an emotion. In fact if you ask the average person what they think of when they hear the word “jealousy” they think of someone being upset because they feel jilted. However, the word kinah does not mean that someone has perceived that they lost their spot as the first choice for someones affections; it means to passionately desire to be exclusive with someone. It means to have extreme feelings for and to zealously protect. This is why we see that even G-d, who is all knowing, uses this description of Himself saying “ki anochi Hashem elokecha el kanah / I am Hashem Your G-d, a jealous G-d;” He desires that we be exclusive with Him and no other. Notice G-d doesn’t says “if you do X and Y I will BE a jealous G-d,” no it says “I AM a jealous G-d,” because in this sense to be jealous is not necessarily something that is caused by another person.
This ritual is not a witches burning, or a stoning of any sort; it’s not a way of getting rid of the wife. If a man did not want to proceed in the relationship because of adultery, in fact for any reason at all, all he had to do was give her a bill of divorce. No, this ritual is in order to bring peace of mind for someone who wanted to be with his wife, but he could not go on if he was unsure of her exclusive love for him alone. Consider it, the result of the ritual working to vindicate the wife means that she will give birth to a child; meaning that upon embracing this ritual he must agree to not ever question the paternity of the future child, he’s leaving the incident behind and relying on the testimony of G-d to set his mind at ease. For this reason I believe when Mishnah Sotah 5:1 says “that as the waters probe her, they probe him as well” it means that just as much as the wife is being tried as to whether she is true, so too the jealousies in the heart of the man are examined to see if they are true or unfounded.
Now notice of the sacrifice itself it says in verse 15, “The man shall bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, a tenth-ephah.” It say he is the one to bring the offering for her! He is to bring a tenth-ephah of barley (about 2 quarts), the smallest amount of grain offering that there is in the scriptures. This is the only type of barley offering that we see offered aside from the waved offerings of the 49 day period between Pesach and Shavout (during the Omer Period, that we are currently observing), generally all other grain offerings are made of fine wheat flour and not barley as it is a cheap, unrefined grain mostly used as an animal feed.
This offering also is different from any other grain offering in that the text continues by saying, “he shall not pour oil over it, and shall not put frankincense upon it, for it is a grain offering of jealousies, a grain offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remember.” Ordinarily oil is mixed with the flour so that it goes up in smoke, the frankincense is added to produce a fragrant aroma. But here it tells us that one is not permitted to add this, because this is not an offering to expiate a sin; its not for G-d’s benefit, to be elevated and be a pleasing offering to Hashem. No this ritual is different, it is very apparent it serves to bring peace to the heart of man, not the Divine.
Herein the Torah is making a statement, that at the end of the day we are responsible for the jealousies of our hearts and no one else. Though other people might be players in the game, if we decide that we are to continue on with a relationship we need to deal with our own hurt feelings and suspicions and give what it takes to settle the issues, putting it behind us and not revisiting it. The Torah is expressing to us that if we set our heart on rectifying these issues it just requires us to give, not even a lot, just a little bit. Furthermore it doesn’t require anything grandiose, it just requires us to give up the most unrefined of our hurts and emotions.
So at the end of the day this ritual is the offering of almost worthless items, thus surely not a bribe to G-d or the priests. It is not an offering in the normative sense, because no one takes any pleasure out of this so that is the reason it is qualified as a “memorial.” But what type of memorial is this, a memorial for whom and of what? It is a “memorial, bringing iniquity to remember” to the husband employing this ritual; he is given a chance to recognize the situation, but then after that point it become a sin for him to remember it anymore. It is a memorial to forgetting, meaning he is not ever again revisit this crisis or he becomes the one guilty of sinning.
When we look at it from this perspective we see that G-d, just becomes a mediator in the mix of this problem; the Divine is presenting Himself as a solution to bring peace between a man and a wife.
On Protecting Ones Good Name
I recently made a new friend. As with most conversations I have, during the course of the discussion we began to speak about spiritual matters. I laughed when he responded with something to the effect “Wow you really are a Jew,” in reference to spelling “G-d,” without the “o.” I chuckled, not really giving it a thought at first. But as I sat there I began to consider the practice itself, because I use it so often.
About 15 years ago when I first started using the Internet, in 1995, I remember first having to deal with this issue which troubled the minds of many traditional people at the time. You see in accordance to Jewish law it is our custom that when writing letters, notes and such we do not spell out Divine Names.
The Torah commands in Deuteronomy 12 that when Israel comes in to the land of Canaan to inhabit it they are to destroy all the sacred objects of their temples and they are to “chop down the graven images of their gods, and you shall obliterate their names out of that place.” But then it continues with the command “But you shall not do this to Hashem Your G-d.” Based on this the Sifri commands that objects that are used in worship to G-d are not to be destroyed, and the Talmud declares that the name of G-d is thus to not be erased (Makkot 22a). Thus in the Jewish tradition two unique customs arose.
The first is to preserve all ritual and sacred items, as well as items which bear the Name of G-d and bury them in honor, so that they will not be destroyed. Such items are usually collected at local synagogues and when they have accumulated enough of them then they are buried in a special manner in a part of a Jewish cemetery, we call this collection of sacred material a genizah. The most famous of this is probably the Cairo Genizah, which was made famous by archaeologists that discovered it contained over 200,000 documents spanning from the years 800 to late 1880s CE. It has been considered a gold mine of information, detailing the religious and spiritual lives of people for nearly a thousand years. Books, contracts, correspondence, scriptures which were no longer fit for public use all being persevered herein if they bore Divine Names. This tradition is kept to this day.
Now the second tradition arose that in documents that could most likely not be preserved one should replace Divine Names with alternate spellings. This is the reason we refer to G-d as Hashem, and do not spell out the Four-Letter Name, in recognition that we should revere the Name of G-d. Over time, in English the tradition arose that in temporary documents Orthodox Jews would leave out the “o” in L-rd (which is used in place of the Four-Letter Name in English) and also in the word G-d.
Now in relation to the Internet, in the early days messaging and emails were considered temporary as data transfer and storage space was limited, we were troubled with the idea of deleting “sheimos” items, items which bear the Divine Name. The tradition quickly arose to leave the “o” out in word G-d as that was our daily tradition in regular writing, and it was worth carrying over int the modern ages as this form of electronic writing in our minds would surely replace the tediousness of pen and paper over time. As traditional people we wanted to continue to reinforce in the minds of people that G-d is eternal, and we show reverence to Him. There were so many Orthodox people that took to the new medium of the Internet in those early days that our tradition has since become widely known, and now is even practiced by many liberal Jews and even non-Jews who do not ordinarily live according to Jewish law. It has become a symbol of solitary and coexistence, that people revere this tradition with Jews in order to encourage communication.
When we read the ritual of the Sotah I cannot help but consider our traditions, when it says, “And the priest shall write these curses on a parchment, and he shall blot them out into the waters of bitterness.” (v.23) In this description the word parchment here is the word “sefer,” meaning a book or scroll; the same as in reference to the books of the Torah. This scroll bore the curse on it, which contained the Four-Letter Name of G-d therein. And yet we are told that that these words, which also by virtue includes the Divine Name, should be dissolved into the waters.
Here in this ritual of the Sotah we have G-d commanding us to do something that is ordinarily unthinkable, to take a ritual object and deface it, furthermore to erase the sacred Name of G-d! But it is from this that we see the beauty in how much the relationship between a married couple is valued by Hashem. That G-d values that there be peace between a man and his wife, even more than His desire that we revere His Name!
Herein I believe the Torah is charging us to consider our ways. Are our religious demands and seeming principals so high that we cannot show mercy with our partners? Do we hold on to self righteousness and empty piousness so that we cannot show leniency to our soul mate in order to rectify the relationship? Do we think so highly of ourselves and our honor that we cannot be merciful enough to salvage our romantic relationships? In the Jewish tradition there is no greater charge than to reverence the Name of G-d, in fact nothing that defines us more as religious Jews than the way we show respect in our speech and writing.
If we consider it, we are forced to ask ourselves do we think our own name and honor is greater than that of G-d Himself, who charges us with the task to do anything, even the most unthinkable to our sensitivities in order to rectify our personal relationships. To not do what ever it takes to bring shalom bayit, peace in the home, is to say to G-d that our good names are more precious than His. If Hashem is willing to suffer humiliation in order to bring peace between two hurt spouses who are dedicated to reconciliation, how much more should be willing to humble ourselves to bring peace to our homes.