Yom Shlishi, 8 Sivan 5775
Isru Chag Tuesday, 26 May 2015
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Parashat Naso 5775
29th May 2015 - Rabbi Rene Pfertzel

Law defines a normative world. It states what is acceptable or not, it creates the framework for human activities. In Torah, people are assigned responsibilities according to their birth, their tribe, and these jobs are passed on from generation to generation. There is no real choice, and one has to abide by these rules.

However, law also deals with the extra-ordinary, the unusual, how to subdue the errant ones, or to delimit the perimeter of those who want to explore other paths.

Parashat Naso contains a sequel of two intriguing passages, the suspected adulteress, later on called in Rabbinic literature the Sotah, from the root שטה, “to go astray”, and the nazirite, a man, or a woman, who makes a temporary vow to abstain from alcohol or any product of the vine, and from having a haircut. These passages lead to the priestly blessing, probably the most familiar words in the Book of Numbers.

Both cases are exceptional, somehow beyond the normative world. But they are both brought back to normality through the action of the priest who intervenes with the appropriate words and rituals.

Both cases were also extensively re-interpreted by the Rabbis in the Talmud, in tractates Sotah and Nazir. It is not surprising that Chazal (Rabbinic sages, hakhamim zichronam livracha) expanded on these two biblical cases, as they are both exceptional and difficult.

No less than twenty verses are devoted to the suspected adulteress, the Sotah. If a woman is suspected by her husband of having betrayed him in private with another man, whether this is true or not, she is brought to the priest and subjected to a strange ritual, involving a sacrifice, the minhat kena’ot, the offering of jealousy, and the drinking of bitter waters, in which a text that contains a spell and God’s name has been dissolved. If she is found guilty, she will literally blow up, if not, she will be able to bear another child. Who could imagine for a second that a glass of water, however holy, however bitter, could determine someone’s guilt? Clearly, women suffered at the hands of jealous husbands, and there was no similar trial for the unfaithful husband. Chazal, however, went beyond the literal reading, and actually protected women from traditional male arbitrariness. In Mishnah Sotah 1, they expounded all the necessary conditions for inflicting this ritual on a woman: if the husband suspects his wife of having an affair with another, he has to warn her in front of two witnesses. Only then, and only if two other witnesses testify that she has secretly spent some time with a man, can he request the tribunal to force her to drink the “bitter waters”. Only the Great Sanhedrin had the power to order a woman to drink this water. Most importantly, only if the husband has never been guilty of betraying his wife, can he force her to do this. By the time the Temple was destroyed (70 CE), this ritual was no longer practised.

However, the question “why someone becomes unfaithful” remains. Rashi connects Sotah to Shoteh (fool), reflecting on the Talmudic principle: “no one sins, unless overcome by foolishness” (Sotah 3a). Hence, this story is more about the reason adultery is committed than about finding someone guilty. Interestingly enough, the root קנה, “to be jealous”, appears no less than ten times. I suspect this text is more about the husband’s emotions than his wife’s behaviour. A dysfunctional couple can lead to adultery, and by recognising it, the doors of reconciliation are open.

The Nazir belongs to a different category. It is a man, or a woman, who freely chooses to abstain from alcohol, grapes, haircutting, and getting close to a dead body. Torah does not clearly say what is the purpose of this vow, and the reason for these extensive self-limitations. Moreover, abstinence is not really Jewish. Only once a year do we abstain from food, water, etc., on Yom Kippur, and it is rather painful! Some commentators have also held the opinion that by abstaining from wine, and the enjoyments of life, nazirites were actually sinners (Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Kappar, 2nd century C.E.). This is why, at the end of their time, they must bring a sin offering to the Temple, and seek forgiveness for having deliberately abstained from the joys God grants human beings. 

What do the Sotah and the Nazir have in common? At first reading, very little. Nevertheless, the fact that both have been widely interpreted by Chazal, to limit their actual observance, is a hint of something more than the basic reading. They are both obsolete, whether because the Temple is not there anymore, or because they are deemed inappropriate. They both try to regulate emotions, either the husband’s jealousy, or an inclination to intoxication. As a matter of fact, Rashi connects both passages by explaining the Nazir comes after Sotah, to warn us against excessive alcohol consumption, which might lead to adultery. They both try to repair a breach in the order of things, either by protecting a woman from an abusive husband, or by controlling urges. 

It is only when emotions have been conquered that the priests are able to bestow God’s threefold blessing on His people: May God bless you and keep you. May God look kindly upon you and be gracious to you. May God reach out to you in tenderness and give you peace.

The roots of blessing are in the peace of heart and in peace between people. It is only when a relationship is repaired, an abusive relationship amended, or a correct balance in the consumption of life’s pleasure adopted, that we are able to receive God’s blessings.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

Shabbat Shalom

 

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