Parshat Naso תשע”ט
Maimonides writes (Ishus 1:1):
א) קודם מתן תורה היה אדם פוגע אשה בשוק אם רצה הוא והיא לישא אותה מכניסה לביתו ובועלה בינו לבין עצמו ותהיה לו לאשה כיון שנתנה תורה נצטוו ישראל שאם ירצה האיש לישא אשה יקנה אותה תחלה בפני עדים ואחר כך תהיה לו לאשה שנאמר (דברים כ”ב) כי יקח איש אשה ובא אליה
Before the Torah was given, a man would meet a woman in the street, and if they both agreed to marry, he would take her home, they would live together as man and wife, and with that, they would be married. Once the Torah was given, the Torah commanded that if a man and woman want to be married, he must first “legally take her” as his wife in the presence of witnesses and only then, is she his wife. As the verse says (Deuteronomy 22:13):
יג) כִּי יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה וּבָא אֵלֶיהָ
13) When a man will take a woman for a wife …
From the time that this verse was spoken until today, the “taking” is accomplished by a man placing a ring on a woman’s finger in the presence of two kosher witnesses, and reciting the words,
הֲרֵי אַתְּ מְקֻדֶּשֶׁת לִי, בְּטַבַּעַת זוֹ, כְּדַת משֶׁה וְיִשְֹרָאֵל
“You are sanctified unto me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.” After that ritual, the two are forever married until one dies or a valid divorce document (גט-get) is executed.
Notice the word מקודשת – sanctified in the statement. How does this word apply here, in what appears to be a purely legal transaction?
When the Holy Temple stood, if one wanted to donate an object to the it, he would designate the object and say, “this item is הקדש – sanctified.” From that moment on, the object belongs to the Holy Temple, and is forbidden for personal use by anyone. אמירתו לגבוה כמסירתו להדיות – The pronouncement of his donation, is comparable to handing over the item to the agent of the Holy Temple, whose property it now is. Rashi in Tractate Kiddushin (7a) explains that when a man says the appropriate words to the woman, it’s like he is saying, “You are sanctified to me!” Just as a sanctified item is forbidden to anyone for personal use, so too, you are forbidden to marry anyone else in the world.
This is one of the many places where we see Judaism’s sanctification of marriage. Indeed, the name of the Tractate that deals with marriage is called “Kiddushin” which means “sanctification.” When a man and a woman join forces, and dedicate themselves – their resources and talents – to each other to build a home together upon the foundations of the Torah, this is a holy endeavor. Because of this, every Jewish home is called a “mini-Holy Temple” where Hashem’s presence dwells.
This idea is presented in a novel way in the Talmud (Tractate Sota 17a).
דריש ר”ע איש ואשה זכו שכינה ביניהן לא זכו אש אוכלתן
Rabbi Akiva taught, If a man and a woman are meritorious, Hashem’s presence dwells among them: but if they are not, fire will consume them.
There is a play on words here. The word for man in Hebrew is איש and the word for woman is אשה. The letters א and ש which together spell fire, are common to both words, and the two letters that distinguish them apart are the י in the word איש and the ה in the word אשה. Those two letters spell Hashem’s two-letter name י&ה. So, what comes out of this is, if a couple build a home that incorporates Hashem’s name and all that it represents, Hashem comes into their home, and their home becomes a mini-Holy Temple. However, if they fail to build a home comfortable for Hashem to dwell in, and the letters of Hashem’s name are absent, Hashem leaves their union, and they are left with the two letters that spell fire -אש -hence, fire will consume them.
What a beautiful concept! When a man and woman marry and sanctify themselves to each other to the exclusion of all others, they complete the name of Hashem and bring Hashem’s holiness into their union. Hashem is comfortable only in such a home, and He is prepared to something more, to ensure that the trust remain strong and unshaken. How is that?
This week’s portion contains the topic of the סוטה- Sotah, a woman who has deviated from the correct path of modest behavior.
In today’s technologically advanced world, every new gadget comes with a “user’s manual” whose thickness depends on how many features the new device has. The manufacturer has taken much care and trouble to engineer into that device as many neat features as possible, and they want you to use and enjoy each one of them. If you don’t know that they are there, or how to use them properly, that gadget is only going to frustrate you! So, they provide a clear and extensive manual to illustrate all the device’s many features to provide you with the maximum use and enjoyment from it. The manual will also contain instructions for care for your gadget, and what not to do with it so that you don’t ruin it the first time you use it. Each product or model has its own manual, and following the wrong manual for your gadget may result in disaster.
The Torah is God’s “user’s manual” for the Jewish person. It has numerous instructions on what needs to be done to care for and maintain the spiritual and physical integrity of the product. It also contains warnings on what not to do, which, when done, void the warranty or cause irreparable damage to the product. This manual is designed for every model, and contains instructions perfectly suited to deliver optimum performance from the product. It will allow the Jewish person to live his life to the fullest, through learning how to properly and efficiently use each of the brilliant and ingenious features incorporated into him, and by guiding him around the pitfalls that could spell disaster for him.
The Torah includes many laws about forbidden sexual relationships. Because Hashem knows the nature of the human being, the Torah provides precautions to minimize the possibility of a mistake and its disastrous effects. One such law is the law of יחוד – being secluded. A man and a woman (other than their spouse and close family members like children and siblings) are not allowed to be alone in a private place where something could happen, and nobody would see. This rule has no exceptions, as the rules of the Torah are for everybody. In keeping Torah laws, and especially ones with such dreadful and far reaching implications, we adopt the “belt and suspenders” approach. If the belt should break, we have the suspenders to rely on, and if the suspenders should break, we have the belt. We want to implement every possible precaution to guarantee that we do not fall prey to the frailties of human nature, and transgress the law. The consequences are too dire.
In the permissive and open society that we live in today, these words may sound extreme. If someone does transgress the law and sins, people wonder, “What’s the big deal? Things happen! Who got killed here?” Precisely because we live in the society that we do, we cannot appreciate the severity of these matters. However, looking at the punishment the Torah prescribes for transgressing certain of these prohibitions – potentially, the death penalty, gives us a glimpse of how serious these matters are. “Why should they get killed? Who did they hurt? It’s a victimless crime!” Not so. Hashem knows the havoc and destruction caused in the spiritual realms from this act, and He says that only death to the perpetrators suffices to cleanse and atone for the disaster that they have caused by their sin.
A sotah is a married woman who has deviated from the path of modesty, and was flirting with, or hanging out with a man other than her husband or permitted relative. The woman claims that it is innocent, and that there is nothing to it, but nevertheless, her behavior is certainly inappropriate. In such a case, the woman’s husband can warn her in front of two witnesses, never to be alone with that man. If, even after her husband’s warning, she is alone with that man for a substantial period of time, it looks very suspicious, and her husband can opt to have his wife drink the special “sotah water” to determine if anything indeed happened.
In the Temple times, the husband would bring his wife and the witnesses to the local Bet Din and tells the court that he warned his wife in front of two witnesses never to be alone with the man, and behold she was. The court interrogates the witnesses to determine their validity. If the witnesses are accepted, the husband and wife are sent to the High Court of 70 judges in Jerusalem where the long and drawn out process of giving the woman the sotah water begins.
The judges scare and threaten the woman, attempting to have the her admit her sin, if she is guilty. The entire process is deliberately taxing and humiliating to the woman, because they would prefer her to admit her crime instead of drinking the water. We will shortly see the reason for this. If she admits her guilt, her husband must divorce her, and she loses the money otherwise promised in the Ketubah. If she remains firm, she must take an oath that she did not commit a sin. The Cohen recites the words of the oath to her, and she says “amen, amen” as acceptance of the oath.
This is the text of the oath that the Cohen recites for the woman (Numbers 5:21,22).
יִתֵּן יְדֹוָד אוֹתָךְ לְאָלָה וְלִשְׁבֻעָה בְּתוֹךְ עַמֵּךְ בְּתֵת יְדֹוָד אֶת יְרֵכֵךְ נֹפֶלֶת וְאֶת בִּטְנֵךְ צָבָה
כב) וּבָאוּ הַמַּיִם הַמְאָרֲרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּמֵעַיִךְ לַצְבּוֹת בֶּטֶן וְלַנְפִּל יָרֵךְ
21) May Hashem render you as a curse and as an oath among your people, when Hashem causes your thigh to collapse and your stomach to distend. 22) These waters that cause curse shall enter your innards to cause your stomach to distend and your thigh to collapse!”
Notice the presence of Hashem’s holy name in the text of the curse. This is very significant, because the Cohen must then write the words of the oath with quill and ink on a clean piece of parchment. Next, he would take water from the copper Laver in the sanctuary, and put it in an earthenware jug. He would then pick up the loose floor tile of the sanctuary by its ring (it was there specifically for this purpose) take some dirt and put it into the water along with a bitter plant. The final step in preparing the special Sotah water, was to scrape into the water, the ink of the words of the curse that he had just written.
Erasing the letters from the parchment into the water is an astounding step. Why? Because, there is a biblical prohibition against erasing Hashem’s name; it is disgraceful to Hashem. This law strongly affects every scribe who writes Sefer Torahs, Tefillin or Mezuzahs, because under certain circumstances, if he makes a mistake, then something that has taken him hours of painstaking work to write, cannot be used because to correct the mistake would require erasing Hashem’s name. Yet, here, Hashem Himself, instructs the Cohen to erase His holy name into the water! What a disgrace to His holy name!
This is why the judges try to coerce the woman to admit her guilt instead of letting the process proceed, and letting the chips fall as they may. They want to avoid the erasure of Hashem’s name, which, even though it is authorized, is disgraceful to Hashem’s name.
The Cohen then has the woman drink the water.
Maimonides writes (Sotah 3:16)
טז) אם טהורה היא יוצאה והולכת לה והרי היא מותרת לבעלה ואם טמאה היא מיד פניה מוריקות ועיניה בולטות והיא מתמלאה גידין גידין והן אומרין הוציאוה הוציאוה שלא תפרוש נדה והנדות מטמאות עזרת נשים והן מוציאין אותה מעזרת נשים שהיא עומדת בה ובטנה צבה בתחלה ואחר כך תפול ירכה ותמות:
16) If she is innocent, she goes home with her husband and they resume life as before. However, if she is guilty, immediately, her face turns green, her eyes bulge, and her veins stick out. They say, “Get her out of the sanctuary so she doesn’t defile it!” They take her out of the sanctuary and her stomach begins to distend and she collapses and dies.
יז) באותה שעה שתמות היא ימות הנואף שהשקה על ידו בכל מקום שהוא ויארע לו מאורעות שאירעו לה לצבות בטן ולנפיל ירך
17) The moment she dies, so does the adulterer wherever he may be, as he undergoes the same gruesome death that she did.
וכל הדברים האלו בשלא חטא הבעל מעולם אבל אם בעל בעילה של איסור אין המים בודקין את אשתו כמו שבארנו
By the way, all of the above happens only if the woman’s husband himself is clean of sin. If, however, he ever engaged in an illegal sexual relationship, the water will have no effect on his wife. (There is no double standard)
Maimonides continues to explain, that if a man who himself sinned, makes his wife drink the Sotah waters, he is compounding his sin. Because, people may know that his wife was guilty, and yet, the waters do not affect her because of his sin! This makes the whole thing look like a farce. Hence, his actions act to create doubt about the veracity of the Torah, a very great sin in its own right. Indeed, this is what led to the Rabbis abolishing the entire process. Since there was a proliferation of sin in this area by the men, the Sotah waters became obsolete, so the court stopped the entire process.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky (1891-1986) adds an insight that turns this entire idea on its head. He writes.
The reason for this entire process is, because once a doubt enters a person’s mind, human nature makes it very difficult to dislodge the suspicion. After all, the woman was alone with the man even after a stern warning from her husband not to do so. Even if witnesses will come and testify to her innocence, he will always maintain a small degree of doubt, which will have a detrimental effect on his relationship with his wife. Hashem therefore let His holy name be erased to show the husband that Hashem Himself testifies that his wife is in innocent and he can have 100% confidence in her. It comes out, he continues, that the entire process is not to punish the sinner: rather, it is to reassure the innocent woman, that her integrity in her husband’s eyes will be fully restored.
This he explains is the meaning behind the statement in the Talmud (Chullin 141a):
גדול שלום שבין איש לאשתו שהרי אמרה תורה שמו של הקב”ה שנכתב בקדושה ימחה על המים
“So great is peace between man and wife that Hashem has said that His name that was written with holiness should be erased into the water.”
Maimonides writes (Sotah 3:22):
כב) שוטה ששתת והיתה טהורה הרי זו מתחזקת ופניה מזהירות ואם היה בה חולי יסור ותתעבר ותלד זכר ואם היה דרכה לילד בקושי תלד במהרה היה דרכה לילד נקבות תלד זכרים
22) A woman who drank the Sotah water and was innocent, will get stronger, her face will shine, and if she was sickly, it will leave her and she will conceive a male child. If her previous births were difficult, she will give birth quickly and if she had only girls, she will have boys.
So, how is it possible that a woman who acted inappropriately with a man, and after a warning from her husband, was illegally alone with him, should receive such wonderful blessings as a result of her transgression? True, she did not sin with the man, but she did deviate from proper modest behavior.
Rabbi Aharon Sorcher Shlit”a, a local scholar who teaches at Partners in Torah on Tuesday nights, answered.
True, the woman acted inappropriately, but we see that she has regretted her actions and is committed to continuing her marriage appropriately going forward. How do we see this? From the fact that she is prepared to go through the humiliating process of drinking the water in order to prove her innocence, so that she can continue her marriage with him. If she weren’t committed to the marriage, she would have just thrown in the towel and taken the divorce. True, she would have to lose her ketubah, but that would be a small price to pay to maintain her dignity. Yet she persevered! For this degree of commitment, she is entitled to receive a special blessing from Hashem to help the renewed marriage get off to a great new start.