I’m debating this piece, soon to be published for “my” yeshiva, much more than others. The “Sotah” is something not to be touched. And if touched, it must be in a certain manner: the man is wrong; the woman is right, and the Torah awful for suggesting this idea, all things I’m deeply struggling with. So, if you’d like to try a second look at this challenging section, please read on.
176 – is the number of the verses in this week’s portion, the longest in the Torah, same as the longest Psalm (chapter 119) and as the longest tractate in the Talmud (Bava Batra with 176 dapim, pages). Why so long? Some suggest that this reading, close to Shavuot and the Giving of the Torah, so detailed and flowing with information, is like being near a fountainhead, with fresh water gushing all around.
What do we say in these 176 verses?
The parasha opens with the orderly travel of the Children of Israel in the desert, parallel to the orderly creation, and ends on the day the mishkan is erected and dedicated, the tribes’ princes bring lavish sacrifices, and Moses hears “The Voice” speaking to him there (Numbers 7:89).
With such ‘wow’ “bookends”, we might wonder, what else is in this parasha? Surprisingly, we find here obscure topics as the removal from the camp of metzo’ra’im (Torah lepers), description of the zavim (people with “impure” bodily excretion) and other t’me’im (spiritually impure people), maybe because we need to explore and clarify critical distinctions of holiness which were not previously discussed.
It is here that we also find the Sotah, a married woman suspected by her husband of adultery. Because of his “wind of suspicion”, she is asked to undergo the “ordeal of bitter water”, (or “ordeal of jealousy”, Numbers, 5:11-31). The woman is brought to the priest at the Temple and given a “magic potion” that will reveal the truth: if she indeed had an affair, the water will have a horrific effect on her, similar to a forced miscarriage. And if not, nothing will happen. They can go back home, living “happily ever after”.
In an effort to begin unpacking this often unpopular teaching, let’s travel back to pre-Temple days, to the little stone home of Isha and Ish. For some time now, Ish has been wondering how Isha is spending her time when he’s away, and with whom. He might ask. She might tell. But he doesn’t believe her. We’ve all experienced this in one way or another. What’s fascinating is not that there is jealousy in the world, but that the Torah devotes prestigious attention to it.
The next time Ish or Isha are away from each other, he warns her, specifically about her interactions with that other guy. He also asks his friends to look out if she’s spending the kind of time that can lead to “something” with the man, just in case legal witnesses are needed.
So, for whatever reason, things don’t get better. The trust between them has eroded. At this point, there is no court in the world that can settle their dispute and feelings of distrust. What is needed is a miracle, and that’s what the Torah has. Throughout the Bible, miracles are there only to prophets and only for the benefit of the public. And here, a miracle is reserved for a halachik resolution, between a couple (in stark contrast to how the rabbis rejected resolving halachik challenges with miracles when it was Rabbi Eliezer’s idea in Bava Metzi’a 59:b)
The couple’s relationship reaches an impasse. Divorce is an option: if it’s his initiative, she will get her ktuba (marriage contract) money; true, if it’s her initiative, she won’t (which is a longer conversation for another time). She will also lose her ability to marry the other man, if there was a “something” between them (and by the way, if there really was “something” and the two of them were caught, they would both be “put to death”, Leviticus 21:18) . The unacceptable situation festers. And festers. I’m wondering about the between the lines, family and friends, community leaders, prophets, and rabbis… who else is around to intervene? to talk, with him or her? After what must be an unbearable time, they both agree (yes, they must both agree): heading to Jerusalem, to see if perhaps this can be repaired somehow, seems best. I imagine she would only want to go if she’s innocent; thus, this is about “repair” and clearing the bad air.
It’s interesting to compare the use of miracles to check individuals’ innocence in other cultures. Professor Yaakov Licht (Jerusalem 1985) conducted an extensive research and found other cultures who use miracles; who, for example, have their accused walk on hot iron (if the person is not guilty, the burn will heal), or swallow large amounts of bread and cheese (if the person chokes, he’s guilty). By contrast, the Sotah drinks water with a little mishkan dust and ink. Unlike the others, this is designed to ensure that any results will be through divine intervention. In addition, the walking, touching or swallowing of hot iron, for example, would scare an accused to admit just about anything, while the Sotah has to agree to go and the water itself is not naturally harmful.
One of the disturbing aspects of the ordeal is, of course, the “asymmetry”: She’s going through it, and what about the men involved?
Though from the get go women and me are not the same in the Torah (and in life?), in this case, the rabbis too, were bothered by this. Thus, regarding the husband, Rambam says (Hilchot Sotah 82:8 based on Numbers 5:31):
וכל הדברים האלו (שהמים בודקין את האישה) – בשלא חטא הבעל מעולם…
And all these things (that the water check the wife) – only work if the husband never sinned…
And regarding her paramour, the Mishna (Tractate Sotah 27:b) says:
מתני׳ כשם שהמים בודקין אותה כך המים בודקין אותו…
Just as the water checks her fidelity, so too, the water checks his, i.e., her alleged paramour’s, involvement in the sin…. (so that whatever happens to her, happens to him).
The Sotah ordeal was abolished with the destruction of the Temple, and some say due to the fact that there were too many adulterers (note that husbands were then advised “simply” not to be envious, as opposed to, for example, advising wives to “behave better”!?), but it did stay in the Torah, even though the procedure includes erasing God’s name, as if, even God can give up a little bit of “His kavod” (honor) in order to bring about peace, and so might we consider that when at an impasse.
Last but not least, shortly after the Sotah, in this parasha, we find the beautiful priestly blessing, “birkat hakohanim”, which many of us recite weekly when blessing our children. After God’s name was erased, the priests are asked to bestow God’s name anew on the people, to convey protection, light and peace, and do so – with love. At the end of the day, love is always an option.