Memorial Day, Jerusalm Day & The Sotah – 3 separate pieces

A few years ago, I was working on the annual ceremony for Yom Hazikaron. In my zeal and enthusiasm, I invited, begged and twisted every arm around me to attend. For the Israelis among us Yom Hazikaron, the day to remember IDF fallen soldiers and terror victims is more serious and somber than Yom Kippur, so in the cultural gap between Israelis and Americans (what gap? yes, there is a gap-), “Memorial Day” is one of the very top if not the pinnacle itself. The only “Memorial Day sale” Israelis know about is of flowers and candles at the entrance to the cemeteries. That is also where the traffic jams are on that day. It’s the day “no one can understand” as portrayed in an aliya commercial some time ago. It’s a day that we’re really sad, but if to be completely honest, we’re also really full of ourselves and behave as if we own mourning; as if we own sadness; as if we’re the only ones who ever lost anyone to war, battles, tragedy, bravery, independence, values.
But back then, when I was walking around preaching, convincing, guilt tripping on and on about coming Yom Hazikaron, one gentleman responded with, sure, I’ll come to your yoma… whatever it is; will you also come to our Memorial Day service? And his poignant eyes, that have seen World War II, Korea and Vietnam bore right through me.
For a moment, I thought he was kidding. Memorial Day service? Does he mean the clicking sound of the opening doors at Macy’s and Nordstrom Rack?? The hiss of the BBQ flame?
But, to my great surprise (and humility) I discovered, there is such a thing and have tried to make a point to do something on that day. This year, we went to visit and pay respects at the USS Hornet, one of 4 aircraft carriers-turned museums nationwide, docked right here, in Alameda. True, it’s not quite the same. Everything is a lot less immediate here with the distances of geography and time, but it seems right to take some time and pay attention to each other’s pain.
Today, the 28th of Iyar, is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. This day commemorates the reunification of the city in 1967. It is told that many, many years ago, Shem, the son of Noah suggested that this clear-mountain air city would be called shalem, wholeness, perfection; but Abraham suggested that this site, chosen by G-d, should have the word yir’a, reverence, awe in it.
G-d, who listened to both decided to combine both names into one, and call the city yeru-shalem, but then Shem came back all sad: “not enough you put me second, Abraham’s name is longer: mine is 3 letters and his is 4”. G-d decided to rearrange things slightly, making from yir’a – yir’u (which combined the alef and heh into a vav, maintaining their numerical values), so Shem wont be upset. But after he left, G-d decided to add another letter, the letter yod for His name, maybe so we remember our priorities, and so that Yerushalayim will have 7 letters (in Hebrew) like the 7 days of the week and the 7 branches of the menorah.
Nowadays there are bulldozers and cranes and buses and a new light-train and traffic jams and taxi drivers honking through narrow streets; merchants are yelling in the open markets where people rush between bins of fresh vegetables, sweet fruits, and colorful spices, avoiding the tahini sauce smeared on the sidewalk; There are kids running around. And soldiers. There are religious, secular, Arabs, Jews, tourists, foreigners, locals dressed in clothing styles from all over the world; countless languages and accents. Talking about peace and reverence seems delusional. And yet, a gateway is naturally full of hustle and bustle; a place that connects heaven and earth can’t be all heavenly perfection. It’s very much earth but it’s still, well, Yerushalayim.
There are many interesting topics in this week’s Torah reading but the winner of the most complex, difficult to understand, raising objections comes right before the laws of the nazirite and the mention of the priestly blessing, and is no doubt the ordeal of the Sotah: “Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them: If any man’s wife go aside, and act unfaithfully against him”… The Sotah is the “suspected” unfaithful woman who goes in front of the priest in order to drink “magic” water: if she indeed was unfaithful to her husband, the water can cause her great public pain and embarrassment; if not, the water would have no affect and her name would be cleaned.
There are issues with the translation of the text: the Hebrew says “ish, ish” where the English only mentions “man” once. There are more serious issues with the fact that in this most private matter, and one that if absolutely necessary can be solved by a court, we call upon a miracle and border line magic; we, who preach lo bashamayim hi, “it is not in the heavens”. There is a huge problem with asking for a miracle in the first place, the area we are asking for that miracle (shouldn’t we reserve miracles for really important stuff rather than pettiness between husband and wife??) and the way in which it is done (including erasing God’s name).
It seems that in the Mishna and Talmud there is a tendency to move away from this ceremony for all the same reasons we might move away from it too (and historically complexities), but according to the Rambam, we ask for this miracle-interference davka (especially) in this area of relationships because everything else is based on that. A People is not made of big “wows”. Sinai happened once; Shabbat happens every week. A family’s well being is not about the ‘one time we went to Disney World’. It’s about the daily, most mundane interactions.
Further, the fact that one needs a divine miracle shows such helplessness! What happened before they went to the priest? On the surface (and from our critical modern gaze) it looks as if he “went crazy”, suspected her “out of nowhere” and dragged her to a public humiliation. In action, this is not possible. We have to move away from the text and imagine life between the husband and wife. What happened to their communication, relationship, time together? What happened to ‘honey please’? She could not be ambushed and dragged to the priest in her sleep; she had to be warned, in advance with great specific details, and with witnesses. If she was with “someone else”, it couldn’t have been a onetime incident. There had to be “histatrut” – deliberate hiding. And of course, as divorce is permitted, she can also refuse the whole ordeal and the marriage can be dissolved. Thus, this procedure is only for a couple that both want to recover their marriage and restore their trust!
Last but not least, the rabbis, like us, were bothered by the lack of symmetry between husband and wife: she must drink strange water and? What about him? In Torah times a man could have more than one wife which made this more complicated but the Talmud (masechet Sotah) and the Rambam say that the Sotah ordeal only worked if the husband has never sinned against his wife.
With the destruction of the Temple, the Sotah ordeal was abolished, but the importance of mutual trust in a relationship remained. There is a beautiful midrash about Rabi Meir who gave up his honor for a woman who was suspected by her husband. In defense for taking such extreme measures (he told her to spit in his eye) he said, that he was just trying to be like his Maker, who likewise lets His name be erased. How far should one go to make peace between husband and wife? It’s always complicated but the Torah in this parsha goes pretty far.
Shabbat shalom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s