Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
It is just days after our celebration of Shavuot, when we reenacted the Revelation at Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments as if we stood at the base of the mountain. Following such a spiritual high, what will we read in Torah on this Shabbat? Perhaps the strangest ritual in all of Torah: the test of the sotah. It is as if we are watching Monty Python, as they quip: “And now for something completely different.” Parashat Naso covers many topics, and among them is what to do when a husband suspects and then accuses his wife of infidelity. The ritual assumes that there are no witnesses, so it is his word against hers.
What is the ritual of the sotah? The husband brings his wife before the priest and accuses her of adultery, because “a spirit of jealousy may have overcome him.” [Num. 5:14] He then offers a jealousy sacrifice, a remembrance offering and a guilt offering. The priest brings the woman forward to stand before God, since only God can know what did or did not happen. The priest then takes holy water, and places some dirt from the floor into the water. With her palms on the offerings, the woman must swear before the priest that the now bitter water will determine the verdict: if she has cheated, then her “belly will swell and her thighs will sag,” if not then nothing will happen. The priest writes down the words of her oath and dissolves them in the bitter water, which she then drinks.
On the surface, this is a horrible and demeaning ritual. It unfairly singles out women, does not seem to hold men accountable for adultery, and seems otherwise just bizarre. There is good reason why Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai effectively legislated this rite out of existence in the Mishnah. [Sotah 9:9] That said, as with most of Torah, there is more here than meets the eye. The most likely outcome of the ritual is that nothing will happen. Drinking water with a little dirt and ink would cause no harm, and the priest would then declare the woman innocent. Furthermore, because the priest is the representative of God, there could be no appeal – and it would be the husband, not the wife, who would then be shamed. In context, this odd ritual provides a level of protection to women in a patriarchal society.
There may also be a connection with Shavuot, or more precisely, the Ten Commandments. The third commandment requires that we not worship other gods, because God is an Eil kana. Eil means God. Kana can mean either zealous or jealous. Then, in the Tenth Commandment, we are commanded not to covet. The primary motivation for coveting is jealousy.
Where does this leave us?
On the one hand, we know that jealousy is a toxic emotion. Left unfettered, jealousy can ruin relationships and in some cases, destroy lives. On the other hand, it seems that jealousy is an attribute of God, and we are taught that not only are we made in the Divine image but that we should emulate God. How do we reconcile this tension?
To be completely honest, I do not know … but there are a few suggestive clues.
It seems that while God may be able to take jealousy in stride, people cannot. As far as I can tell, out of 613 commandments, Torah only legislates two emotions: one positive and one negative. On the positive side, we are commanded to love. We are commanded to love God, and we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. On the negative side, we are commanded not to be jealous. We are reminded that jealousy leads to hatred in our hearts, and we are taught that jealousy destroys. From the human perspective, this is enough for me.
From a theological perspective, the idea of God as jealous still nags. We know that we are not God, that we should not attempt to act as if we were God. We also know that we should emulate God to the best of our limited and human ability. Where is the line? Where is jealousy relative to that line?
The answer may very will reside with you.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras