Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 30 May 2020 / 7 Sivan 5780

Parshat Naso

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Sotah and Sanctity

The Torah introduces the topic of Sotah by describing the infidelity of the disloyal wife as “straying from the path, and committing a breach of trust against [her husband].” The word for “stray” — tisteh — from which the term Sotah derives, is related to the term “shoteh” — fool — one who deviates from the path of rationality. Every moral lapse involves a mental aberration, for no one sins unless he has lost the true perspective.

When she is brought to the Kohen, the first step in the Sotah procedure for determining her guilt or innocence involves taking “holy water” — water that was sanctified in the kiyyor which was used to wash the hands and feet of the Kohanim — and putting dust from the floor into the water. The dust is not to be stirred and mixed into the water.

By contrast, the ashes from the red heifer — used to purify individuals who have had contact with a corpse — are mixed completely into the water. In that context, the individual to be purified is reminded that although his body will ultimately decay and revert to dust, his true essence is “living water.” (Bamidbar 19:17)

But the sotah, a woman who is suspected of sexual and moral impurity, is to be reminded that although her earthly body is dust, and she is gifted with the power of motherhood and with natural urges, she herself is analogous to “holy water.” Her true essence is moral holiness. Her sensual bodily energies, whose nature is like that of dust, are to form only the external side of herself. She is to bear them and rule over them, but they are never to mix with her and muddy her purity.

Now, this dust that is placed in the water is taken from the ground on which the people stand in G-d’s sanctuary. This is in recognition that superhuman demands are not made of the people; the earthly sensual side forms the floor, the foundation upon which life is established. The water is drawn from the kiyyor, the vessel fashioned from the mirrors donated by the Jewish women who thronged at the entrance to the Sanctuary. The symbolism in the water she drinks is to remind this woman how far she has strayed from the ways of those ancestors, and the sanctity expected of her. While a woman who drinks the sotah waters has not necessarily committed adultery, she has been seen in seclusion with another man, and this is sufficient to warrant the reminder of the higher expectations of her modesty.

Citing the Ramban, Rav Hirsch notes that the sotah procedure is unlike any other legal institution of Biblical law, in that it depends on a direct miracle — after the woman drinks the sotah waters, her bodily reaction will reveal her guilt or innocence. This shows that G-d is the Witness and Judge of every Jewish couple that enters into the union of marriage. He is present in every marriage, because sexual purity is the root of spiritual and moral welfare. Thus, a question concerning the purity of sexual life must be brought before the all-seeing G-d.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 15:31

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