Drash on Parashat Naso
Rabbi Allison Conyer
Emanuel School, Randwick, New South Wales, Australia
In the Torah, the first mitzvah given to humanity was “pru u’rvu”- be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28), thus some believe that sex is all about procreation. However, Adam actualized this mitzvah after they were expelled from the garden of Eden as it is written: “And Adam knew Chava (Eve), his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain...” (Gen. 4:1). From this we learn that the Torah teaches that sex is more than procreation, but about knowing your other half. The knowing comes before conceiving and giving birth. The knowing takes time. For Adam and Eve, it took time to test their relationship, be challenged, literally to get kicked out of utopia, and make time to rebuild their trust to really know one another. Of course, this type of knowing is made easier if you’ve found your “ezer k’negdo” (Gen. 2:20) – your fitting partner, the person who helps and supports you, as well as challenges you even if it hurts.
So what does all of this have to do with Parshat Naso? Without an understanding of the foundation of a healthy relationship, it is more difficult to understand the issue of the sotah – “the adulterous wife” raised in this week’s parsha. In this ritual, a woman suspected of adultery is brought before the priest and is asked to drink “bitter waters” in which the name of G-d is written and dissolved. If she is innocent, no harm will come to her. If she is guilty, her stomach will extend and her thigh will sag and she will be cursed. Then the woman is required to say Amen! Amen!
Some of us might be angered or frustrated by the double standard and question why there is no term for “the adulterous husband”, or why there is not parity in the required treatment of a suspected husband who commits adultery. The parsha actually states ”When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow person, thus breaking faith with G-d, and that person realizes his/her guilt, that person should confess the wrong that he/she did…and make full restitution.” (Num. 5-7). However, later in the parsha, it is only the woman who is subject to such demeaning treatment. The parsha states that “if a fit of jealousy comes over [a husband] and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself, or if a fit of jealousy comes over him although the wife has not defiled herself..” this husband still has the right to bring his wife to the priest to undergo the “sotah process.” While the Mishnah and other modern rabbis have tried to remedy this, I have no real satisfying answer. I do, however note that in today’s society among our youth, men or boys who have sex with many women are honoured and women or girls who have sex with many men are denigrated. This is highly problematic.
This leads me to my concluding point. Judaism teaches fidelity, honour and respect for both husbands and wives. Sex in a marital relationship is about knowing someone. This knowing does not come easily or quickly. It must take time and create trust to strengthen the bond. The sotah passage conveys the seriousness in which the Torah and Judasim as a whole views marriage. The midrash states: “All other transgressions recorded in the Torah can, if committed, be put right. If a man steals, he can return what he stole. If one withholds wages of a labourer, he can pay him. But one who cohabits with a married woman…is unable to restore her marriage to what it was previously.” (Num. R. 9:6). Trust is very difficult to regain once it’s been lost.
This dramatic sotah ritual acknowledges the severity of this rip in a relationship by focusing upon the dissolving of G-d’s name. The Maharal, or Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel of Prague (16th C) suggested that this ritual was creating shalom bayit – peace in the home (a strong relationship between husband and wife). He said that because G-d dwells in the relationship between husband and wife, this ritual does not erase the Divine name, but rather transforms it into peace.
“When love was strong, we could lie as it were on the edge of a sword, but later when love is diminished, a king’s bed is not broad enough.” (San.7a)
If we can see past the double standard and the archaic ritual, and listen to the teaching of both the Torah and our Sages, the meaning of the sotah is just as clear and relevant today as long ago. Relationships are built on trust, ideally with a fitting partner to help support us and challenge us to grow. Some might be prone to jealousy. Others might be tempted by foolish lust. All relationships have their real challenges. Sometimes we must be willing to dissolve what was good in order to transform the relationship to where it must go in order to maintain shalom bayit – peace in the home and between loving partners.