Parshat Nasso contains one of the most disturbing topics in all of the Torah. The topic is that of Sotah–a woman suspected by her husband of committing adultery. As the Torah tells us (5:11-31–a bit paraphrased) “If a woman goes astray and commits a disloyal act against her husband by being with another man and there are no witnesses and she does not admit to it; and her husband becomes jealous of her, he should bring her before the Kohain (priest) and she will be made to drink a mixture of sanctified waters and earth from the Tabernacle. If she DID commit adultery, her stomach will swell and her thigh will fall away (i.e. she will die.) But if she did not become defiled she will now have the potential to become pregnant.” In describing the details of this procedure, the Midrash is very explicit in telling us of the humiliating and emotionally draining experience that the woman is made to go through. The Kohain uncovers her hair in public (a gesture which brings upon her extreme shame) and rips open her dress on top after which he ties it together with rope. She is then made to take an exhausting walk up and down stairs numerous times in the Temple in an effort to bring her resistence down and make her confess. While there are many questions to be asked regarding the details of the Sotah, the issue that most people have with this procedure is that it seems quite harsh considering that the woman is only suspected of committing adultery. Why is she made to go through this degrading process, even if she may be innocent?! How is the woman protected from a husband who may make her go throught this procedure just on a whim? And by the way, why are we reading about this topic the day before Shavuot–which would imply some connection between the idea of Sotah and the receiving of Torah?
One misconception that we must break regarding the topic of Sotah is that this is not just about a husband deciding one day to make his wife go through a humiliating procedure just to abuse her, G-d forbid. Rashi explains the first pasuk (verse) of “If a woman goes astray and commits an act of disloyalty”, as saying that the woman “went astray” from the laws of “Tzniut–modesty”. In other words, she flirted excessively with another man, began to dress in a provocative way, even began to speak more seductively with him. According to R. Ovadiah Seforno, the second phrase of “committing a disloyal act” may even go so far as her doing certain things like kissing or hugging this other man. Then, when it says that “her husband becomes jealous” it’s not just that the husband does not approve of her behavior, but the phrase “jealous” actually is a Halachic term which means he warned her in front of witnesses that her behavior was looking suspicious of adultery and that she must not be with that man again. Despite the warning, the woman is found to have been secluded with that other man for enough time that something could have happened. Thus, the woman actually did a number of things to cause her husband to suspect her of possibly committing adultery and so this is not just a case of trumped up charges on his part.
But as to the question of why she is put through the procedure even though there is a chance that she could be innocent of adultery, the Rabbis tell us that marriage is really a three-way relationship between man, woman and Hashem. Rashi in the Gemarra Tractate Sotah (17a) says that the Hebrew words “Eesh–Man” and “Eesha–Woman” contain the letters “Yud” and “Hay” which form “Kah”–a name of Hashem. This implies that in order for man and woman to become unified in marriage, Hashem must be included in that union. If Hashem’s presence is not involved, the Yud and the Hay go away leaving only the “Aleph” and “Shin” which form the word “Aish–Fire” –i.e. the destruction of that union. Interestingly, according to the Rabbis, another name for Hashem is “Shalom–Peace”. In other words, when the woman does something to undermine the peace in her marriage, Hashem’s presence (in the form of peace) goes away. Once there is no peace in the marriage, there is nothing to unify the two forces of man and woman and thus the marriage dissolves.
Maharal (R. Yehuda Lowe of Prague) says that when man and woman unite in marriage, a new world is created. Conversely, when a marriage dissolves, that new world is destroyed. In fact, the Rabbis tell us that Hashem cries every time a marriage is dissolved, because after all, as partner to that marriage, Hashem is also (as if) going through a break-up. Even before we know whether or not the Sotah actually commited adultery, there is one thing she has already done. R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says that because of her behavior, the woman has destroyed the “Kedushah–holiness” in her marriage by taking away her husband’s trust. That trust, or “peace of mind” between her and her husband that they will only be with each other is the unifying force in their marriage. Without that trust or that “peace” in their marriage, the marriage can no longer exist and thus a world has been destroyed. For that harsh act that the woman has comitted–whether or not she actually went all the way to commit adultery, she is made to go through a procedure which is just as harsh.
The reason why the procedure takes place in front of others, is to impress upon us how important the relationship between husband and wife is. If that relationship has no trust the marriage cannot exist. When that marriage dissolves, a whole world is destroyed and for that, Hashem Himself cries.
The Rabbis describe “Matan Torah–the receiving of Torah” as our marriage to Hashem. For that marriage to exist, their must be trust on both sides–Hashem’s trust that we will do His will and our trust that Hashem will always protect us and love us. Only when that trust exists, can there be true peace in this world.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,