19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Parshat Naso 2019
Why drives a man or woman to become a nazirite, a person who in essence cuts himself off from regular society, even if only for a month? And how is this decision connected to the chapter that precedes the laws of the nazirite – the chapter about the sotah – the woman who is suspected of having been unfaithful to her husband? And is the nazir connected to the priestly blessing that follows the laws of the nazirite? We’ll try to make order out of three issues that get confused when put together.
Let’s start with what seems like the most appalling of the three issues, the sotah, the deviant woman. Actually, she may not have committed any misdeed. Or it was simply a wave of jealousy that overcomes the husband and he puts his wife through this terrible ordeal.
Here are the sordid details. The suspected adulterous wife is brought to the priest. He uncovers her hair (a sign of shame), ties her with ropes. He writes the formula on a parchment – if you have sinned, these waters will make your womb fall and your insides swell up. She says, “Amen.” He places earth from the tabernacle floor into some water and dissolves the writing from the parchment in that water, and makes her drink the potion. If she was unfaithful, her womb will fall and her insides will swell. If not, nothing will happen.
Cruel and unusual punishment. But, believe it or not, some say it has a positive side. It is a last-ditch effort to keep the couple together. Which raises the question – why bother? And the answer is – it can help the woman.
The husband could simply banish her from the home. After all, she is his property. He can in effect turn her into the town whore. He can basically do whatever he wants. But no – first, he has to give this magical ceremony a chance to defuse the situation.
It is the husband’s suspicions that start it all. He owes it to his wife to let her prove her innocence, and using the psychological powers of suggestion or whatever we want to ascribe to the bitter waters – this is the final chance to save the marriage.
Today, women would ask: Would I want to stay with a man who was willing to put me through such an ordeal? But that’s the wrong question. What would have happened if he simply banished her without this final chance for reconciliation? Would she be better off without a home, support or protection? Not likely.
Which leads to the nazirite. Rashi, who’s usually pretty realistic, says that a person who sees the sotah – this ugly ceremony – would be so shaken that he might take a nazirite vow, which means no wine, no haircut, no contact with the dead.
No wine – because wine lowers your self-control and leads to immoral behavior. No haircut because caring for our hair is symbolic of our obsession with caring for our looks more than our souls. No contact with the dead, because life is more important.
But chazal do not look kindly on the nazirite vow. At the end of his abstinence, the nazirite must bring a sin offering, and some rabbis explain the sin as absenting oneself from society, where the Torah and its laws have to be lived. Not in isolation with no temptations, but where one is able to control his or her responses to them.
Rabbi Benni Lau connects this idea to the priestly blessings which conclude the nazirite chapter. The blessings, he says, are for all of Israel, but they are given in the singular, meaning that each person is blessed in the way that best suits him or her.
May God bless YOU. May God shine his countenance upon YOU and keep YOU. May God lift his face to YOU and give YOU peace. In Hebrew, it’s 3, 5 and 7 words, where taking the middle word in each part yields: God’s face to you.
In other words, Rabbi Lau says, you may have left society to find God but all you had to do was stay where you were because God would have brought his blessing to you there.
Does this make sense? It’s a nice way to draw together three seemingly unrelated subjects. Moreover, the message may be even more relevant in our times.
First, the most basic unit in our society is the family. Keeping it together has always been a tough job and with the many temptations around us, it’s even more difficult today. But considering the divorce figures, attempts must be made to save that unit, if at all possible, assuming that maintaining the family cell will not entail suffering for individual members of that family.
Second, it’s always easier to drop out of society and live your life undisturbed by outside forces: by going to an ashram, hiding in the yeshiva, locking yourself up in an impermeable cocoon. But a good person who takes this way out is leaving the center stage to forces that may not be so positively oriented.
And third, while we strive to do the best we can, there’s nothing wrong with hoping for a light to shine upon us and make our efforts easier.
May this Shavuot be happy, enlightening and fulfilling for us all.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach