Judaism: The Return of the Estranged Wife
Parashat Nasso contains 18 mitzvot, seven positive and eleven negative. Of these, three (one positive and two negative) involve the treatment of a sotah, a wife whose husband suspects her of adultery.
As the Mahara”m Hagiz (Rabbi Moshe ben Ya’akov Hagiz, Israel, 1671 – c. 1750) summarizes in his Minyan ha-Mitzvot (Enumeration of the Mitzvot): “She must be brought before the Kohen for him to carry out her judgement which is written in this parashah, as it says ‘the husband will bring his wife to the Kohen (Priest)’ (Numbers 5:15); he must not pour oil on the sotah’s sacrifice, as it says ‘he shall bring her sacrifice for her…and shall not pour oil over it’ (ibid.); and he must not add frankincense to the sacrifice, as it says ‘…and he shall not put frankincense upon it’ (ibid.)” (Mitzvot 365-367).
The Torah lays down the full procedure for trying the wife whose husband suspects her of adultery: “The husband will bring his wife to the Kohen… The Kohen will take sacred water in an earthenware vessel; then the Kohen will take from the earth which is on the floor of the Tabernacle and put it into the water. The Kohen will cause the woman to stand before Hashem; he will uncover the woman’s hair, and put the meal-offering of remembrance – which is a meal-offering of jealousies – on her hands, and the bitter waters which bring a curse will be in the Kohen’s hand” (Numbers 5:15-18).
Thus far, this is a fairly unsurprising sacrificial ceremony. Then comes the Kohen’s adjuration to the suspected wife: “If no man has lain with you, and you have not strayed in defilement with anyone other than your husband, then you will be innocent of these bitter waters which bring a curse. But if you have strayed with anyone other than your husband and have thus become defiled, and if any other man than your husband has lain with you – !” (vs. 19-20). The Torah leaves the fearful consequences of her sin unspoken.
And then comes something startlingly unique in Halakhah: “The Kohen shall write these imprecations on a scroll, erase it into the bitter waters, and make the woman drink of the bitter waters that bring a curse… And if she had become defiled and had betrayed her husband’s trust…then her stomach will become distended and her thigh will collapse, and the woman will become a curse amid her nation. But if the woman had not become defiled and remained pure, then she will be proven innocent and will bear seed” (vs. 23-28).
This is the sole example where a person’s guilt or innocence is determined not by a court, not by witnesses or by evidence, but by G-d’s direct miraculous intervention. In the words of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270), “Nowhere throughout the Torah’s jurisprudence does anything depend upon a miracle, apart from this one case, which is a wonder and a miracle which was to occur permanently within Israel when the majority of them do the will of G-d, because He desired for the sake of His righteousness to chastise the women so that they would not do like the licentiousness of the other nations. Thus He cleanses Israel from the offspring of adultery so that they will be worthy of having the Divine Presence infused into their midst” (Commentary to Numbers 5:20).
The Ramban then cites the Talmud (Sotah 47a-b) according to which the miraculous procedure of the bitter water ceased when adultery became more frequent, and continues: “This does not, however, mean that adulteresses are no longer guilty of their sin just because their husbands also committed adultery – only that this great miracle would no longer be performed for them, which was performed for their honour, because of their being a holy nation; but they neither understood nor desired the benefit”.
And after further analysis, the Ramban concludes: “The principle then is that [this procedure] is a miracle and glorifies Israel”.
Let us emphasize a couple of salient points here. The procedure by which a suspected adulteress’s guilt is proved is miraculous; if no miracle occurs, then she is judged innocent. That is to say, G-d intervenes to prove her guilty. If there is no divine intervention, then she is acquitted.
And this miraculous procedure worked only when the majority of the nation were still faithful to G-d and to His Torah and therefore merited revealed miracles; then sexual immorality was so rare that G-d could openly change the natural course of the world to punish the supremely rare transgressors.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) connects the subject of the sotah, the suspected adulteress, with the first redemption, the Exodus from Egypt. In their final day in Egypt, scant hours before the slaying of the first-born, Moshe had told the Jews to daub the blood of the Paschal Lamb on their door-posts and lintels, “and when Hashem passes through to smite Egypt He will see the blood on the lintel and on the two door-posts, Hashem will pass over the entrance and He will not allow the destroyer to come to your homes to smite” (Exodus 12:23).
The Ba’al ha-Turim notes that this is the first of only three times that the phrase “ve-lo yitein” (which we have translated here “…and He will not allow…”) occurs in the Tanach.
The second time is in the context of the chattat (the sin-offering), when G-d commands that the sacrificer “shall not put frankincense upon it” (Leviticus 5:11), again using the phrase “ve-lo yitein” (which due to English idiom we have translated here as “he shall not put”).
And the third time is in our parashah, in the context of the sotah: “The man shall bring his wife to the Kohen and he shall bring her sacrifice with her…and he shall not put frankincense upon it” (Numbers 5:15).
The inference that the Ba’al ha-Turim derives from the common denominator of these three contexts is that “in the merit of the sacrifices they were saved from Egypt…in the merit of righteous women they left there , and because this one [the Sotah] did not act like them [i.e. was not righteous like them], her offering is not adorned”.
That is to say, neither the chattat-sacrifice nor the sotah’s sacrifice is adorned with frankincense, because both result from inglorious events.
The Midrash Tanhuma likewise compares the sotah with Israel. Analysing the words “You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d…for you to pass into the Covenant of Hashem your G-d” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11), the Midrash Tanhuma expounds: “G-d forged three Covenants when they left Egypt: one when they stood before Mount Sinai, one at Horeb, and one here… You find that when Israel angered Him and they were exiled, Daniel said ‘All Israel have transgressed Your Torah and turned away, not hearkening to Your voice, so the imprecation and the oath which are written in the Torah of Moshe, servant of G-d, are poured out on us’ (Daniel 9:11). And the word ‘imprecation’ connotes curse, as it says ‘and the woman will become an imprecation among her nation’ (Numbers 5:27). This teaches you that just as the sotah is forced to swear an oath, so too G-d forced Israel to swear an oath” (Tanhuma, Nitzavim 3; also Yalkut Shimoni, Nitzavim 940).
I suggest that the comparison between Israel and the sotah (both in the Ba’al ha-Turim’s commentary and in the Midrash) is no idle musing. One of the most persistent themes in Judaism is the imagery of Israel and G-d as bride and groom, the Giving of the Torah (which we will celebrate in just another few days on Shavuot) as a wedding.
Whenever Israel strays from Torah they are compared to the unfaithful wife who betrays her husband.
And this allegory of G-d and Israel as a husband who suspects his wife of adultery goes further. As we have noted, the ceremony in which the sotah is judges is the sole instance in Jewish jurisprudence in which the verdict depends upon a miracle. The default position is that the suspected wife in not guilty, in which case she remains with her husband. Only a divine miracle can convict her.
So too with Israel. Yes, we may be accused (sometimes justifiably) of being unfaithful to G-d, of disobeying His Torah, of rejecting His love. But as with the sotah, as long as G-d has sent no direct divine miracle to reject us, we are still His nation.
Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Nasso invariably falls on either the Shabbat immediately before Shavuot (as this year) or the Shabbat immediately after Shavuot.
This is no idle coincidence. And neither is it idle coincidence that our two greatest strides towards redemption in living memory – our national independence in 5708 (1948) and our return to more of our homeland in 5727 (1967) – occurred during the Omer, the period from the Exodus (our “betrothal”) to the Giving of the Torah (our “wedding”).
Shavuot was when G-d and Israel became wedded to one another. Are we still His nation? His “bride”? Do we still have the right – indeed, the obligation – to return to our marital home? To return to our Land, the homeland which G-d promised us? Or are we forbidden to return to His home until there is some miraculous sign?
Learn the unequivocal answer from the sotah. Of course we are still G-d’s “bride”, of course we are still His beloved nation. Of course His Land is still our home! Of course we do not need some supernatural miraculous intervention for us to return to our Husband and to His home. To the contrary – only a miraculous divine intervention could forbid us to return home, just as only a miraculous divine intervention can forbid the sotah from returning to her h