Visceral vision

While it is noble to try to squelch the call of the yetzer horo, the struggle is not winnable without tangible effort that takes the effort from the theoretical to the practical.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Learning Torah
Learning Torah
Flash 90

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Whenever the Torah records two seemingly unrelated ideas together, whether mitzvoth or incidents, our rabbis try to find some relationship between the two that forms a logical connection. Such is the case in Parshat Naso. We begin with the case of a woman who goes astray and her husband suspects her of adultery/ an isha sota. She is brought before the Kohen where she drinks the water into which the words of the curses that will befall her, including God’s name, have been erased. Based on her innocence or guilt, she either dies a horrible death or is blessed for her future with her husband.

            Immediately following this section, the Torah presents the laws of a Nazarite, one who vows to abstain from wine and other grape products for a specific period of time. He shall remain holy to Hashem until the term of his vow has been completed, after which he is to bring a sin offering to Hashem. This seems a rather strange juxtaposition. First, how are the laws pertaining to a wayward woman related to taking a vow of abstention, and secondly, is the Nazarite a holy man or a sinner?

            Rabbi Meir in the Gemorrah Presents the classic answer: This juxtaposition comes to teach us that whoever sees a woman in this degradation should abstain from wine in order to minimize the likelihood of his sinning. But we are still left with the question of why? Rabbi Druck clarifies the question. Wouldn’t it make more sense that someone who did not witness the miraculous events of the Sota ritual should become a Nazarite. How could someone sin after witnessing the immediate and severe punishment meted out to this sinful woman? Viewing this so viscerally should be enough of a deterrent. Further, the Gemorrah states that everyone who witnesses this, whether a simple man or the Kohen Gadol  himself, should vow to become a Nazir. There must be something profound we can learn from this juxtaposition.

            Rabbi Zaks and others suggest that perhaps this woman arrived at this condition through excessive drinking, a fall that developed in degrees over a period of time. If one is to correct flawed character traits, especially those that could result in sinning, one would be wise to follow the advice of the Rambam/Maimonides. In such cases, it is not enough just to temper your behavior, but to avoid the trait or behavior completely. Only after going to the opposite extreme and habituating oneself in that extreme can one approach the center, the balance in his behavior. That the witness here is commanded to remove himself from wine presents a paradigm for improvement. He is to create a new habit.

            But Rabbi Zaks here takes a different approach. He submits that both the Sota woman and the Nazir are extremes. Rabbi Zaks believes that it is enough to minimize one’s drinking while maintaining safeguards rather than abstaining completely. Each of the extremes is a sin, and therefore the Nazir must bring a sin offering at the conclusion of his nezirut. After all, Hashem commanded us to enjoy the world He created. Nevertheless, Rambam’s view is the more accepted view.

            Everything in the Torah as well as everything we experience is meant to teach us and help us grow. As the Prophet Hosea says, “… For the ways of Hashem are straight; the righteous walk in them and the sinners stumble over them.” This is a major tenet of Rav Dessler’s zt”l philosophy. Therefore, writes Rabbi Schlesinger in Areset Sefateinu, in you were in the Beit Hamikdosh and witnessed this ritual, Hashem wants you to use this experience to understand a fault in yourself that needs correcting. If you become a Nazir for this purpose, you are holy. If you become a Nazir sans this experience, you are a sinner. What you see and what you hear is meant for your eyes and your ears. The lesson is there, although it may not be so easily discernible. It is not enough to point out a flaw or mistake to our friend, writes Rav Gamiel Rabinovitz in Tiv Hatorah. If we are witnessing this behavior, it behooves us to introspect and see how we may be falling into a similar trap. You have a connection to whatever you witness, writes Rabbi Druck, not only for the negative, but also for the positive. If you witness a mitzvah, you must have some merit for having seen it. What you see is related to what you are drawn to. Therefore, if you saw the woman in this degradation, there must be some flaw in you that drew your eyes to that scene. [That explains why multiple witnesses will give differing reports about the same scene, and some people will not even notice it at all. CKS]

            Everything we see impacts us in some way, either positively or negatively. Therefore, writes Rabbi Grosbard in Da’as Schrage, even a Kohen Gadol will be impacted by the scene of an isha sota, and he too must take precautions not to fall. Every major transgression including that of the fallen woman, begins with small steps, adds Rabbi Beyfus. Therefore it is important for everyone, including a Kohen Gadol, to be on guard so he doesn’t take the first step on that slippery slope.

            Our Sages, even in ancient times, recognized the importance of safeguards. Rabbi Neiman, citing the Saba of Kelm, teaches that the Purim mitzvoth of Mishloach Manot and matanot loevyonim/gifts to the poor have their basis in prevention. When Bnei Yisroel saw that Haman’s hatred grew from anger at one Jew to his willingness to destroy an entire nation, they understood that just as one who witnesses the downfall of a Sota must install safeguards on his own behavior, so must they install safeguards not to begin the slide to hating fellow Jews. Therefore they instituted Mishloach Manot to honor each other and gifts to the poor to sensitize themselves to the plight of others.

            Rabbi Druck presents a practical reason for the witness taking a vow of abstinence. We sometimes are witness to extraordinary events that have tremendous impact on our psyche. However, unless we take concrete steps and act to implant the idea within us permanently, the impact soon fades and we do not remain changed. The action must be immediate, or the impact will fade. One must take the arousal and fashion it into a tool to retain that feeling.

            While it is noble to try to squelch the call of the yetzer horo, the struggle is not winnable without tangible effort that takes the effort from the theoretical to the practical. As Letitcha Elyon writes, citing Rav Dessler, holding down the yetzer horo with thoughts and nothing else to hold it down is like pushing down a spring and not applying pressure to keep it down. The yetzer horo, like the spring, will pop right back up. When you feel yourself struggling, take on a new kabbalah/resolute action, no matter how small, to help maintain resolve.

            Rav Dovid Hofstedter offers a profound and beautiful explanation in answer to our questions. He suggests that what happens to this woman is not punishment and death for bad behavior or a reward and blessings for good behavior. Rather they are the result of having ingested the name of God, of being in direct contact with His presence. If she has sinned, her body cannot bear God’s presence and she disintegrates from within. If she is guiltless, having God’s name within her produces the blessings. Therefore, anyone who witnesses God’s revelation in this way (not merely hearing of it), must be moved to dissociate himself from sin and seek to elevate himself spiritually.

            We all have multiple moments of revelation during our lives, continues Rabbi Hofstedter. We should take those moments as a means of dissociating ourselves from any trace of sin and elevating ourselves spiritually.

            In Mishchat Shemen, Rabbi Koffman makes an interesting observation. When you see someone worshiping a false god, even if you do not follow him, the possibility has now entered your mind. This is so, adds the Shaaray Chaim, even if you witness the punishment. What was previously deemed impossible now has entered the realm of possibility. [Some commentators explain that after the Revelation at Sinai and the many miracles Hashem wrought for Bnei Yisroel, no nation thought it possible to wage war against Bnei Yisroel. Then Amalek came, asher korcho baderech/who came upon you on the way/who broke the ice (korcho/made cold) on your way, and even though the nations saw Amalek’s defeat, they now felt they could wage war against Bnei Yisroel. It was Amalek who put that possibility into the minds of the nations of the world forever. CKS]

            Since having witnessed the sin or its consequences, sinning becomes a possibility. Therefore it is necessary to take preventive measures, not only to keep us from transgressing, but also to retain our sensitivity and abhorrence at these departures from Hashem’s will. As Rabbi Zissel of Kelm says, once we are exposed, we begin to imagine the possibility, even if remote. [I have many plans for when I win the lottery, from where I will give the double ma’aser to how I can help my children and others. CKS]

            Finally, as Rabbi Koffman reminds us, all Bnei Yisroel is interconnected, as if tied together by one rope. If one person falls, so many others are pulled down with him. In this context, if one witnesses this woman’s degradation, he must ask himself if he was negligent in some small way that may have led, in a ripple effect, to this woman’s downfall. When he fluttered his wings inappropriately, did it cause the tsunami across the world in this woman’s life? In this context, when the person takes this vow of nezirut, he is acknowledging his role as part of Klal Yisroel, as holding up his end of the rope of sanctity so that no one of Bnei Yisroel will falter.

            May we merit witnessing “Sinners… cease from the earth and the wicked will be no more.” Then, “I will sing to Hashem while I live, I will sing praises to my God while I endure… Bless Hashem, O my soul, Hallelukah.” (Tehillim 104:34-33)


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