By Rabbi Gideon Weitzman
Former Rosh Kollel in Kansas City (1998-2000)
Currently head of the English Speaking Section of the Puah Institute
The Sotah and the Nazir
This week’s Parshah contains two apparently unconnected episodes; that of the Sotah and the laws of the Nazir.
The Sotah is the adulterous woman who undergoes a degrading ceremony to ascertain whether she is telling the truth or has in fact been unfaithful to her husband. While this appears to be one-sided and misogynic it should be noted that the Talmud states that if the man was unfaithful the ceremony was ineffective. In addition if the man was over jealous and he suspected his wife of misconduct even when his fears were unwarranted then she did not undergo the test. In essence it can be stated that the Sotah trial was an attempt to overcome the problem of adultery and jealousy that may destroy the sanctity of the family unit.
The Nazir was a person who decided that he or she would no longer consume wine or anything that came from grapes. In addition they would not become impure by coming into contact with a corpse.
Even though these seem to be unrelated the Rabbis saw significance of the proximity of the Sotah and the Nazir in the text. “Why is the Nazir next to the Sotah? To teach that anyone who sees the Sotah in her degradation should remove themselves from wine that brings to adultery” (Rashi, Bamdibar 6:2).
The Journey to Nationhood
The two extremes of society, that of the Sotah and the Nazir, are related to the theme of the entire Book of Bamidbar. The Book of Bamidbar starts at Har Sinai and concludes at the banks of the River Yarden which is the final station before the Jewish people enter the Land of Israel.
In other words, the book takes us from the instruction to the application. On Sinai we heard the word and the potential, the command to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6). But it was only when we entered Israel that we were able to actualize this order and promise. And so the Book of Bamidbar is a description of the journey to nationhood, a journey during which the events and commandments were directed to shape the nation that would be born.
The book opens with the distinct way that the people and the Tribe of Levi were counted related to their specific tasks within the Jewish people. The Levi’im were to act as the spiritual leaders while the rest of the people were to fight and work the Land. In order to prosper the nation needs the way to fight as well as the reason to fight. The nation needs the practical skills of the people as well as the spiritual guidance of the priests.
This division created some friction as we see in the episode of Korach and his cry “all the people are holy” (Bamidbar 16:3), and Aharon’s fear that his tribe was missing out on dedicating the Temple (see Rashi on Bamidbar 8:2), but it is essential in forming a complete nation that will be able to serve God and spread His word to the entire world.
The People on the Periphery
When building a nation we have to relate to society’s misfits; do we reject them or find them a place? Are they to be incarcerated or incorporated?
That is the question of the Sotah and the Nazir who are on the periphery of society. The Sotah represents the departure from the spiritual path and the descent into a life lacking in Divine morals. The Nazir has a severe aversion to her actions and chooses the exact opposite path, an ascetic existence that separates the Nazir from the rest of society.
There is ambivalence regarding the Nazir’s actions with Talmudic voices claiming that he is holy while others point to the obligation to bring a sin-offering at the conclusion of the period of being a Nazir as a proof that the Torah does not want us to choose this path.
The Sotah is not religious enough while the Nazir is the religious fanatic and is too “frum”. This week’s Parshah places them next to each other to impress upon us the importance of finding place in our society for the unusual and the atypical people. In the same way that the nation needs soldiers and priests and each must recognize the importance of the other, so does a healthy society know how to find a place for the misfits. When a society is strong and healthy it can find place for those who are off the beaten path, be it above or below the straight line dictated by society’s norms.
When we find a place for all types of personalities then we will become a holy nation.