In this week’s parsha, following a description of the order of the Israelite camp, the Torah lists the types of people who are distanced from the camp – whether physically (the “metzora” and the “zav”) or socially (the “nazir” and the “sotah”). The Midrash dwells on the connection between these various outcasts.
The section dealing with the “sotah” (woman suspected of adultery) is exceptional in many ways. It contains concepts and laws that apply only to this particular situation. One of the many issues for study here is the oath that the “sotah” is required to declare concerning her actions. This is not merely a verbal declaration; it is also recorded in writing on a scroll, which is then dipped into a mixture of water and dust.
What is the significance of all these artifacts and elements? Why is it not sufficient that the woman merely recite her verbal declaration? Is this meant as a special lesson for the woman herself, or for others?
In order to understand the significance of the water, the dust and the scroll in the trial of the “sotah”, let us refer to a well-known mishna in Pirkei Avot (3:1):
“Contemplate three things and you will not come to sin: know from whence you came, and to where you are headed, and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting. From whence you came – from a putrid drop; and to where you are headed – to a place of dust, worms and maggots. And before Whom you are destined to give an accounting – before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
The mishna provides three pointers that help to distance a person from sin: the starting point of life, its end point, and the meaning, perhaps, of all of life – the accounting before the Holy One. It is these three elements that find expression in the ritual whereby the “sotah” is tried. The water is a reminder of “from whence you came”, the dust indicates “to where you are headed”, and the scroll itself contains the Name of God, before Whom “you are destined to give an accounting”.
In order to intensify the significance of the verbal oath, the Torah warns the “sotah” not to sin (further) in her declaration, and presents her with the three signs that are meant to distance a person from wrongdoing.
But beyond the message to the “sotah” herself, the Torah is also conveying an important message to every witness of the procedure, and everyone who studies this portion, concerning our role and actions in God’s world. The difference between the starting point and end point of life is not all that great, in material terms, but a great deal depends on the line that connects them. The accounting that we give the Holy One for each and every day is what gives meaning to our lives; the value and importance of our lives is therefore up to us. If we pay attention and devote our thoughts to this lesson, we shall keep far from sin and be able to give a good and meaningful accounting.