All Politics is Personal

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Sotah Ceremony: A Jealousy Offering

Chapter five of Bamidbar lays out what happens if a husband suspects his wife of having an affair. He is supposed to make his concerns clear to her, to warn her in front of witnesses not to be seen secluded with the man in question. If she disregards the warning and is seen to have been alone with the man in a way they could consummate their affair, the husband must bring her to the Beit HaMikdash for a sotah ceremony.

Verse 5;15 discusses a flour offering to be brought as part of the proceedings. Most flour offerings are made of wheat, with oil and frankincense added in, but this one is offered purely of barley flour, with no additional materials. To explain why it is so different, the Torah says ki minchat kena’ot hu, it is a flour offering of jealousy.

Rashi quotes Sifra Naso 3, which identifies the jealousy as both the husband’s and Hashem’s. Ramban thinks the phrase comes to explain why the husband is told to bring this offering. Since she’s the person of interest, she should have had to bring it [as would any other woman who had cause to bring a sacrifice]. The verse therefore points out the difference here—it’s specifically brought as part of a ceremony to uncover a sin of hers, where other sacrifices are brought to atone for sins the perpetrator already recognizes. To force her to contribute to what might lead to her being outed as a sinner was a step too far, Ramban reads the Torah as saying, especially since the water will kill her (as we’ll see) if she has indeed committed adultery (and refuses to admit it before drinking the water).

Ramban understands the Torah to be saying there would be something unfair or even cruel about requiring her to bring it herself [not unlike the Fifth Amendment right against incriminating oneself].

The Sotah Ceremony: Stormy Barley, Poison Water

Viewing the minchah as an inferior offering explains why the husband does not bring wheatnot why barley is then chosen [halachah recognizes three other types of grain—oats, rye, and spelt]. Ramban points to a play on words—the Hebrew word for barley is se’orah, and the offering will bring down the storm (se’arah) of Hashem’s wrath on the evildoer.

He sees barley creating the same symbolism when Shofetim 7;13 tells of a Midianite’s having dreamt of a cake of barley bread tumbling through their military camp. The dream shows Gidon will defeat them, and Ramban says the barley cake prefigures the storm about to descend on their camp.

Ramban likes the idea despite the two words being spelled differently—se’orah, barley, has a sin (the S sound version of the letter shin), and se’arah, storm, has a samekh.

In another part of the ceremony, she drinks water referred to in 5;18 as mei hamarim, the bitter water. Calling it mei hamarim makes it sound like it will taste bitter as it goes down, but verse 27 says it will only produce negative impact on an adulteress. Ramban understands the verses to mean the water will taste fine as she drinks, but will change in her stomach if she’s guilty. An adulteress will suffer stomach pain, the water will act as an emetic, bringing foul-tasting elements into her mouth, and then causes its other terrible effects, on her stomach and thigh.

Three short comments towards a picture of how the Torah prescribed handling a marriage that has gone wrong: the implicated wife is not made to contribute to her trial by ordeal, the offering plays on words to invoke Hashem’s wrath should she have committed the suspected wrong, and the water goes down like ordinary, then checks (and punishes) her internally.

The Praiseworthy and Personal Nazir

To move to a more positive part of the parsha, let’s look at the nazir, the Jew who voluntarily takes on a status in which s/he may not have contact with the deceased, ingest any grape products, nor cut his/her hair (until the completion of the time s/he undertook for this status, at which point s/he shaves off all hair). In 6;14, the Torah obligates the nazir to bring a chatat, a sin offering, to mark the successful completion of a nezirut, a time as nazir.

Some Rabbinic sources read the chatat as evidence of a certain sin in the choice to vow to be a nazir, Ramban claims the simple sense of the text disapproves of the nazir’s return to ordinary life. The nazir lives a more sanctified life in the service of Hashem than ordinary people, and should ideally hold on to the sanctity achieved forever. In Amos 2;11, Hashem says He has set up some of the people’s children as prophets and some as nezirim, a parallelism which sees nezirim as positively as prophets. In our own chapter, verse eight, the Torah describes this nazir as sanctified to Hashem all the days of his/her nezirut.

In what today would be a countercultural claim, Ramban saw the indulgences of ordinary life as somewhat sinful, even when there was nothing excessive or prohibited to them. 6;21 adds a personal element, a sense in which each nazir makes the experience his/her own.  The verse refers to the sacrifices a nazir brings upon completion of the vow, and adds “milevad asher tasig yado, in addition to whatever else s/he can afford.”

Ramban reads the verse to teach us each nazir would at the outset promise to bring additional sacrifices to mark the experience. Those sacrifices then become part of the person’s nezirut, which cannot be considered complete without those offerings. A rich man or woman who promises a thousand offerings when the nezirut is over would not be allowed to return to drinking wine until and unless all thousand had been brought.

It’s an unusually stark example of what we might not always stop to notice, how the Torah allows Jews to create religious experiences which then become obligatory. Nezirut takes a person to a higher plane, which s/he should ideally continue forever. For those who do not, the completion of the commitment includes the element the particular individual added to his/her nezirut, likely different for each nazir.

The Coincidentally Similar Nesi’im

Parashat Naso’s extraordinary length—176 verses, longest in the Torah—is somewhat illusory, since seventy-two of the verses list the offerings the twelve heads of the tribes to celebrate the dedication of the Mishkan, which were identical to each other. Had the Torah listed only the offerings of Nachshon b. Aminadav, head of Yehudah, and then said something along the lines of “and so did each of the rest of the heads, each on his day,” the parashah would be at least sixty verses shorter. So why does the Torah repeat itself this way?

Ramban first sees the length as the Torah’s way of honoring those who evince proper fear/ awe of Hashem. When the nesi’im agreed on the offerings to bring, one of them had to go first, but the Torah did not wish to single out whichever one would do so for greater honor than his colleagues.

Rashi also quoted a Midrash according to which each of the nesi’im thought of the offering on his own, independently, for his own reasons. He gave the version of the Midrash in which their reasons have to do with the nature of the Mishkan, Creation, the Patriarchs and Jewish history. Ramban notes Bamidbar Rabbah 13;13, according to which Ya’akov told each of his sons their entire history until the Days of Mashiach [an idea at some tension with the story inPesachim about why we say baruch shem kevod malchuto in Shema, but Ramban does not get into that].

For Bemidbar Rabbah, each head of tribe came up with an offering to reflect the future he knew from the tradition going back to Ya’akov’s predictions. All those offerings turned out to be exactly the same items, but could not be lumped together since they sent very different messages and meanings.

Neither Rashi nor Ramban make the point explicitly, but the Midrash draws our attention to an expected underlying unity in the world. It would be remarkable enough if the nesi’im individually arrived at the exact same offering as all the others. For them to have done so when each had different motives, symbolisms, and purposes in mind, means the Midrash thinks many roads, in this case, led to the same way to mark the completion of the Mishkan.

A husband’s relationship with his wife, a nazir’s move from sanctified aloofness back to regular life, and the nesi’im’s choices of offerings. All personal and individualized.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply