BEYOND A SHADOW OF A DOUBT
Contained within the eclectic Torah portion of Naso is perhaps one of the most unique and somewhat peculiar mitzvot in the Torah - that of Sotah, the suspected adulterous woman.
Contained within the eclectic Torah portion of Naso is perhaps one of the most unique and somewhat peculiar mitzvot in the Torah - that of Sotah, the suspected adulterous woman. In brief, the Torah enjoins a husband who suspects his wife of having been unfaithful to bring her to the Holy Temple. There, if the woman persists in her claim of innocence, she is forced to drink a potion containing bitter waters and into which the ineffable name of Hashem has been placed. This potent concoction has one of two effects - if the woman remained faithful as she claims, the waters act as an elixir revitalizing her spirit and she is blessed with future healthy children. If, however, she has in fact sinned with another man, the waters are transformed into a death potion causing her stomach to swell and her limbs to fall off as she dies a gruesome death.
What makes the Sotah portion so remarkable is that, as the Ramban, the great Medieval commentator, points out, this is the only mitzvah in which we rely on a miracle. Nowhere else does the Torah demand that we resort to miraculous means in order to ascertain the guilt or innocence of a suspected individual. While the Torah certainly provides for a judicial system to resolve disputes that may arise, such a court, being as it is composed of human beings, is inherently prone to error. As great and wise that the judges in a halachic court may be, a shadow of a doubt necessarily exists even after they adjudicate the case. Obviously, only Hashem knows the true verdict, and only by the case of a Sotah does Hashem ultimately "decide" the case definitively. What makes Sotah so special that we cannot rely on a human court? Clearly, there must be something quite powerful and profound about the Sotah episode if Hashem Himself must intervene.
In order to effectively deal with this question, we must step back a little and look not only at this particular isolated family which is having some marital difficulties, but at the larger family known as the Jewish nation. Much has been said recently among different Jewish groups about the idea of "continuity". Indeed, the permanence and constancy of the Jewish people ranks as probably the most important task facing the leaders of our nation. As should be obvious, the only way to ensure the proper continuity of the Jewish people is through intense study and teaching of the Torah. The success of the Jewish people rests solely on the proper transmission of the words of the Torah from one generation to the next. Clearly, the Jewish "family" must be cohesive and close-knit if it is to proliferate. A "family" which is factious and divisive stands no chance of success.
While these are the circumstances surrounding the Jewish nation as a whole, the exact same conditions and stipulations apply to an even greater degree on a microcosmic level, to all the individual Jewish families which together comprise the larger Jewish family. It is no exaggeration to say that the most fundamental element in Judaism is the family unit. The family is the building block of the Jewish nation and it is through the structure of the family that the effective transmittal of the Torah and its message must take place. The triumph of the Jewish people, therefore, ultimately rests on the strength of the family. Clearly, serving as it does such an essential role within Judaism, the family unit must be rock-solid. Even the slightest crack or crevice within a Jewish family only serves to weaken the chances of survival for the Jewish people. As the rabbis of the Talmud teach (Tractate Gittin 90b), even a divorce causes the Holy Altar to shed tears.
Now, within this context, we can readily understand the special nature of the Sotah which demands the immediate miraculous intervention from Hashem Himself. This woman is suspected of having committed adultery. To ensure the continued success of this marriage, it is not enough for the husband to be reasonably sure that she has not been unfaithful; the mere suspicion that remains in the husband's mind is sufficient to threaten the stability of the all-important bond between man and wife. Even this slight shadow of a doubt cannot be tolerated, for it is not only her guilt which is in question. Hashem steps in and miraculously provides the proof that she is innocent because ultimately, it is the fate of the entire Jewish people which is at stake.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
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