Juxtaposed in this week's portion are two of the most diametrically opposed categories of people in the Torah. First we read about the humiliating procedure undergone by a Sotah, a woman who is suspected of sinking to the lowest depths of moral depravity.
Juxtaposed in this week's portion are two of the most diametrically opposed categories of people in the Torah. First we read about the humiliating procedure undergone by a Sotah, a woman who is suspected of sinking to the lowest depths of moral depravity. We then immediately jump to the other end of the ethical spectrum into the laws of the Nazir, a person who has voluntarily accepted upon him or herself an elevated degree of sanctity. In explanation of the surprising side-by-side appearance of these two sections, the sages (Talmud Tractate Sotah 2a) state that the Torah is subtly conveying a suggestion to the witnesses of the Sotah debacle. One who sees a Sotah in her state of disgrace should accept upon himself the heightened spiritual responsibility of being a Nazir, refraining from the consumption of wine for a thirty-day period. Realizing that overexposure to alcohol may have contributed to the promiscuity and ensuing transgression of the Sotah, the Torah recommends that the observers take steps to protect themselves from making the same mistake.
This might sound logical on the surface, but if we think about it for a minute, a glaring question emerges. Imagine actually witnessing the humiliating public ordeal which the Sotah is forced to undergo, and actually seeing her horrifying punishment if she is indeed guilty. After being brought to the Kohen (priest) in the Temple and forced to drink bitter waters, she suffers a miraculous, gruesome death as her "stomach shall be distended and her thigh shall collapse" (Numbers 5:27). Why, specifically after witnessing the degradation of the Sotah and the remarkable punishment which she suffers, must one then accept upon himself the strictures of becoming a Nazir? Having clearly seen the devastating consequences of this woman's lack of self-control, we would seemingly be in the best frame of mind to avoid making the same mistake. Why, just then, does the Torah expect the observer to become a Nazir?
Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman, the late rosh yeshiva (dean) of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, explains that the Torah is stressing the importance of not allowing moments of spiritual inspiration to pass us by without our capitalizing upon them and using them to our utmost advantage. Witnessing the Sotah's degradation will probably cause a person to contemplate the pitfalls of promiscuous and lewd behavior. However, the frightening vision of the Sotah's humiliation and death will not remain etched in his mind forever. With the passage of time, it will slowly fade from his memory until he completely forgets about the entire episode and moves on with his life as if he had seen nothing. A potential springboard for spiritual growth will be forever lost. Taking immediate action and accepting upon himself the thirty-day commitment of a Nazir concretizes his experience, ensuring that it remains with him for an extended period and will have a more lasting effect on his life.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the saintly mashgiach (spiritual advisor) of the famed Mir Yeshiva in Lithuania during the first part of the century, comments that there is a very human tendency upon seeing someone commit an abominable act to apathetically dismiss the crime as being that of a lowly person, a transgression which we could never commit and which is therefore not at all relevant to our life. When we hear about a murder or rape on the news, we shake our heads in disbelief that someone could ever stoop so low as to do something like that, while at the same time we subconsciously pat ourselves on the back that we aren't like them. By aligning the portions of the Sotah and the Nazir, the Torah declares this to be an unwise response. Most probably, this woman did not instantly transform herself from being a morally upstanding citizen to being the morally repugnant Sotah overnight. It may have been a slow decline which began many years before, with many factors contributing to her eventual demise. One never knows where it will begin. Since none of us are free from the powerful influences of the evil inclination, the Sotah's plight is relevant to each of us, and everyone is obligated to take action to prevent a similar decline in themselves.
It is interesting to note the language that the Torah uses to introduce the laws of the Nazir: "A man or woman who shall separate (yaflee) himself by taking a Nazirite vow. . ." (Numbers 6:2). Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, one of the leading grammatical commentators of the Middle Ages, points out that the word yaflee comes from the same root word as peleh, meaning an astounding or wondrous event. As such, he translates the verse: "A man or woman who shall do something astounding by taking a Nazirite vow. . ." Most of the inhabitants of the world show little care throughout their lives for developing control over their appetite for bodily pleasures. The person who strives to curb his physical desires, subjugating them to his spiritual side, has done something truly remarkable. May we all merit to successfully implement the necessary precautions in our lives to ensure our own protection and growth. After all, in the words of the great Talmudic sage Hillel, "If I am not for myself" - if I don't look out for my spiritual success - "who will be for me?" (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:14).
Michael Alterman, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.
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