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SOTAH WATER

by Yosef Rodbell    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The prophet Micha beseeches the Jews, "What does Hashem your G-d ask from you, other than that you do justice and love doing acts of kindness. . ." (Micha 6:8).

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The prophet Micha beseeches the Jews, "What does Hashem your G-d ask from you, other than that you do justice and love doing acts of kindness. . ." (Micha 6:8). It makes sense to "do" justice, but to "love" doing acts of kindness what a curious expression! From the episode of the Sotah woman discussed in this week's Torah portion, we can better understand this unexpected choice of words.

A woman who is accused of committing adultery is called a Sotah (literally translated as, "one who has strayed"). If she denies the claim, under certain, rare circumstances in Temple times she is forced to drink a concoction which reveals whether she is guilty or innocent. The way this drink works is quite dramatic. If she is truly innocent, once she drinks it, Hashem showers her and her family with blessings. However, if she is guilty, the drink causes her stomach to rupture, killing her.

The ingredients that constitute the so-called Sotah water require further examination. Three items are added to the water drunk by a Sotah. First, dirt from beneath the open area of the Temple is sprinkled on top of the water. Then a bitter root is soaked in the water to impart it with a bitter taste. Finally, the ink written on a parchment is scraped from the parchment's surface into the water. This parchment must be of the finest quality, fit for writing a Torah scroll. Upon it is written, in Hebrew, the entire text of the oath that a Sotah must recite before she drinks the preparation. This oath is taken straight from the Torah and contains, among its many other words, the name of Hashem, in its original Hebrew. Under normal circumstances, erasing Hashem's name is strictly forbidden. Although Hashem is infinite and nothing could possibly "defame" Him, especially one of His own finite creations, in the Torah's metaphor, name is synonymous with reputation. The requirement to erase Hashem's name represents something rather severe.

In fact, measures are taken to avoid having to scrape the ink from the parchment. The erasing is left as the last step of the preparation in the hope that it will not be necessary. Meanwhile, the administering Kohanim (priests) try to convince the woman to admit her guilt, because if she admits to having committed adultery, she will not have to drink the water. When the priest preparing the water is busy adding the dirt and the bitter root, the Sotah is made to walk back and forth carrying heavy objects. This is meant to tire her out; if she is actually guilty and refuses to admit to the sin, then exhaustion will hopefully break her resolve. The severity of erasing Hashem's name warrants all of these precautions. We are left wondering why the name of Hashem has to be erased in the first place. After all, the process by which the drink tests a Sotah's innocence is clearly a miracle. If erasing Hashem's name from the parchment is really such a severe measure, why didn't Hashem simply design a miracle that does not involve erasing His name?

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, a great Torah thinker during this century, explains that this question motivated a rather bold statement that our sages made: "Hashem even desires that His name be erased in order to restore a peaceful relationship between a man and his wife." Apparently, Hashem specifically included the erasing of His name to set an example for us.

Rabbi Lopian further explains what the sages want us to learn from Hashem's example. Let us take a closer look at the couple whose relationship is at stake. A whole series of events must occur for a woman to become a Sotah. First, her husband must suspect her of having a relationship with another man. He must be so suspicious that he warns her, in the presence of two witnesses, not to be in private with that man ever again. Then, two people must witness the woman going into private seclusion with that same man and staying there for a certain period of time. Only then can a woman be forced to drink the waters of the Sotah.

If this husband unabashedly reproved his wife in front of others, then how do you think he spoke to her in private? And if his wife stubbornly continued seeing the other man, how scrupulous could she really be? Most people would not volunteer to help either of them. Certainly, few people would be willing to suffer indignity in order to intervene. It seems unlikely that she will be proven innocent. Nevertheless, our rabbis emphasize, Hashem desires that His name be erased in an effort to repair this marriage.

We are commanded to emulate the ways of Hashem. We must see the things Hashem does and adapt them to our own lives. Taking an active part in helping another couple, or any other person for that matter, is an act of chesed (kindness), and from the process of the Sotah we derive a basic approach to doing acts of chesed: We must love doing them. The Jewish way is not to wait passively for chesed opportunities to come our way. Rather, we must actively seek to be part of them. In reality, this is the only viable approach to chesed. Chesed is something voluntary by nature. It is not always glorious, and sometimes it is even embarrassing or costly. Sometimes, the recipients of our efforts seem unworthy, ungrateful, or so far gone that we feel we are wasting our efforts.

That is precisely why we have to love it. The only way we will overcome the natural deterrents to helping others is if we love doing so. This is also the approach that, to this very day, has given Jewish communities a reputation of helping others. This is one important message of the waters of the Sotah, and this is exactly what the prophet Micha meant. Justice is something that must be done, but an act of kindness is something that must be loved.

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Yosef Rodbell, a native Atlantan, is a member of the Kollel at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.

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