With three aufrufs in the last four weeks, I have been thinking a lot about relationships. The Book of Proverbs contains a number of valuable insights into human behavior. Patience and jealousy are addressed in 14:29-30: “Patience results in much understanding; impatience results in foolishness. A calm disposition assures physical health, but jealousy rots the bones.” By drawing a parallel between impatience and jealousy, Jewish tradition provides a context in which to understand the case of a sotah, a wife suspected by her husband of adultery.
Our Parasha, Naso, describes a unique situation. A wife is warned by her husband not to seclude herself with another man and is then found to have done so. The woman is to be taken to the Kohen. If she does not admit to adultery, she is to be given a potion of “bitter waters.” If guilty, she would suffer a grotesque death and if not, she would be exonerated completely.
Our Torah is predominately from the male perspective, with the focus is on women’s infidelity. Thankfully, the sotahprocess was abolished. However, we are all aware in our society that adultery is prevalent equally amongst men and women. We see it frequently with politicians, athletes, and actors, both male and female. I have no solution to this issue. However, I do believe our sages can give us insight about relationships.
Rabbi Meir, from the second century C.E., is perhaps most famous as the husband of Bruiah, with his well-known statement to her upon the death of their sons. The sons died on Shabbat. Bruiah hid the fact from him so he would not be upset on the “holy day”. She posed a question to him, “If someone lent you something and they came back to ask for it, should you return it?” Upon seeing his dead sons, Rabbi Meir made the ageless statement, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away. Blessed is the name of the Lord.”
Turning to our topic of relationships, Rabbi Meir points out that temperament and neglect can drive a wedge between husband and wife. If a husband observes his wife entering into inappropriate relationships or a wife feels abandoned or compromised by her husband’s relationships, such misunderstandings require open and immediate discussion. Their feelings must be expressed. Rabbi Meir uses the example of the sotah as an opportunity to explore and explain the challenges facing relationships.
While modern commentator Rabbi Pinchas Peli does not disagree with Rabbi Meir’s psychological observations or with the causes of stress between husband and wife, he does offer a different slant about the strange ceremony of the “water of bitterness”. He speculates that “it is possible that Torah devised the best way under the circumstances to save this marriage by removing the mutual psychological distrust” between husband and wife. That is to say that “the sotahceremony is an extreme remedial measure for a troubled marriage….Jealousy, over-possessiveness, and similar emotions can be destructive and explosive in any husband-wife relationship. The sotah ritual brings to us one painful remedy.
Rabbi Peli’s point is that sometimes bitterness, suspicion, anger, and pain destroy a marriage. In such situations one needs to drink the “water of bitterness” to restore trust, mutual respect, and understanding. Radical “medicine” is the only cure. In ancient times that meant the wife’s submission to the ritual. In our own time it can mean that both husband and wife seek counseling and learn how to drain the bitterness of misunderstanding from their relationships, restoring their love and trust for each other.
The issues raised in the case of the sotah in ancient times are significant today, not only for husbands and wives, but for all relationships based on mutual commitment. Friendships, business partnerships, and family ties are also ruined by suspicion, selfishness, and misunderstanding. How do we repair and strengthen such relationships? Ironically, those who neglect faltering relationships may find themselves drinking a home-cooked brew of the “water of bitterness.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham