Bitterness and Blessings

This week’s Torah portion includes one of the most beautiful and moving passages in the Torah, and another that is one of the most difficult.

The difficult passage is the sotah, the ritual that a suspected adulteress undergoes to prove that she has not been unfaithful (Numbers 5:11-31). The Torah clearly states that the husband has no proof but has been overtaken by “a fit of jealousy.” In fact, our sages understand the ordeal to be less about the woman’s guilt (or lack thereof) and more about the husband’s mistrust.

The woman is brought to the Temple and given “waters of bitterness,” made by mixing water with dirt from the floor, and then dipping into it a page on which curses against her are written. The ink seeps off the page and into the water, and she is made to drink the mixture.

If all goes well and she is unaffected, the woman will be able to “retain seed,” which is understood to mean that she and her husband can now live happily ever after.

But there’s a strange twist to the story, because the ink that dissolves in the water bears the name of God. Under ordinary circumstances, a document with God’s name is considered too holy to destroy. The Talmud explains this divergence from normal practice by saying, “For the sake of peace between husband and wife, God has ordered that the divine name be blotted out.”

There are many names for God in our tradition. One of them is Shalom, Peace, which opens the door to a beautiful interpretation of this strange practice: By dissolving God’s name in water that the woman will drink, the priests are attempting to restore God’s Presence between husband and wife, moving God’s name off the page and into their relationship.

Does this interpretation justify the sotah? Not at all. But it can help us look at the ritual as an attempt to repair a broken relationship, to bring Peace, to bring God into a heart that has been torn by jealousy.

Just a few verses after the sotah is the Birkat HaKohanim, the Priestly Blessing, one of the best-known passages in the Torah. Aaron and his sons are instructed to bless the people:

May God bless you and protect you.
May God’s face give light to you, and show you favor.
May God’s face be lifted toward you, and bestow upon you peace.

Here too we find the word shalom, peace, and a blessing that Peace enter into our lives. But the study bible Etz Hayim takes the thought one step further, and understands the third line to mean “May God side with you and give you the benefit of any doubt.”

The sotah and priestly blessing are juxtaposed, I believe, to teach us two very different ways to deal with each other. In the first, a person is singled out to be tested by an unpleasant trial, and in the second, every person is given the benefit of the doubt, rather than having to be tested. In both cases, God is present…and yet it is only in the latter that God’s grace is also present.

The sotah is a ritual borne of jealousy and mistrust. The priestly blessing is an antidote to that, declaring openly that every person is worthy of God’s love and blessing, without reservation, without having to prove ourselves. May we be blessed to remember this in our own dealings with one another.