This week’s Torah portion includes one of the most beautiful and moving passages in the Torah, and two of the oddest. The first odd element is the ordeal of the sotah, performed when a distraught husband accuses his wife of adultery, regardless of whether he has any proof. The Bible says that sotah is performed if “a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife.”
The woman is forced to drink water that has been mixed with dirt from the floor and ink from a page on which curses against her were written. If she withstands the ordeal she is proven innocent, and can now return to living with her husband. I’m not sure, however, if the phrase “happily ever after” would apply.
The interesting thing about the “water of bitterness” is that the ink that’s dissolved in the drink bears the name of God. Under ordinary circumstances, a document with God’s name is considered too holy to destroy. The Talmud explains this by saying “For the sake of peace between husband and wife, God has ordered that the divine name be blotted out,” an explanation that carries no weight with me whatsoever.
The second oddity is the idea of the nazarite, a person who decides to temporarily withdraw from the world, to “set himself apart for the Lord.” We’re not sure if this means that he or she (because women could do this too) is saint-like, aspiring to a higher level of holiness, or one who feels incapable of controlling his impulses and takes a vow of extreme abstinence in order to control himself.
In both the case of the sotah and of the nazarite, we see people acting in the extreme, either making unsubstantiated accusations against a spouse, or setting unreasonable limitations on themselves. In both cases, God’s name is invoked.
So it is a relief to find in this Torah portion the three-part priestly blessing, one of the most well-known and well-loved passages in the Torah. Aaron and his sons are instructed to bless the people, saying:
May the Eternal bless you and protect you. May the Eternal’s face give light to you, and show you favor. May the Eternal’s face be lifted toward you, and bestow upon you peace.
The phrase in the third line literally means “to turn God’s head in your direction.” In other words, says the Etz Hayim Chumash, it means “May God side with you and give you the benefit of any doubt.”
Giving a person the benefit of the doubt is a much better course of action than engaging in a ritual borne of unwarranted jealousy. And using God’s name for a blessing is a far better option than dissolving it in dirty water, or using it to impose unrealistic limitations on oneself.
Our sacred text juxtaposes three different ways of dealing with a situation, one of which understands that all people need to be blessed with God’s grace, and with peace. May we remember, especially in times of stress and distrust, to bless each other with peace and light.