Parshat Naso: Numbers 4:21-7:89; Judges 13:2-25.
Jealousy — it is the “jaundice of the soul” as Dryden said. It is “a monster begot upon itself, born on itself” as Shakespeare proclaimed.
The Hebrew word for jealousy is Kin’ah — and in this week’s Torah portion, we see the disastrous effects of what jealousy or suspicion can do in a marriage. We learn of the husband who suspects his wife of infidelity, of being a sotah, one who deviates and one who is foolish. In other words, she is suspected of acting impetuously but also of disregarding the mitzvot, the basic laws of human conduct derived from the Torah.
The Torah portion describes how her husband brings her to the priest to undergo a humiliating and life-threatening ritual. Yet if we read the text carefully, and in context with the previous section regarding confessing guilt for our wrongdoings, then we see this whole section is not just about punishment for adultery but about maintaining trusting relationships between people, and between God and the Jewish people.
These cracks in a trusting relationship are introduced through the lens of the Torah verses that emphasize a person must first become aware and then acknowledge having done something wrong to another person before he can begin to atone. First, we are to restore any property or resolve any damages with the other person; only afterwards can we ask God’s forgiveness.
In a marital relationship, however, the Midrash recognizes this is more difficult because the marriage cannot be restored to its former state due to the nature of the damages. Still, the first step is acknowledgement of the wrong or a method of verifying any suspicions.
The Talmud actually developed an entire tractate, Sotah, based on these few paragraphs of our Torah portion, where further procedures for verifying a husband’s claims of infidelity by his wife are created: a) requiring witnesses who hear the husband first warning her; b) and witnesses who actually see the wife going into a building alone with another man. Clearly, the sages were aware that some men were unjustifiably suspicious or jealous and may themselves have been unfaithful spouses. By bringing the matter to the priest for this ritual, husbands would have to accept God’s judgment as final.
However, the true purpose of this ritual was to restore shalom bayit —peace in the home. The sages explain that part of the ritual required pouring bitter waters over the inked-in curse containing God’s name. This was to teach us that only for the sake of peace between a husband and a wife would God allow the Divine name to be blotted out. The rabbis were very uncomfortable with this whole ritual, and under Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, it was eliminated.
In our days, the issue of trust vs. suspicion extends beyond the home, to affect our relationships in business, in community affairs, in government and between nations — and, as a result of these, with God. While this does not mean turning a blind eye to wrongdoing or not verifying strong suspicions, we must not allow jealousy and mistrust to fuel us lest we lose sight of the larger goal: establishing a world based on justice and peace among all people.
Rabbi Dorit Edut is the president of the Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network (DION.) She also teaches, counsels and handles life-cycle events.