Naso (May 30, 2015)
(28) …She shall be unharmed and able to retain seed.
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
In fact, jealousy is an emotion so powerful that one of the Ten Commandments adjures us against coveting anything that is our neighbor’s: house, spouse, slave, ox, ass — anything and everything. Don’t even think about it! But the emotion is not limited to us humans. In an earlier commandment, God warns: Don’t make or worship other gods for I am jealous (other translations read: impassioned), visiting the guilt of parents to multiple generations of those who reject God and rewarding the faithful to the thousandth generation. (Exodus 20: 5-6) While we are given ample incentive to adhere to the commandments, at the same time, we see that even the Holy One of Blessing needs to channel passions into responsible avenues.
Managing jealousy responsibly, in particular that of the jealous husband, is one of the outstanding themes of Naso. The text reads: “…A fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself…” (Numbers 5:14)
The ancients devised a ritual that would satisfy a man who was distraught over the behavior — real or imagined — of a wife who is believed to have been unfaithful. She is brought before the priest. A “meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing” is brought by the husband, yet it lacks the necessary oil and frankincense to complete it. It functions as a symbol, a reminder of alleged infidelity. (Numbers 5:15)
The priest then performs one of the most unusual acts recorded in the Bible. He writes a spell, dissolves the ink in sacral water and mixes in some dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle. The mixture, now known as “Bitter Waters,” is drunk by the accused wife. The priest charges her with this knowledge: If she has been faithful, then no physical effect will result. In the event that she was unfaithful to her husband, the priest says, “May the Lord make you a curse and an imprecation among your people; as the Lord causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend… And the woman shall say: Amen.” (Numbers 5:21-22)
The reader, millennia removed from the biblical account, has to wonder about the complex interplay between accusation, spell, conscience and authority. Could “bitter waters” really bring about a physical change in the body? Could a guilty conscience — or the chemical composition of the ink — make one sick? Is a burdened psyche sufficient to create the anticipated effect?
The chapter concludes with a restatement of the disfiguring punishment for the guilty and the promise that “…if the woman has not defiled herself, she shall be unharmed.” (Numbers 5:28) And here is where the healing begins: The husband’s jealousy is mitigated through this trial by ordeal. The reputation of the woman, unaffected by the curse, is restored, and she returns to her husband and her home.
Although no one would choose to be on the receiving end of the Bitter Waters, I believe the ritual was created and intended to save their marriage. To which we say of the Rabbis of yore, “Amen.”
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