In this week’s Torah portion (Nasso) is the strange ritual of the Sotah, which on its face concerns an allegedly unfaithful wife, a jealous husband, and a magic brew of water and dust. When our sages say of Torah, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” I believe they invited us to turn this Sotah passage so it reveals not only old-paradigm patriarchy and hetero-centrism, but also deep wisdom for today. Before we can turn it, though, we need to look with open eyes at what it is we’re turning.
Here is the p’shat (the simple surface meaning) of the Sotah ritual. If a husband suspects his wife of infidelity, he should bring her to the priest with an unseasoned grain offering. The priest will dissolve dust from the temple floor in a vessel of sacred water; write the words of a magic spell on a piece of parchment; dissolve those words in the water; and make the woman drink it. The spell indicates that if she was unfaithful, her thigh will sag and her belly will distend. (Some commentators read these words to imply miscarriage; others see them as describing an immediately visible physical response to drinking these “waters of bitterness.”) If the woman has not been unfaithful, then nothing will happen and/or she will remain able to conceive. Either way, that’s the end of the strange Sotah story.
Almost everything about the Sotah ritual challenges our the modern sensibility. First, the gender inequality: a man could accuse his wife of adultery, but there’s no parallel ritual for a woman suspecting her husband of infidelity. While a woman’s sexuality is “owned” by her father or husband, a man’s sexuality is his own and untestable. Second, the Sotah assumes heterosexuality: there’s no ritual for a same-sex couple. Third, there’s the uncomfortable suggestion that an unfaithful woman will inevitably miscarry or become infertile, implying that anyone who miscarries or is infertile may be suspect. I have a sense for how emotionally and spiritually devastating miscarriage and infertility can be in the modern world, and I have no doubt that these experiences were equally powerful for our female ancestors. To link the pain of infertility with this kind of moral judgment adds insult to injury. For these reasons and others, we cannot read the Sotah to guide difficulties among intimate partners in today’s world. We need to turn it around to make it meaningful.
What if we read the Sotah, instead, as a psychological drama in which its actors represent different parts of the self? Through that lens, the verses about the Sotah tell an entirely different story: here’s what to do if I come to feel that some part of me has betrayed the greater unity to which I aspire. First, I must bring my whole self to a holy place, a place of prayer and connection with divinity. Body, heart, mind, and soul: all of me must present in order to move forward. In that holy place, I meet with a spiritual facilitator, someone who has a deep connection with God (symbolized by the Sotah ritual of appearing before a priest). With that person’s help, I articulate where I fear that I went wrong. Then there’s a ritual of washing-away of my misdeed. We write the words down and then let them dissolve. I drink from the living waters in which my misdeeds have dissolved — a way of internalizing, literally taking-into-myself, how my mistakes have been forgiven and washed away (symbolized by the physical drinking of the Sotah potion). If my teshuvah process is incomplete and I haven’t wholly integrated forgiveness, this process may make me feel worse (symbolized by the physical effects of drinking the Sotah potion when one is “guilty”). But if I’m able to release myself from my own misdeeds, then I come away with a clean slate, ready to begin again (symbolized by the Sotah promise of fertility).
Seen in this way, the ritual of the Sotah becomes a kind of spiritual direction session, an opportunity to work with a trained facilitator to fully effect the transformation of teshuvah, repentance and return.
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In the writings of the Prophets, physical infidelity often is a metaphor for spiritual infidelity. Hosea in particular works with this theme at length. God is the “husband” whose “wife” – the people Israel – strays to other gods. (The patriarchal / heterocentrist language is Hosea’s; we might reframe his words as a teaching that the Holy Blessed One, a unity beyond all gender and division, enters into covenant with us and, in our human understanding, feels “hurt” when we stray.) Although God responds to this with furious anger for a time, God’s ultimate response is one of love. God is always ready to take us back. Hosea teaches that teshuvah is endlessly possible, and that no matter what our transgressions might be, our covenant with the Holy Blessed One is reparable and will endure.
Hosea too can be troubling if read as a prescription for contemporary marital counseling. But what I find most remarkable in Hosea is not his bitterness, but the turn he makes from anguish to reconciliation. Teshuvah, he argues passionately, is always possible and necessary. No matter how deeply we have betrayed our Beloved, we can and must make the shift of turning ourselves back in the right direction. And if we can make that leap of teshuvah — at once the most impossibly difficult, and profoundly simple, act in our lexicon — we will be received with open arms.
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On June 3, just a few short days from now, we’ll reach the festival of Shavuot, our early-summer festival of first fruits and revelation, the day we symbolically re-receive Torah at Mount Sinai. Many of us may associate teshuvah, turning-toward or returning-to God, with Elul and the Days of Awe — a season still many months away. What does Shavuot have to do with teshuvah? The Days of Awe come at the end of an intense period of reflection, introspection, and the inner soul-work of teshuvah. According to one way of thinking, that period begins with Tisha b’Av, the low point in our festival year when we recall the destruction of both Temples and mourn the brokenness of creation. After Tisha b’Av we count 49 days — seven weeks — until Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Days of Awe. Seven weeks for teshuvah and soul-work culminate in one of our year’s biggest opportunities for transformation and connection with God. (I learned this from Reb Zalman, who heard it from Cantor Michael Esformes.)
Shavuot too comes at the end of a seven-week period of reflection, introspection, and inner soul-work: the period of counting Omer, which links Pesach with Shavuot, liberation with revelation. The Omer period now finishing is our spring season of teshuvah; the months of Av and Elul before Rosh Hashanah are our fall season of teshuvah.
Teshuvah also is a monthly, weekly, and even daily practice — but our tradition gives us two corridors of the year to focus deeply on this work together. And when we do this work of teshuvah, and release ourselves from our misdeeds and our old baggage, we become able to stand wholly at Sinai and receive the new Torah which God will reveal this year.
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Shavuot is seen in rabbinic tradition as the marriage between God and Israel. In the rabbinic imagination, God is the groom; Israel, the bride; the Torah, our ketubah outlining our and God’s mutual promises and responsibilities. (Here, too, we can shift the traditional gender categories as needed in order to make the metaphor resonant in today’s language.) There’s another midrash which suggests that God held Mount Sinai over us like an inverted barrel, threatening that if we didn’t accept the Torah, God would drop the mountain and bury us there; but the marriage midrash recasts it, arguing instead that Sinai suspended over our heads was in fact our beautiful chuppah or marriage canopy!
In reading about the Sotah a few days before our “wedding anniversary,” we remind ourselves that in any relationship there will be ebbs and flows of connection. And in any relationship, a leap of faith is necessary. One doesn’t enter into a marriage saying “tell me everything that might go wrong in the coming decades and then I’ll decide whether to commit.” We join with one another, and with God, in perpetual hope. And when we inevitably feel pulled astray, we trust that repair is possible. We trust that we can return to each other, that we can return to our deepest selves, that we can return to the Holy One of Blessing — and be received in love.
Keyn yehi ratzon: may it be so.