Parashat Naso

by Hazzan Marcia Lane

[We would like to bring to people’s attention the difference between the traditional Diaspora and Israeli Torah reading cycles for the next few months. Since this year the eighth day of Passover, which was observed by many in the Diaspora, fell on Shabbat and had a special Torah reading, the Israeli Torah reading cycle moved one parashah ahead of the traditional Diaspora cycle. The AJR divrei Torah will follow the traditional Diaspora cycle and will catch up to the Israeli cycle at the beginning of August.]

The Text is Context

Parashat Naso begins with a census of the Levitical priests and ends with a series of repetitive paragraphs outlining the gifts that the chiefs of each tribe bring to outfit the Tabernacle. But in the middle of the parashah (Numbers 5:11-5:31) there is a curious description of a ritual that shall be carried out in the case of a man who suspects his wife of infidelity. The ritual is the same whether she has actually committed adultery or not. He may have proof or he may not, but suspicion and jealousy have come over him, and these feelings must be resolved. The woman is brought before the priest, in front of the Tabernacle, where her hair is unbound, she is forced to drink a concoction called “bitter water” that will, if she is an adulteress, cause her great pain — perhaps induce a miscarriage if she is pregnant, or cause her to be infertile — and will demonstrate to all that she is a sotah — a woman who has strayed. If the water causes her no harm, then she has demonstrated her innocence, and her husband must take her back without suspicion and without jealousy. This section of the Torah has given rise to an entire tractate of Talmud called, appropriately, Sotah. The ritual is an elaborate, public humiliation of the woman if she is guilty, and a public vindication if she is not. Either way, the husband’s feelings are resolved.

Many years ago the great Israeli folklorist and archivist Dov Noy z’l, who died in 2013 at the age of 92, conducted a storytelling workshop at the 92nd St. Y. He was speaking about the art of collecting and cataloguing the thousands of stories, songs, artifacts and crafts that eventually became the Israeli Folk Archives, which he created beginning in the 1950’s. He was trying to explain about context, how every story changes depending on who is telling and who is listening. Dr. Noy referenced this section of the Torah, and then he told the following folktale.

There were two sisters who were twins. They were absolutely identical, right down to their freckles. No one could tell them apart. Now it so happened that one woman was honest and faithful to her husband, but the other sister had been cheating on her husband for a while when he finally became suspicious of her and demanded that she go before the priest and endure the test of a sotah. Well, she was petrified that she would be exposed, that she might die from the ritual or be stoned as an adulteress, so she went to her sister and begged her to take her place. At first the virtuous sister refused, but her sister begged and pleaded. Finally the sister relented. “I will do this one thing for you, because nobody on earth is closer to me than you. But if I do you must promise that you will change your ways! You must be faithful to your husband, for I will never do this again.” Her sister agreed. “Just do this one thing for me and I will never again lie with any man but my husband! I swear!”

So, on the appointed day and at the appointed time it was the virtuous sister who stood before the priest. Her head was uncovered, her hair was unbound. She listened to the complaints of her brother-in-law and to the curse of the priest. Finally, she was presented with the water of bitterness, in which was dissolved some earth from the Temple floor and a paper with God’s holy name written upon it, and she was told to drink. Without fear she drank the water down, and stood untouched by the curse because, of course, she had done no wrong to her husband. After the ritual she returned quickly to her own house where her sister was waiting.

At this point Dr. Noy stopped and said, “I collected three versions of this story. Up to this point they are all pretty much the same, but here’s where they change. If someone — man or woman — is telling the story in mixed company, the story ends like this:

When the two sisters were together, they embraced, and wept, and the adulteress said to her sister, “Thank you my dearest sister! I promise I will never stray again! I will be faithful to my husband!” And the two sisters lived long and happy lives and she never strayed again.

However, if a man was telling the story to a group of men, the ending goes like this:

When the virtuous sister came home she found her twin waiting for her. The twin was so happy that she kissed her sister on the mouth! But a few drops of the water of bitterness was still on her lips, and the wicked sister swallowed them and instantly dropped dead!

If a woman is telling the same story in a group of women, the ending becomes:

When the virtuous sister came home her twin embraced her and exclaimed, “Now I can do whatever I want, and my husband will never suspect me again!”

The three versions demonstrate that a story is never one thing. It lives based on the teller and the listener, and context — the setting — changes meaning. Interestingly, in the Torah the story of the sotah ritual is followed by a long description of the laws and rituals of the nazir — the one who has sworn an oath to God. (Numbers 6:1-21) Like the sotah, the nazir appears before the priest, and pronounces his vow. Like her, the nazir (who can be male or female) allows hair to grow (think Samson, who was a nazir from before his birth, and was to be dedicated to the service of God). Unlike the woman who has strayed into sexual infidelity, the nazir remains pure to his/her vow. The nazir doesn’t drink intoxicants or do anything that would cause her/him to engage in immoral behavior. The nazir willingly goes before the priest and accepts the limitations and obligations of a nazir.

In The Torah: A Women’s Torah Commentary, the relationship of these two individuals is explained like this:

Both are marginal, set apart from the community-at-large. However, while the nazir chooses to distinguish herself or himself, the sotah is at the mercy of her husband. Placed together, these figures represent a typology, albeit extreme, of women within Israelite society that issues a message. A disciplined woman who controls her wildness and dedicates herself (and her wildness) to God may become a n’zirah (the specifically feminine form of nazir). One who does not discipline her wildness may become a sotah.

Of course, there may be stories about the nazir that display very different values. But if Dr. Noy collected them, they are probably buried deep in the Israeli Folk Archives.


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.