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Parashat Naso

June 2, 2011

By Hayley Siegel

The middle section of this week’s parashah, Naso, is definitively not for the faint of heart. As the text describes, God instructs Moses how B’nei Yisrael should deal with a woman accused of adultery by her husband. Upon suspicion of infidelity, the woman was to be brought to the Sanctuary by her husband where they would meet the Kohen. After the husband presented the Kohen with a minhat kena’ot (Num. 5:18),a “meal offering of jealousy,” the Kohen would then begin a ritual designed to establish the veracity of the husband’s claims. The Kohen would first expose the accused wife’s hair, an action of dishonor and shame for the woman. Following the embarrassing revelation of her hair, the accused woman would undergo a “trial by ordeal” to identify her guilt. She would take an oath and then drink a special concoction, which was comprised of water mixed with dirt from the sanctuary and the dissolved ink from a parchment bearing God’s name. If the woman’s “thigh did not rupture and her belly did not swell” (Num. 5:21) – whatever that actually meant – in response to this elixir, the woman would be cleared of the charges. If not, her guilt was pronounced and the woman would be effectively rendered infertile and be considered a curse amongst her people (Num. 5:27-28).

In recent weeks, as The New York Times has come to look like The National Enquirer, we have been reminded that the issues of betrayal and infidelity are still relevant today (especially it would appear, for powerful men!). The wall-to-wall press coverage of these betrayals, and in some cases barbaric and unconscionable acts, is a healthy reminder that a modern, amplified twist on Parashat Naso’s “trial by ordeal” exists today. While those accused of sexual misconduct are not marched to the Kohen by their spouse for an official investigation and interrogation, they are marched to specific authorities (if the law has potentially been violated in some way), press outlets, and pretty much the world at large to account for their alleged wrongdoing. Our society’s press coverage goes to great lengths to publicly shame and embarrass these individuals for their alleged actions. And the spouse and children of all involved must also swallow some of the potion, as these individuals are also considered fair game for public scrutiny, humiliation, and prying. In our parashah, the Kohen confirmed that the woman, should she indeed be guilty for her misdeeds, would be considered a “curse” amongst her people. In today’s times, the Kohen’s foreboding prediction has certainly become true.

As we follow the latest soap opera du jour on the news and read about the ordeal of the allegedly faithless wife in this week’s parashah, may we recognize that deep pain that is caused by breaking of trust and the fragile nature of relationships. May we remember that just as the alleged adulteress in Naso was held accountable for her potential infidelity in our parashah, there are dire physical, spiritual, and emotional consequences prescribed for those accused of such betrayals in our world today. Let us also, as we watch worlds and lives get ripped apart and families crumble before our very eyes, remember that we aren’t privy to the whole story. May we all do our best to honor all of the sacred bonds in our lives and find myriad ways to acknowledge their sanctity. May we also be a source of comfort, strength and compassion for those whose bonds have been tested.

Hayley Siegel is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.