Rabbi Yaacov Haber's
drasha was given at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo on Shabbat Naso, 5748 (1988), and
transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker.
The entire series has been published in a book
titled "Reachings" and can be ordered by
and questions are very welcome.
THE PROBLEM WITH LABELS
In today's parsha, we read about an unpleasant event:
investigation by a kohen of a "sotah" - that is, a woman
suspected by her husband of adultery, as a result of suspicious behavior on her part.
In connection with this investigation, is the offering that the suspected woman's husband
brings with them to the kohen. It is a very simple offering: one tenth of an ephah of
barley meal, without oil or frankincense (Num. 5:15). Why is this? Rashi explains: barley
meal (an animal food) was used, instead of wheat flour, because she (allegedly) behaved
like an animal. No oil was used because oil is associated with light, and she acted in
darkness. Finally, no frankincense was added because our matriarchs are
"frankincense", but she turned away from their paths.
There is something strange about Rashi's explanation.
Suppose you met someone who was hopelessly unkempt in every way, and you said to him:
"You could use a manicure!" What you are proposing would be completely out of
proportion to what was wrong with him.
Similarly, here we have a woman who is being compared
to an animal, someone who acts in darkness, and then we say that she does not quite
measure up to the standards of the matriarchs!
This last comparison seems incongruous in relation to the first two: she has (supposedly)
not been behaving like a decent human being, let alone like Sarah,
Rivka, Rachel and
The answer to this puzzle, I believe, is this. We tend to think of our relationship to the
requirements of the Torah strictly in the context of our present behavior. By that I mean
that we consider any small improvement on our current behavior (for instance, not using
lashon hora in one conversation) as a big thing -- which it is! In fact, that is how we
are supposed to improve, one little step at a time. But with all that, we should never
lose sight of our ultimate goal, which should be to become a tzaddik!
I remember a conversation I had with a friend recently, someone whom I had known for
twenty years, since yeshiva. He confessed to me (not that I wanted a confession from him,
since that is not a Jewish ideal) that he had been slipping more and more in many of his
To begin with, he stopped wearing a kippa.
Then he found that in the winter it was difficult to leave his
office early on Friday in time for Shabbos. Then he found that, for business reasons, he
"had to" eat in non-kosher restaurants with clients. And so on. "And do you
know," he concluded, "the amazing thing is that in spite of all this, I've
managed to remain frum!"
Well, of course, we can laugh at him, and think: "Frum indeed!
Who are you kidding -- yourself?" But the point I want to make is that this man is
not being completely hypocritical or self-deceiving. He has certain standards, realizes
that he has been slipping from them, and, at a certain level, wants to return to them.
Some years ago, when I lived in Jerusalem, and was beginning my keruv work, I had a
conversation with a neighbor. She told me that she observed certain mitzvos --
kashrus and others.
I then asked her why she did not observe a certain mitzva (one I was concerned about), and
she replied: "But I'm Mizrachi, not Aguda!" I wanted to say: "I'm
interested in what mitzvos you do, not how you vote!" (I am not trying to condemn
Mizrachi here. I just want to make a point.)
What my neighbor was doing was attaching a label to herself. We all do that to some
extent, and labels can be useful, as a means of identifying ourselves to the outside
world. However labels can also have a bad side, when we use them as ceilings for our
behavior, as excuses for not striving to improve ourselves.
Whatever our label, whatever our present affiliation, we can, and should, aim for the very
highest. The woman labeled a "sotah" was made to realize that, no matter how low
she has fallen, she could have attained -- and could still attain -- the very highest
spiritual level. And so can we all.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
has served as the OU's National Director of
Jewish Education and is the founder of its
Pardes Program. He currently serves
as Rosh Yeshiva of
Yeshivat Orchos Chaim, Jerusalem,
and President of TorahLab. Rabbi Haber can be reached at
"A tree of life for those who embrace
Send comments to Rabbi Haber at email@example.com
Rabbi Yaacov Haber