By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
June 14, 2003
The first part of the book of Bamidbar is devoted to the
organization of the Israelite camp. In this connection, we learn of the census
and responsibilities of the rest of the tribe of Levi (4:21-49). This is
followed by five topics that are all connected, in one way or another, with
the Mishkan and the divisions of the tribes:
1. Sending out the unclean from the camp (5:1-4).
2. Laws of theft, which can involve sacrifices and the transfer of property to
the Kohanim (5:5-10).
3. The Sotah (wayward wife, suspected of adultery) (5:11-31).
4. The Nazir (6:1-21).
5. The blessings of the Kohanim (6:22-27).
Many questions arise from these topics – chief among them is their connection
one to the other. Many of our commentaries have struggled to find a link between
them, whether thematic, ethical or literary; at times, they have had to admit
that a definite link is hard to find. Ibn Ezra says this in his commentary to
“Every law or commandment stands by itself. And if we were able
to find a reason why this law is joined to this, or this commandment to this, we
would join with all our ability; but if we have not been able, we will consider
that the lack comes from a deficiency in our knowledge.”
To return, then, to our Parsha ultimately, it may be beyond us to understand why
these commandments are arranged in this order. Furthermore, we may never know
conclusively why – even though they are all, in some way, connected to the
Kohanim – they are in the book of Bamidbar and not in the book of Vayikra.
Nonetheless, we must try as well as we can to probe Hashem’s Torah.
Let us look at the two most unusual of these mitzvot, the Sotah and the Nazir.
So closely are these two sections linked that the Sages even placed the two
tractates, Nazir and Sotah, in succession in the Talmud.
The Sotah is a woman who has strayed from the norms of community behavior. She
has not acted with discretion and she has therefore been warned by her husband,
in the presence of two witnesses, against any secret meetings with a particular
man. She has disregarded this formal warning and met with the man. She,
nonetheless, protests her innocence of adultery. Then, as long as both she and
her husband consent, her innocence or guilt is tested with the ceremony of the
“bitter waters”. The local court listens to the accusations, and then sends two
judges to chaperone the husband and wife on their way to the Sanhedrin. All
along the way, and again in court, the wife is told that if she will admit her
sin, she will be divorced and that she need not go through the ordeal. If she
continues to argue her innocence, then the Kohen administers an oath:
“If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray in
defilement with someone other than your husband then you will be innocent by
these cursing bitter waters. But if you have gone astray with someone other than
your husband and been defiled, and a man other than your husband has lain with
you…May Hashem make you as a curse and as an oath in the midst of your people,
when Hashem causes your thigh to waste and your belly to swell…” (5:19-21).
The whole passage is written on parchment. The Kohen pours water
from the basin into an earthenware vessel, adds dust from the floor of the
Temple and then dissolves the writing of the parchment (including Hashem’s Name)
into the mixture. The woman is then made to drink the mixture, which proves her
innocence, if she is unharmed, or guilt, if the curse comes true.
The laws of the Nazir follow immediately. The Nazir is a person who has taken a
vow of at least 30 days, as a consequence of which ten additional commandments
apply to him:
• He may not drink any wine or wine derivatives.
• He may not eat fresh grapes.
• He may not eat dried grapes.
• He may not eat grape seeds.
• He may not eat grape skins.
• He must not shave his hair.
• He must let his hair grow long.
• He must not enter the tent where a dead body is found.
• He must not allow himself to become defiled by the dead or other sources of
• If he violates his status, or his period of nezirut ends, he must shave and
bring his offerings.
The Nazir, as explained by Abravanel, is strikingly similar to a Kohen: neither
may allow themselves contact with the dead; and neither may drink wine (a Nazir,
throughout the period of his vow, a Kohen, while he is serving). Both are given
special instructions regarding their hair the Nazir must not cut his hair, while
the Kohen must not allow his hair to grow long. The prophet Amos, too, assigns a
special place to the Nazir:
And I raised up your sons for prophets, and of your young men
for Nezirim (Amos 2:11).
Thus, says Abravanel, while discussing the divisions of the camp
of Israel in the beginning of the book of Bamidbar, it is appropriate to discuss
“another level of the holy ones who are neither Kohanim nor Leviim, namely
The Nezirim are individuals who, without the tribal credentials
of Kohanim, achieve sanctity comparable to that of Kohanim.
It is thus all the more puzzling that Sotah and Nazir are so closely – eternally
– linked. The Sotah represents the dissolution of sanctity, while the Nazir
expresses the striving for greater sanctity. Could two types of individuals ever
be more opposite?
The Sefer HaChinuch, however, explains the reasons behind these two passages in
surprisingly similar ways. Regarding the Sotah, he says (commandment #365):
“Our people were hallowed by every kind of holiness. So God
granted us a miraculous sign which is hidden from other peoples. As a result,
love and perfect peace would increase and grow between a man and his wife and
our progeny would be hallowed.”
We may interpret this to mean that, since the ceremony of the
Sotah removes the doubt about the wife’s innocence, it protects her from the
extremes of jealousy, which in many societies often leads to murder. The
Chinuch’s comments on the Nazir begin with a discussion of the human condition
as being composed of both physical and spiritual elements, in accordance with
Hashem’s Will. Thus, man must ascend spiritually while caring for his physical
needs. It is not Hashem’s desire that we withdraw completely from the material
world in order to achieve holiness. The Nazir is guided in his quest for
spiritual growth without allowing him to go to ascetic extremes:
“For thus the evil inclination will be subdued, yet the house
will not leak, nor will its corners be demolished ‘[the physical needs of the
body will not be neglected]’ because of that.”
According to the Sefer HaChinuch, therefore, the theme that connects the Sotah
and the Nazir is the principle:
“The Torah spoke only against the evil inclination.”
The Torah recognizes our nature, and seeks to educate us to
follow the “middle path.” Were it not for the commandment of the Sotah, the
impulse for jealousy would go unchecked. And, were it not for Nazir, the impulse
for holiness would similarly go unchecked. Both of these powerful drives have
the potential for sanctity, so they must be carefully directed. When the Torah
teaches us how to harness our inclinations and use them for our betterment, we
are on the way to creating a holy camp.