Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Should any man’s wife go astray and deal treacherously with him, and a man lie with her carnally, but it was hidden from her husband’s eyes, but she was secluded [with the suspected adulterer] and there was no witness against her, and she was not seized. (Sefer Bamidbar 5:11-13)
The unexpected inclusion of the commandment of the wayward wife in Sefer Bamidbar
Nachmanides notes that Sefer Bamidbar focuses on the travels of Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. Most of the commandments that are included in the sefer are directed to that generation and are not intended for future generations. For example, the sefer opens with Hashem directing Moshe to take a census of the people. This commandment was intended to be executed at that time. The commandment does not apply to future generations.
There are a few commandments in Sefer BeMidbar that apply for all generations. Some of those commandments are included in Parshat Naso. One of those is the commandment regarding a sotah – the wayward wife. A sotah is a married woman whose conduct has created a suspicion of adultery. The suspicion cannot be confirmed through judicial means. In other words, no witnesses can testify to an actual act of adultery. The parasha describes a means through which the woman can be tested and a determination made of her guilt or innocence. The test is described in the parsha and will not be described in detail here. In short, it was conducted in the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – by the kohen – the priest. It involved requiring the woman to drink a mixture composed of ingredients that would seem to be harmless. Despite the innocuous nature of its ingredients, the mixture responded to and revealed the woman’s behavior. If she was guilty, she and her adulterous partner died. If she was innocent, she conceived.
As Nachmanides notes, few commandments intended for future generations are included in Sefer BaMidbar. This raises the question of why this mitzvah is one of the few exceptions. There are a number of responses to this issue. One of those will be considered in the following.
Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying: The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flag staffs of their fathers’ house; some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp. (Sefer BeMidbar 2:1-2)
The design of the wilderness camp corresponds to the Sinai encampment
Let us begin by returning to Nachmanides’ comments on Sefer BeMidbar. Nachmanides notes that Sefer BeMidbar deals primarily with the experiences of Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness and the initial stage of the capture of the Land of Israel. The sefer begins with the directions that Hashem gave to Moshe regarding the organization of the camp. Each tribe was assigned a specific place surrounding the Mishcan. Both when encamped and when traveling, the placement of each member of the nation was prescribed by these directions.
Nachmaides explains that the camp’s design corresponded, in a number of respects, to the encampment at Sinai. For example, Sinai – the mountain upon which the presence of Hashem resided – was in the center of the camp. In the wilderness, Hashem’s presence resided in the Mishcan. The tribes surrounded the Mishcan. At Sinai, Moshe was commanded to establish boundary lines surrounding the mountain. The people were forbidden from crossing those boundary lines and coming too close to, or ascending the mountain. In the wilderness, the people were provided with limited access to the precincts of the Mishcan and were completely excluded from the inner precincts. At Sinai, the kohanim – the priests – were allowed to approach closer to the mountain and even to ascend its lower region. In the wilderness, these priests were given greater access of the Mishcan and they and the Leviyim – the Levites – camped in an inner circle directly surrounding the Mishcan. In short, the wilderness camp was modeled on the Sinai encampment and mimicked many of its aspects.
Nachmanides notes that the directions for the design of the camp were given to Moshe while the nation was encamped at Sinai. Furthermore, the first stage of the nation’s journey to the Land of Israel was not undertaken until these directions were implemented. The reason for urgency in implementing these directions emerges from a further comment of Nachmanides.
The cloud of Hashem was above them by day, when they traveled from the camp. So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moshe would say, Arise, Hashem, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You. And when it came to rest he would say, Repose Hashem, among the myriads of thousands of Israel. (Sefer BeMidbar 10:34-36)
In the wilderness, Hashem dwelled within His nation
Why was the wilderness camp modeled after the Sinai encampment? Nachmanides explains that the design was a response to the presence of Hashem within the midst of the nation. The divine presence demands an attitude of awe. Surrounding the palace of a mighty king are his legions. These legions are an expression of respect for the monarch. Similarly, Bnai Yisrael’s encampment surrounding Hashem’s Mishcan could not be haphazard and arbitrary. Instead, its precision and orderliness expressed awareness of the presence of Hashem in the midst of the camp.
Nachmanides notes that Sefer BeMidbar also includes a description of the many miracles that Hashem performed for the people in the wilderness. These culminate with the initial stages of the capture of the Land of Israel. These miracles include the cloud that traveled with the nation and directed its travels. The movement of the cloud signaled the departure of the nation from its encampment. Its relocation to a new place signaled the nation to encamp at that new location.
The miracles are closely related to the presence of Hashem in the midst of the camp. These miracles were expressions of that presence. Now, the reason for urgency in implementing the design of the camp is understood. The nation traveled and camped in the wilderness accompanied by the presence of Hashem. Their existence in the wilderness was dependent upon the many miracles that expressed Hashem’s presence. The passage to the Land of Israel and its conquest were not accomplished though Moshe’s careful planning and precise management of the nation. The journey through the wilderness was a supernatural experience that was predicated upon Hashem’s presence within the nation. Therefore, this journey could not begin until the camp was ordered in a manner reflecting the divine presence.
Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Command the children of Israel to banish from the campall those afflicted with tzara’ath or with a male discharge, and all those unclean through [contact with] the dead. (Sefer BeMidbar 5:1-2)
The impacts of Hashem’s presence in the midst of the nation
In the passages above Moshe is directed to send forth from the camp those who are in a state of severe ritual impurity. Based on the above discussion the placement of this commandment in Parshat Naso is understood. In Parshat BeMidbar and in the opening portion of Parshat Naso the Torah is describing the design of the encampment. Nachmanides explains that the presence of Hashem within the camp endowed it with sanctity and this sanctity required the exclusion from the camp those who were experiencing severe forms of ritual impurity.
Now, let us return to our initial question. Why is the mitzvah of the sotah placed in our Sefer Bemidbar? Sefer BeMidbar primarily includes commandments intended for the generation that traveled through the wilderness. This commandment applies to all generations and it continued to be observed after the nation entered and captured the Land of Israel. When the Temple is rebuilt, we will resume observing this commandment.
The above discussion suggests a simple response. The examination of the sotah and the determination of her guilt or her vindication are not a judicial process. It is a miraculous test. This test is mentioned at this point because it requires and is an expression of the divine presence within the camp.
In summary, Sefer BeMidbar describes the design of the camp as a response to the presence of Hashem in its midst. This description is followed by the requirement to exclude from the camp those who are ritually impure. This commandment is a consequence of the sanctity of the camp. The sefer continues with the mitzvah of the sotah. This mitzvah is an expression of divine influence and reflects the presence of Hashem within the nation.
But only to the place which Hashem your L-rd shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there. And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep. And there you shall eat before Hashem, your L-rd, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as Hashem, your L-rd, has blessed you. (Sefer Devarim 12:5-7)
Our love for the Land of Israel
A problem emerges from this explanation. This mitzvah of the examination of the sotah was not limited to the wilderness. As noted above, after the nation entered the Land of Israel, this mitzvah continued to be observed. In the Land of Israel, the nation was not encamped around the Mishcan. Mun – manna did not fall from the heaven and water was not provided by a miraculous well that followed the people to their various places of settlement within the Land. Instead, the people worked the land, they cultivated crops, and dug wells. The divine presence was not expressed as it was in the wilderness. Yet, the examination of the sotah was conducted and was effective. If this miraculous mitzvah is dependent upon the presence of Hashem within the camp of the nation, how was the mitzvah observed after the nation emerged from the wilderness and settled the Land of Israel?
The answer to this question emerges from an insight of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l. Nachmanides explains that the wilderness encampment was modeled after the Sinai encampment. The Rav explains that the wilderness encampment was duplicated in the Land of Israel! The Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – replaced the Mishcan. It was the “residence” of Hashem. The city of Jerusalem replaced the wilderness camp of the Levites. Finally, the rest of the Land of Israel replaced the encampment of the tribes surrounding the Mishcan. In other words, the model of Sinai and of the wilderness encampment were the template for the settlement of the nation in the Land of Israel. The same fundamental elements of the Sinai encampment were expressed in the encampment of the wilderness and in the settlement of the Land of Israel.
The Rav’s comments demonstrate that Hashem did not depart from the midst of the nation with its emergence from the wilderness. Hashem continued to dwell within His nation. However, His presence was expressed in a difference manner. In the wilderness, Hashem’s presence was expressed by manifest miracles. Natural law was subdued and overthrown in order to provide for the sustenance and safety of the Jewish people. In the Land of Israel, Hashem continued to dwell in the midst of His nation. Now, His presence was expressed through the orderly passage of the seasons, the abundance of the harvest, the wealth and comfort of the nation, and the triumph of Bnai Yisrael over their enemies. In other words, in the wilderness, Hashem’s presence was expressed through the disruption of the natural order – through manifest miracles. In the Land of Israel, the divine presence found its expression in the beauty and wonder of the natural order. His presence remained and the miracle of the mitzvah of sotah continued.
Our love for and commitment to the Land of Israel is multifaceted. Its many foundations account for its near universality among our people. Even those among us who are its harshest critics, enthusiastically proclaim their support for the State of Israel. For many Jews, Israel is viewed as the refuge for every Jew. Any Jew fleeing from persecution has a home in Israel. For other Jews, Israel is regarded as an opportunity for the Jewish people to renew and develop our own unique culture. However, from the Torah perspective, these issues are not the foundation for our love of the Land of Israel. Our love is intimate. It cannot be explained or described to an outsider. Our love is a religious experience and even has a romantic aspect. It reflects our desire to be closer to Hashem. It expresses our desire to be in the Land that He has chosen as His abode in this world – to not just know Hashem but to be His neighbor.
”Who’s Your Daddy?”
And Hashem spoke unto Moshe, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say to them, “If any man’s wife go aside, and act unfaithfully against him, and a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, she being defiled secretly, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken by force in the act;“ (Sefer BeMidbar 5:11-13)
Introduction: The Torah’s definition of adultery
Some elements of the Torah seem strange and even unreasonable from our contemporary perspective. One of these elements is the Torah’s definition of adultery. According to the Torah, adultery only occurs though the sexual intimacy of a married woman and a man other than her husband. A married man who has an affair with a single woman is not regarded as an adulterer. Marriage is a commitment between a man and a woman. They pledge to each other their fidelity and love. Why is a man’s disregard for his marriage commitment treated more lightly than the wife’s extramarital affair?
This is a multi-faceted issue. One of the difficulties that complicate any discussion of the questions is that it is associated with various aspects of Torah law that suggest gender inequality. In other words, the discussion of adultery becomes entangled with the larger issue of the Torah position on gender.
The following discussion does not deal with the larger issue of the Torah’s outlook on gender. It is focused on one specific issue – the Torah’s treatment of adultery.
The difficulty in enforcing a prohibition against adultery
Parshat Naso includes the mitzvah of sotah. The commandment has many unique aspects. The starting point in the study of this commandment is the prohibition against adultery. As noted above, the Torah defines adultery as sexual intimacy between a man and a married woman. When such a liaison takes place both the man and the woman have violated the prohibition and are subject to the same punishment. If the incident occurred in the presence of witnesses, the two participants may be subject to the death penalty.
By its very nature, this behavior is not easily regulated by the courts or even by society. Adultery is a private act. It takes place hidden from the public eye. A husband or wife may suspect a spouse of adultery yet not have definite knowledge that actual adultery has taken place.
The Torah’s attitude toward adultery presents a dilemma. It condemns it in the strongest terms. It is one of the prohibitions that is included in the Decalogue. Yet, this behavior is extremely difficult to regulate. The prohibition cannot be enforced through normal judicial procedures.
The passages above explain that this issue is addressed by the mitzvah of sotah. Essentially, this mitzvah acknowledges that this is not a prohibition that can be enforced by the courts. Instead, it enlists Hashem in the enforcement of the prohibition.
And when he has made her drink the water, then it shall come to pass, if she be defiled, and has acted unfaithfully against her husband, that the water that causes the curse shall enter into her and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away; and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be cleared, and shall conceive. (Sefer BeMidbar 5:27-28)
The Torah’s solution
The mitzvah of sotah is the only instance in which the judgment of a crime is not performed by the court and punishment is not executed by the court. Instead, both the judgment and the punishment rely upon a miracle.
The parasha provides a description of the process through which the sotah and her suspected partner are judged and – if guilty – punished. In summary, it is the husband of the suspected wife who is charged with the duty of initiating the trial. He cannot do this with without warning. He must first express his concerns to his wife and share his suspicions. He can only proceed with acting against his wife if she ignores these concerns and continues to liaison in seclusion with the man with whom the husband suspects the wife is intimate. If these conditions are met, then the husband can place his wife into the hands of the kohanim – the priests – to be tried. The kohanim are not judges and they do not conduct a judicial proceeding.
The wife is not required to agree to these proceedings. However, at this point, clear evidence does exist that the wife and her suspected partner have at least entered into seclusion together. This seclusion took place after the husband had shared his suspicions with his wife. If the wife is not willing to resolve these suspicions and exonerate herself through these proceedings, then she and her husband must divorce.
The proceedings include elements of avodah – sacrificial service – and a non-judicial proceeding that determines the guilt or innocence of the woman and her suspected partner. This element incorporates the miracle that is the most unique element of this mitzvah. The kohen creates a mixture that combines water from the laver of the Tabernacle – the Mishcan, dirt from the floor of the Mishcan, and one more ingredient.
This last ingredient is complex. The kohen records the Torah portion of the mitzvah of sotah. He then scrapes the letters of the text into the mixture.
The woman drinks the mixture. If she is guilty, then the mixture is fatal. It is fatal not only for her. Her partner, even though he does not participate directly in the test, also dies.
And Hashem spoke unto Moshe, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, “I am HaShem your G-d. After the behaviors of the land of Egypt, wherein you dwelt, you shall not follow. And after the doings of the land of Cana’an, to where I bring you, you shall not follow.
Neither shall you follow their statutes. You shall observe My ordinances and My statutes you shall keep, to walk therein. I am Hashem your G-d. You shall therefore keep My statutes, and Mine ordinances, which if a person does, he shall live by them. I am Hashem. None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness. I am Hashem.” (Sefer VaYikra 18:1-6)
The odd placement of the mitzvah of sotah within the books of the Torah
The placement of this discussion in the beginning of Sefer BeMidbar is very difficult to understand. Where should this discussion appear in the Torah? The parshiyot – Torah sections – of Kedoshim and Acharei Mot both focused on the Torah’s sexual prohibitions. The above passages introduce that discussion. The prohibition against adultery is included in the presentation. Those sections would be a perfect context for discussion of the mitzvah of sotah. Furthermore, those sections are part of Sefer VaYikra. Sefer VaYikra deals extensively with the roles, duties, and responsibilities of the kohanim. The entire sotah proceeding is conducted by the kohen. Sefer VaYikra would be the appropriate context for this mitzvah. Why it this mitzvah presented at this point?
And Hashem spoke unto Moshe and unto Aharon, saying: The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses; every man by his own standard, according to the ensigns; a way off shall they pitch around the tent of meeting. (Sefer BeMidbar 2:1-2)
The purpose of the Sefer BeMidbar census
Sefer BeMidbar begins with a census of Bnai Yisrael. Based on this census each person was assigned a specific place to set up one’s tent and when the nation camped. This census also assigned to each person a specific place within the procession of the nation as it traveled through the wilderness. In other words, the census was the fundamental tool for the planning of Bnai Yisrael’s “neighborhoods” and communities.
Through the census, each person was assigned to a shevet – a tribe. Each tribe was assigned a place within a degel – a group of three tribes. Each degel was assigned a position with the camp surrounding the Mishcan and within the procession of the nation, when traveling. As a result of this scheme, the members of each tribe camped together in an assigned place. Each tribe camped within a group of three specific tribes. When the camp traveled, the same scheme was implemented. Each person traveled within one’s assigned tribe and each tribe traveled with the other tribes of its degel.
An important outcome of this design is that it nurtured a strong community. Family members camped together and were surrounded by families from their own shevet. Each shevet was surrounded or adjacent to set, unchanging partners. The larger a community the more difficult to create a high degree of social cohesion. Bnai Yisrael was a community of over a million individuals. In other words, its population was larger than Seattle’s. Creating social cohesion in a group this size is difficult and perhaps impossible. But the Torah divided this multitude into smaller shevet-groups. In these groups the “degrees of separation” between families and individuals were reduced. Everyone could know or have a tangible sense of connection with those who surrounded him. The result is a supportive community.
If your brother be impoverished, and he sells some of his legacy, then shall his kinsman that is next unto him come, and shall redeem that which his brother hath sold. (Sefer VaYikra 25:25)
A poor person who is one’s relative receives priority over all others. The poor of one’s household receive priority over the poor of one’s city. And the poor of one’s city receive priority over the poor of another city, as [implied by Deuteronomy 15:11]: “[You shall surely open your hand to] your brother, the poor, and the destitute in your land.” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Matanot Aniyim 7:13)
The importance of family and community
The importance of community and family is discussed in the ending sections of Sefer VaYikra. There, the responsibilities of family to come to the rescue of a member who is impoverished is repeatedly mentioned. The above passage is one example of this emphasis. This value is codified in the laws governing tzedakah – charity. Maimonides discusses this issue in his laws governing tzedakah. We are required to give priority to helping our family members and members of our own community.
In short, the Torah’s system of encampment reflects an outlook on social design. Family, shevet, and community are reinforced. A strong community is nurtured between these families and individuals. Members of the family and community are encouraged to render assistance to one another.
A person’s shevet is determined by one patrilineal descent
An important aspect of the system of encampment is the means by which individuals are assigned to their respective shevet. This is determined by patrilineal descent. One’s shevet is determined by one’s father. If the father was a member of Shevet Reuven then his children are members of this shevet.
Now, let us return to the discussion of sotah and the placement of this mitzvah in the context of the description of the camp of Bnai Yisrsel. Apparently, the discussion of the camp segues into the mitzvah of sotah. The organization of the camp is founded upon patrilineal descent. The mitzvah of sotah is designed to protect patrilineal integrity.
It is not difficult to determine the mother of a child. Determination of the father requires more than an empirical observation. The degree of certainty of fatherhood is a function of the fidelity between mother and husband. If this fidelity is in question, the child cannot be certain of his father’s identity. The proper shevet of the child is in doubt and one’s place within the community is undermined.
The design of the encampment emphasizes the importance of strong family structure. The most basic unit of family is parents and their children. If the certain identity of the father is in doubt, the family unit is undermined. Father and child must struggle with the uncertainty underlying their relationship. The unit that is the very bedrock of the community is damaged. The mitzvah of sotah is directly related to the importance of preserving the basic family unit – mother, father, and children.
Understanding the Torah’s definition of adultery
It follows that the infidelity of the wife and husband are treated differently. A husband’s infidelity is a violation of the trust that is the foundation of marriage. However, it does not give his and his wife’s children cause to doubt that he is their father.
The commentators offer a variety of views on the reasoning behind the Torah’s severe attitude toward adultery. However, their opinions share a common thread – the importance of clear parental identification. The above analysis indicates that this view is reflected in the Torah’s presentation of the mitzvah of sotah.