torah | ‘Irrelevant’ passages may contain seeds to prod our growthby rabbi jacqueline mates-muchin
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Trees don’t care about fruit. Trees care about seeds, for seeds carry the potential for new life. However, trees have a hard time planting their seeds. So, they entice animals to disperse the seeds by creating tantalizing morsels that satisfy a creature’s hunger. Animals eat the fruit and help spread the seeds. The fruit doesn’t have long-term potential; in fact, it disintegrates quickly, but it serves its purpose in enabling a seed to be implanted and grow.
Torah is the tree. The truths and insights it contains, the seeds. The fruits are the details, those aspects of Torah that seem frozen in a particular time and often appear irrelevant or even offensive today. Yet, over time, those details have served to draw people near so they would carry the truths from generation to generation.
The tradition of sotah is one such piece of fruit. In Nasso, we read that if a woman’s husband suspects her of committing adultery, a priest puts her through a test. The priest takes some sacral water and earth from the floor of the Tabernacle and mixes them together as a spell-inducing potion. A curse is written down and then rubbed off into the water. She drinks, and if she is guilty, God causes her belly to distend and her thigh to sag. If nothing happens, she is pure. If she is guilty, she will suffer for her guilt. If she is not guilty, her husband will not be punished for his false accusation.
It is a troubling passage. A woman had no power to accuse her husband, yet her husband needn’t have any evidence to support his accusations against his wife. He would suffer no repercussion for his false accusation, but she would have to suffer through the trial, guilty or not. Furthermore, the magical nature of the ritual itself is problematic. Potions and spells? When God wants to demonstrate someone’s guilt through a physical sign, such as when God strikes Miriam with tzara’at (a skin disease), there are no potions; God strikes directly. So, what is going on here?
Though it may appear to the contrary, perhaps this ritual is about protecting women. Women did not have many rights in marriage and were often defenseless against their husbands’ accusations and actions. Through this ritual, Torah developed a way to protect women accused of adultery. The priest was involved so that the process was authoritative. The woman was made to drink a little dirty water, likely a harmless mixture, thus leaving her belly and thigh unchanged. She had to suffer some public embarrassment, sure, but in exchange, she had clear evidence of her innocence. And that evidence, hopefully, would help to calm her husband’s jealous rage, making her safer in her home and marriage.
The seed is the value of going to great extremes in order to protect the disenfranchised who have little recourse to defend themselves. Even God’s name, which was written down as a part of the curse, was to be destroyed as it was scraped into the water for the sake of helping a person in peril. The ritual of sotah commands us to do what we must and be as creative as we can to support those who need our help.
The fruit designed to carry the seed, however, is a ritual that re-emphasizes the structure of a society in which half the population is jeopardized through disenfranchisement. A more direct route to help a woman who had no rights in marriage would be to change the laws and practices regarding marriage itself.
Yet, change rarely happens that quickly. If Torah simply stated that marriage should be a system of equality and fairness, delineating a system that was so unlike the one our ancestors knew, could it have been embraced? Instead, a seed was implanted within the temporary sweetness of the status quo in the hope that it would find a place to take root and grow. And it has. Our world is far from perfect, but it is better. And still, that seed urges us to defend those in jeopardy today.
There are many details in our texts that feel irrelevant, and they may be. The goal is for us to dig through the trappings of a world long gone to reveal the lofty essence of a more ideal world we have yet to create.
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