The Torah includes the details of the procedure through which a Sotah had to pass: That is, a woman suspected by her husband of adultery in a case where there were no witnesses. A phrase used in this context, “if any man’s wife goes aside,” is quoted by the Talmud to support the statement that “a person does not commit a transgression unless the spirit of folly enters him.” The connection between them, superficially, lies in a play of words, the similarity in Hebrew between the words for “folly” and for “goes aside.” But the Rebbe searches out a deeper parallel, resting on the traditional image which sees the relationship between the Jewish people and G‑d as one of marriage, and hence sees sin as a kind of infidelity. Its theme is the implication of this image for the Jew.

Sin and the Spirit of Folly

There is a statement in the Talmud1 that “a person does not commit a transgression unless the spirit of folly enters him,” and the text which is cited in support is a phrase from the Torah, “If any man’s wife goes aside.”2 The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, in explaining the nature of folly,3 also makes use of the same phrase.

What is the connection between them? Why is adultery, of all the many transgressions, the one that most conclusively shows that sin is always irrational? Neither in the Talmud nor in Chassidut are texts quoted for their own sake or to make a show of learning. They are chosen with precision, to make the most comprehensive case.

In this instance, there is a superficial reason. There is a verbal similarity between “goes aside” (tisteh) and “folly” (shetut). But this does not entirely remove our puzzlement. Why quote a text at all? Many Rabbinic aphorisms are not “derived” from a Biblical text in this way. There must be some deeper connection, not apparent at first sight, between adultery and sin in general.

There is an added difficulty. Adultery is a very grave sin, carrying the death penalty. For someone to commit it is obviously irrational. There could be no grounds for choosing to do an act with such consequences. But the Talmudic saying was intended to apply to all sins, to the most minute detail of Rabbinic law, and even to a permitted act which was not done for the sake of Heaven.4 In however slight a way a man turns his back on G‑d, the saying applies: It is an act of folly. So how can we prove the folly of a minor sin from the obvious folly of a major one?

Sin As Infidelity

The answer is that adultery is the prototype of all sins, and this is so in two ways.

Firstly, the sin of adultery in Jewish law applies only if the woman concerned is married. A single woman cannot be guilty of it. Hence the phrase, “If any man’s wife goes astray.” But the Jewish people as a whole are regarded as the “wife” of G‑d. The bond forged between them at Sinai was like a marriage. And so every time a Jew commits a sin, however slight, he is betraying the covenant, the “marriage contract” between himself and G‑d. He is guilty of spiritual adultery, unfaithfulness to his Divine partner.

The Zohar5 relates: A philosopher once asked Rabbi Eliezer: If the Jews are the chosen people, how is it that they are the weakest of the nations? Rabbi Eliezer replied: Such is their fate. Because they are chosen, they cannot tolerate any faults, either spiritual or material. Because of their special spiritual vocation, what is pardonable in others is a sin in them. And like the heart—the most sensitive and vital of the body’s organs—the slightest tremor or faltering is of life and death significance.6

This, then, is the connection between our verse about a wife’s unfaithfulness and the maxim about the spirit of folly.

Between the Jewish people and G‑d is a bond of eternal mutual loyalty, a marriage of which G‑d is the male, the initiating partner, and we the female, the keepers of the faith. Even exile is not a separation, a divorce. It is recorded in the Talmud7 that the prophet Isaiah told ten men to “Return and repent.” They answered, “If a master sells his slave or a husband divorces his wife, does one have a claim on the other?” (In other words they argued that with the Babylonian exile G‑d had effectively divorced Himself from His people and had no further claim to their obedience.) The Holy One, blessed be He, then said to the prophet: “Thus saith the L-rd, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away, or which of My creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you have sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.” In this way, it is certain that even in the temporary separation of exile, G‑d will not take another people for His chosen.8

If so, then since the faithfulness of a wife lies in her compliance to her husband’s desires,9 when a Jew commits even a slight transgression or even a permitted but self-centered act, it is a gesture of unfaithfulness and betrayal of the Holy Wedding at Sinai.

This is why the statement of the folly of sin—every sin—is followed by the phrase from the Torah, less as a proof than an explanation. How is it that even a trivial sin is folly? Because it brings about a severing of the link between man and G‑d. Why does it do so? Because it is an act of infidelity intervening in the marriage between G‑d and the Jew.

Sin as a Passing Moment

The second connection between the two statements is this: The phrase “if any man’s wife goes aside” does not apply to the certain, but merely to the suspected, adulterer; where there were no witnesses to the supposed act, and it was “hidden from the eyes of her husband.” This suspicion by itself makes her liable to bring an offering of barley, which was an animal food,10 a humiliation in keeping with the nature of her supposed offense.

The whole procedure is difficult to understand. If the charge against her is only based on suspicion, not proven fact, can we not rely on the presumption that most Jewish wives are faithful, and dismiss the charge? The answer is that so high are the standards of fidelity which the Torah sets for Jewish wives, that it is culpable even to lay oneself open to suspicion.

However, this stigma is short-lived. If, after the procedure for deciding whether the suspicion was well-founded, she is deemed innocent, she returns to her husband untainted; “she shall be cleared and shall conceive seed.”11

And this, too, is the case with the Jew who, in a spirit of folly, commits a sin. The breach he opens up between himself and G‑d is only a temporary one, and in the last analysis, “My glory (that is, the G‑dly spark within every Jew) I will not give to another.”12 No Jew is ever so distant from G‑d that he cannot return, untainted and pure.

This is the second connection: Just as a wife suspected by her husband is only temporarily displaced from her marital closeness, so is the separation from G‑d which a sin creates, only a passing moment.

The Fruitfulness of Return

Even though it is true that someone who attaches significance to things independently of G‑d denies G‑d’s unity, and while contemplating his sins he may fall into the despair of thinking “the L-rd has forsaken me and my L-rd has forgotten me,”13 he must remember that he can always recover his closeness to G‑d.

More than this, he must remember a third resemblance between the woman suspected of adultery, and the sinner in general.

If she is declared innocent, not only is she cleared of any stain on her character; she shall return to her husband “and shall conceive seed.” This means14 that if she has previously given birth with difficulty, now she will do so with ease; if she has borne girls, she will have sons as well; one authority maintains that she will bear children even if beforehand she was barren.

This hope lies before the person who has sinned. He must not fall prey to melancholy or despair. For G‑d has said, “My glory I will not give to another.” And when he returns to G‑d he too will be fruitful. He will rise to the love and fear of G‑d. He will work towards true closeness, until “husband and wife are united,” and the presence of the Divine is revealed in his soul. This is his personal redemption:15 a preface to the collective redemption which is the Messianic Age.16