G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: A man whose wife shall stray and commit a betrayal against him . . . that man shall bring his wife to the kohen. . . . The kohen shall take holy water in an earthen vessel . . .

Numbers 5:11–23

Life, as described by the Kabbalists, is a marriage of body and soul. The soul—the active, vital force in the relationship—is its “male” component. The body—the vessel that receives the soul, and channels and focuses its energies—is the “female” element in the relationship.

Common wisdom has it that spirit is loftier than matter, and the soul superior to the body. Indeed, the soul of man maintains a perpetual awareness of its Creator and Source, while the body, susceptible to the enticements of the material, is often the culprit in man’s tendency to forget, stray and betray.

But this is a “male” vision of life. There also exists another perspective on reality—a perspective in which passivity is superior to activity, being is greater than doing, and earthiness is truer than abstraction. A perspective in which the body is not no more than at best a servant of the soul (and at worst its antagonist), but is itself a matrix of the divine.

Our sages tell us that there will come a time when the supremacy of the female will come to light. A time when the physical will equal and surpass the spiritual as a vehicle of connection to G‑d. A time when “the soul shall draw its nourishment from the body.”

Therein lies the deeper significance of the laws of the sotah (the “wayward wife”) legislated in the fifth chapter of Numbers.

The law of the sotah dictates that a man who suspects his wife of unfaithfulness (and has evidence that substantiates his suspicions) should bring her to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There a kohen (priest) fills an earthen vessel with water from the Temple laver, and mixes in earth from the Temple ground. He then inscribes the oath of faithfulness (Numbers 5:19–22) upon a parchment scroll, which he also places in the “bitter waters” until the words dissolve in the water. The “wayward wife” then drinks of the water.

If the woman is indeed guilty of adultery, the “bitter waters” would spell her end. If her husband’s suspicions were unjustified, the waters would not only exonerate her but would actually enhance her relationship with her husband and the productivity of their marriage.

It is significant that the “wayward wife” was vindicated by means of holy water placed in an earthen vessel. This is in contrast to a law regarding the kindling of the Chanukah lights which instructs that one should avoid kindling them in a clay lamp or other earthen vessel, as the placement of oil in such utensils yields unaesthetic results. Indeed, the lights in the Holy Temple, after which the Chanukah lights are modeled, were lit with the finest olive oil in a candelabrum of pure gold. While the Chanukah lights are not held to such a high standard of purity and refinement, they ideally should use a clean-burning fuel (oil or wax), and require a utensil of metal or other “clean” material.

The Chanukah lights proclaim the supremacy of spirit over matter. This is expressed in oil, whose nature is not to mix with other liquids but to rise above them, as spirit holds itself aloof from the physical and the earthly. It is only natural that something of such a “spiritual” and “male” character would shun the earthen vessel.

But there is also a fluid of another sort. “The Torah has been compared to water,” writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya, “because just as water tends to descend from a higher place to a lower place, so has the Torah descended from its place of glory, which is the will and wisdom of G‑d . . . until it has clothed itself in physical things and in matters of this world.”

When a soul contemplates his body and finds her a “wayward wife” contentious to his spiritual goals, his wont may be to lay the blame on her femininity, on her physicality and earthiness. But if he truly desires to achieve harmony between them, he must learn to incorporate her feminine vision into their marriage. He must learn that life is more than spiritual oil flickering in vessels of purest gold. He must learn that it is also water—water that gravitates earthward to fill the most material containers with its divine essence.