The prophets speak of the bond between G‑d and Israel as a marriage, and of Israel’s sins as a wife’s betrayal of her husband. Following this model, the sages of the Talmud see the sotah—the “wayward wife” discussed in our Parshah—as the prototype of all transgression against the divine will. The chassidic masters further investigate this prototype, finding in the particulars of the laws of sotah insight into the deeper significance of transgression.

The sotah is not a woman who is known to have actually committed adultery, but rather one whose behavior makes her suspect of having done so. Her faithfulness to her husband must therefore be established before the marriage relationship can be resumed.

A woman becomes a sotah through a two-stage process: “jealousy” (kinui) and “hiding” (setirah). The first stage occurs when a husband suspects his wife of an improper relationship with another man, and warns her not to be alone with that individual. If the woman disregards this warning and proceeds to seclude herself with the other man, she becomes a sotah, forbidden to live with her husband unless she agrees to be tested with the “bitter waters.” The woman is warned that if she has indeed committed adultery, the “bitter waters” will kill her; if, however, she has not actually been unfaithful, the drinking of these waters exonerates her completely. In fact, the Torah promises that, having subjected herself to this ordeal, her marriage will now be even more rewarding and fruitful than before her “going astray.”

As applied to the marriage between G‑d and His people:

Israel can never truly betray her G‑d; at worst she can be only like a sotah, a wife whose behavior gives the appearance of unfaithfulness and causes a temporary rift between herself and her husband. The process began at Mount Sinai, when G‑d, like a “jealous” husband, warned: “Do not have any other gods before Me.” But no matter how far the Jewish soul strays, she never truly gives herself to these “other gods”; she is only “hiding” from G‑d, indulging the illusion that there exists a dimension of reality that is outside of G‑d’s all-pervading presence and providence.

Even this she can do only because G‑d has “set her up” to it by His “jealousy.” In the case of the sotah, simply secluding herself with another man does not make her a “wayward wife”—unless such seclusion has been preceded by a warning from her husband. In other words, it is the husband’s “jealousy” which makes her act a betrayal, not the act in and of itself. By the same token, a soul’s “hiding herself” from G‑d is possible only because G‑d has allowed for this possibility by proclaiming “Do not have any other gods before Me,” thereby giving credence to the illusion that there can be anything other. Were it not for this divine contrivance, sin—that is, a denial of the divine reality—would not be possible.

To continue the analogy: When the Jewish people act as a sotah, they are tested with the bitter waters of galut (“Because of our sins we were exiled from our land”). Indeed, two thousand years of exile have proven that, despite all appearances, the Jewish soul is inseparable from her G‑d. The Jew may be persecuted for centuries, may assimilate for generations, but ultimately there comes a moment of truth, a moment which lays bare the question of who and what we are, stripped of all distortion and self-delusion, and our innate faithfulness to G‑d comes to light.

And like the bitter waters of the sotah, galut is more than just a test. It is a “descent for the sake of ascent,” a crisis in the marriage which ultimately deepens and enhances it by unearthing deep wells of loyalty and commitment which remain untapped in an unchallenged relationship. The trials of galut call forth the quintessential powers of the Jewish soul, intensifying the bond between G‑d and His people.