Flaws in A Marriage

Parshas Naso contains the laws governing a sotah, a woman suspected of immodest conduct. When a man issues a warning to his wife, forbidding her to be alone with a certain man, and she disobeys this warning, she is classified as a sotah.1 Even though she may not have committed adultery, the very fact that she was alone with that man after being warned obliges her to undergo the test described in this Torah reading.

The relationship between a mortal husband and wife mirrors the covenant between G‑d and the Jewish people.2 Accordingly, it follows that the laws regarding a sotah have parallels with regard to the relationship between G‑d and the Jews.3

The commandment:4 “You shall have no other gods in My presence” can be interpreted as G‑d’s warning to the Jewish nation not to seek intimacy with others. Nevertheless, when considering our relationship with G‑d, it is difficult to conceive of something equivalent to being alone with another man. How is it possible to hide from G‑d?; “there is no place where He is not.”5 We are always being watched by G‑d, as it is written:6 “‘If a person will conceal himself in hidden places, will I not see him?’ declares G‑d.”

How then, can the Jews seclude themselves, unseen by G‑d, as it were?

The answer depends on the following concept: Our Sages state7 that with regard to a proud person, G‑d says: “He and I cannot dwell in the same place.” Thus pride brings about concealment from G‑d.8 G‑d is not to be found where a proud person is; it is as if G‑d does not see him. This is alluded to in the extended interpretation of the above verse offered by the Baal Shem Tov: “If a person will conceal himself in hidden places, because of his ‘I,’ I will not see him.”

When a Husband Can Withdraw a Warning

Our Sages teach:9 “When a husband withdraws his warning [to his wife], the warning is withdrawn.” It is as if he never issued the warning to begin with.

Our Sages explain,10 however, that a husband has the right to withdraw his warning only before his wife enters into privacy with the man regarding whom she was warned. Once she is alone with him, the warning can no longer be withdrawn, and the woman must drink the bitter waters [if she is discovered together with the man in question].

The rationale is that as long as she has not entered into privacy with the other man, the husband’s warning has not been reinforced by her conduct. Accordingly, since he has authority over his warning, he can withdraw it. When, however, she has already secluded herself with the other man, she is required by the Torah to drink the bitter waters. Her husband has no authority over the Torah’s requirement.

The Jerusalem Talmud10 seems to differ, stating that a husband can withdraw his warning up until the moment the scroll bearing the sotah’scurse is blotted out in the water.

The Rogatchover Gaon11 explains that there is really no difference of opinion between the Jerusalem Talmud andthe Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud is talking about a meeting which would not be forbidden if not for the husband’s warning, e.g., he warned her not to be alone with her father, or with 100 men at the same time. Since such a prohibition is entirely the husband’s,12 if he withdraws his warning, there is no longer any reason for the meeting to have been forbidden.13

A parallel exists with regard to the bond between G‑d and the Jewish people. Since there is no place apart from G‑d, there is, in truth, no possibility for a private relationship apart from Him. When does G‑d allow a person to be “alone,” without Him? When that person’s pride banishes G‑d’s presence, as it is written:14 “All those with haughty hearts are an abomination to G‑d.”

Since the possibility of being apart from G‑d is thus dependent solely on His will, G‑d can always “withdraw His warning” even if it has been transgressed.

Making Torah a Part of One’s Being

Until what time can the husband’s warning be withdrawn (even in those instances when the prohibition is dependent solely on him)? Until the scroll bearing the sotah’s curse is blotted out.

To blot out the letters on the scroll implies that even before they were washed away, the letters and the parchment were not an integral whole. For if they had been an integral whole, it would not be possible to erase them. For example, when letters are engraved in stone, the letters and stone become a single entity. It is impossible to destroy the letters without destroying the stone itself.

There is a parallel in our Divine service. There are Jews who study Torah in a manner resembling engraving, i.e., it is impossible to erase the letters of the Torah from their being; they and the Torah become a single entity.15

In such an instance, even if a Jew becomes separate from G‑d because his pride causes G‑d to seclude Himself, this affects only the external dimensions of the situation. G‑d’s forgiveness can negate these — and indeed all possible — obstacles, and G‑d is “abundant in forgiveness.”16

When, however, the “letters are rubbed out” (i.e., it becomes apparent that the person and the Torah were always two separate entities), it is possible that his self-concern will have permeated his being, and the laws of a sotah will apply to him.

What is required of a sotah? To bring a meal offering of barley, which is referred to by our Sages17 as “animal fodder.” This meal offering is a tenth of an ephah in measure, the size of offering brought by the most indigent.18 In the spiritual context, this means that a person realizes that he is “impoverished with regard to knowledge,”19 like an animal20 which has no knowledge at all.

When a person wipes away his self-consciousness to such an extent, he becomes pure, able to resume his relationship with G‑d. Indeed, he reaches a higher level than that attained previously, as implied by the promise:21 “And she will be acquitted, and will bear offspring.” Our Sages22 interpret this to mean: “If she would have given birth with difficulty, she will give birth with ease.”

Implied is also a spiritual parallel, for “the offspring of the righteous” — and ‘Your nation are all righteous’23 — “are mitzvos and good deeds.”24

Indeed, the person will proceed to the highest levels, for “In the place where baalei teshuvah stand, perfectly righteous men are not able to stand.”25

(Adapted from Sichos Yud-Beis Tammuz, 5717)