What does it take to establish trust? In a sense, the entire narrative thrust of the Book of Numbers is about the process of the Israelites learning to trust in God, to be ready to enter the land that has been promised to them.
But for a people who have been slaves and ill-treated by their harsh taskmasters in the past, basic trust is hard to come by. That is true even at the most fundamental level of society: the family unit of husband and wife, which is illustrated by the ritual of the sotah in this week’s parsha, Naso. If two people in a relationship do not have faith in one other, and can’t assume that each has the best interests of the other at heart, there is no basis for the relationship to continue. When there is a suspicion of a breach, a way forward must be created. That is what the sotah is about.
It is a one-sided test of the wife’s fidelity, to be sure, in that only the husband can test the wife. But remember that before DNA testing to establish paternity existed, a woman would have more certainty than the man about the actual father’s identity. Under the strict mores of biblical society, men were anxious that offspring who are not their blood relations would inherit their property.
It might seem odd for the Torah to discuss at such great length this trial by ordeal, the only one of its kind in the Torah. But if we place it into the context of the need for trust, we can begin to grasp why there are 31 verses devoted to it.
At its core, according to Jacob Milgrom in his JPS commentary on Numbers, is the oath that the suspected adulteress must make [Num. 5: 19-24]. The oath says that if the woman has in fact had relations with another man, that God should make her a curse and imprecation among her people [5: 21], and the woman must say “amen, amen ” [Num. 5: 22]. The words are written on parchment and dissolved in water [Num. 5:22-23], which she must drink.
If she is guilty, she will be infertile. If she is not guilty, “she shall be unharmed and willing to retain seed” (i.e. she is fertile and can bear a child). She and her spouse can have children together, free of concern about paternity and full of trust in the exclusivity of the relationship.
One woman in the Bible who was unable to bear a child had her trust in God eroded. The biblical Hannah was bitter and unhappy and went to the sanctuary at Shiloh to pray. There, according to the Talmud in Brachot 31, she threatened God, brazenly. According to the Talmud, she declared, “of all of the hosts and hosts that You created in Your world, is it difficult in Your eyes to grant me one son?” She then threatens a ruse to gain a child: She “will go and seclude myself with another man before Elkanah, my husband. Since I secluded myself, they will force me to drink the sotah water to determine whether or not I have committed adultery. I will be found innocent, and since You will not make Your Torah false, I will bear children.” As proof, she quotes our parsha: “And if the woman was not defiled, but was pure, then she shall be acquitted and she shall conceive” [Num. 5:28].
As we know, the ploy works — God does enable her to conceive and bear Samuel, the future prophet, and her story is read as the haftarah every Rosh HaShanah. What I find pleasing about this story is that it is Hannah’s knowledge of the laws of sotah and how they work that enables her to reach her goal. It is the trust she puts in God to carry through with the law as it is written that changes her fate. Knowledge of law, however it disadvantages the woman, creates agency for her, as well as the outcome she seeks.
This portion of Naso is always read immediately after Shavuot, the holiday when the Torah is given. It is a time to think about what it takes to have a relationship both with another human and with God, through the medium of understanding our holy texts. We see that the process of building trust can be complicated and fraught and can be easily eroded. However, both social rituals and knowledge of the law and its intricacies can aid in increasing harmony and trust in a society.
Beth Kissileff is the author of the novel “Questioning Return” and editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis.”
Candlelighting: 8:06 p.m.
Torah reading: Numbers 4:21-7:89
Haftarah: Judges 8: 2-25
Shabbat ends: 9:06 p.m.