Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

A Guilty Look Sotah 19 First Impressions Sotah 20 Study Versus Action Sotah 21

A Guilty Look Sotah 19

Our Gemara on amud beis discusses circumstances of the Sotah’s retraction of her willingness to drink from the waters. Sometimes it is considered a de-facto confession and therefore she no longer drinks, or instead we believe she is panic stricken, and her refusal is not a confession, rather she may still be innocent and thus drinks:

לָא קַשְׁיָא הָא דְּקָהָדְרָא בַּהּ מֵחֲמַת רְתִיתָא וְהָא דְּקָהָדְרָא בָּהּ מֵחֲמַת בְּרִיּוּתָא

The Gemara answers: This is not difficult; this case, where she is forced to drink, is referring to a situation where she retracts her decision to drink due to fear, as her refusal is not viewed as an admission of guilt, and it is possible that if she drinks she will be found undefiled. And that case, where she does not drink, is referring to a situation where she retracts her decision in a state of calm and stable spirits. Since she does not appear to be afraid, her refusal is viewed as an admission of guilt.

This is an complex psychological assessment.  Rabbi Akiva holds that refusal to drink only is a tacit admission if she appears calm.  Rashi explains that she had calculated all along that she will hold out until the last moment (hoping perhaps for some kind of last moment reprieve of unknown origin), but when she is about to drink she will demur. Yet, if she appears to “chicken out” at the last minute, in a state of anxiety, we then assume that she is just afraid that the Sotah waters might give her a false positive, and she actually may be innocent and is served well by being made to go through the ordeal to ultimately prove her innocence.

A couple of psychological concepts are being asserted:

  1. A person can tend to hope to avert disaster even if there is no rational reason to believe that it will happen. Denial is powerful, or perhaps hope, or both together.
  2. An innocent person can also have anxiety that they will be found guilty. I’ll venture to say that, especially when it comes to sexual matters there is so much inherent guilt, that no one feels completely innocent, and no one would want to go through a test of their innocence.

A general lesson to take from this Gemara, which is important for educators and parents, is that people mistake the idea of reading emotions on a person’s face with reading their thoughts. An astute person can read the expressions on a person’s face and understand the emotions behind it. There is even a subset of the population that are adept at reading what are called “micro expressions”, that is a micro-second momentary expression that betrays unconscious emotions that people consciously want to cover up. Such persons can be adept at realizing when people are lying, not because the emotions tell what they’re thinking, but they might see incongruity between the micro expression and the actual expression. Thus the killer might express remorse openly, but there could be a micro expression of glee or hatred. At the same time, that does not mean that one is able to read the thoughts BEHIND the emotions. This is known as attributions. We attribute particular thoughts to emotions, but those can be wildly inaccurate. For example, a teacher, or parent might accuse a child of lying and see that he or she is nervous. The nervousness might be attributed to guilt, but it could be the same fear of the Sotah in our case. Not a fear of being guilty, but rather a fear of being falsely convicted.

First Impressions Last Sotah 20

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph refers to a Rasha Arum, a cunning wicked person. The Zohar (Vayeshev) describes the Evil Inclination as the prototypical Rasha Arum, because he arrives first in a person’s life. That is when a young child only knows raw instinct, he tends toward physicality and lust. Only later, as a child develops intellectual discernment, he is capable of having a good inclination. Since the evil incarnation has already long been established, he has a “home court advantage”, so to speak. Zohar sees this as analogous to somebody who pleads his case before the judge before the other litigant gets a chance to make his case.

This is a common cognitive error that is known as Anchoring Bias, when you tend to believe the first opinion and give it more credence than any subsequent opinion. Anchoring Noas occurs despite the fact that the second opinion is equally plausible, or even more plausible.  The Rambam railed against this when he sought to challenge the existing dogma of what was included in the 613 mitzvos. He writes in his introduction to Sefer Hamitzvos:

וכאשר התבוננתי בזה וידעתי פרסום הענין הזה בידי ההמון, ידעתי כי אם אזכור אני המנין האמתי שראוי שימנה זכרון מוחלט מבלתי ראיה, הנה הקורא הראשון שיקראהו יחייב במחשבתו שזה טעות, ותהיה ראית הטעות אצלו ראותו בחלוף מה שזכר פלוני ופלוני, כי זהו בכל רוב אנשי הסגולה בזמננו זה כי לא יבחנו המאמר בענינו אבל בהסכימו למאמר מי שקדם בלתי בחינת המאמר הקודם , כל שכן ההמון.

And when I reflected upon this and realized the fame of the matter among the masses, I knew that if I mentioned the true count that is fitting to count plainly without proof, even the first reader to read it will be certain that it is a mistake. And he will see it as a mistake, since he will see that it is different than that which was mentioned by plony and plony. For this is what happens in our time among the esteemed people – that they do not examine a statement according to its content, but rather by whether the statement agrees with the statement of those who preceded him, without examining that earlier statement. All the more so is this the case with the masses.

There is an important, psychological and developmental reason for Anchoring Bias. We have to learn much of our early skills as children on faith from what the adults tell us. Otherwise, it would be way too cumbersome for us to possibly integrate by trial and error every possible idea or belief. Imagine how dangerous it would be if every child wanted to test out if it really is too dangerous to cross the street without looking, or to touch the oven when it is hot. Yes, it is in the nature of a child to experiment and see if it’s true, but a child does not experiment by disobeying every warning. Therefore, as a survival mechanism, it is wired in us to therefore give more credence to our first impression, regardless of what we will hear afterward. This forestalls becoming overwhelmed and confused. However, like any instinct, it leads to shortcuts that produce efficiency, but also lack  accuracy, and so an intelligent person must overcome instinct at times, in order to critically evaluate existing beliefs.

Torah Study Versus Action Sotah 21

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the protective quality of Torah study and mitzvos:

 ״כִּי נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר״, תָּלָה הַכָּתוּב אֶת הַמִּצְוָה בְּנֵר, וְאֶת הַתּוֹרָה בְּאוֹר. אֶת הַמִּצְוָה בְּנֵר, לוֹמַר לָךְ: מָה נֵר אֵינָהּ מְגִינָּה אֶלָּא לְפִי שָׁעָה — אַף מִצְוָה אֵינָהּ מְגִינָּה אֶלָּא לְפִי שָׁעָה.

“For the mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23). The verse associates the mitzvah with a lamp and the Torah with the light of the sun. The mitzva is associated with a lamp in order to say to you: Just as a lamp does not protect one by its light extensively but only temporarily, while the lamp is in one’s hand, so too, a mitzva protects one only temporarily, i.e., while one is performing the mitzva.

וְאֶת הַתּוֹרָה בְּאוֹר, לוֹמַר לָךְ: מָה אוֹר מֵגֵין לָעוֹלָם, אַף תּוֹרָה מְגִינָּה לָעוֹלָם. וְאוֹמֵר: ״בְּהִתְהַלֶּכְךָ תַּנְחֶה אֹתְךָ וְגוֹ׳״. ״בְּהִתְהַלֶּכְךָ תַּנְחֶה אֹתְךָ״ — זֶה הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. ״בְּשָׁכְבְּךָ תִּשְׁמוֹר עָלֶיךָ״ — זוֹ מִיתָה. ״וַהֲקִיצוֹתָ הִיא תְשִׂיחֶךָ״ — לֶעָתִיד לָבֹא.

And the Torah is associated with light in order to say to you: Just as the light of the sun protects one forever, so too, the Torah one studies protects one forever; and it states in the previous verse with regard to the Torah: “When you walk, it shall lead you; when you lie down, it shall watch over you; and when you awake, it shall talk with you” (Proverbs 6:22). The Gemara explains: “When you walk, it shall lead you”; this is referring to when one is in this world. “When you lie down, it shall watch over you”; this is referring to the time of death, when one lies in his grave. “And when you awake, it shall talk with you”; this is referring to the time to come after the resurrection of the dead. The Torah that one studies protects and guides him both in this world and in the next world.

מָשָׁל לְאָדָם שֶׁהָיָה מְהַלֵּךְ בְּאִישׁוֹן לַיְלָה וַאֲפֵילָה, וּמִתְיָירֵא מִן הַקּוֹצִים וּמִן הַפְּחָתִים וּמִן הַבַּרְקָנִים, וּמֵחַיָּה רָעָה וּמִן הַלִּסְטִין, וְאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ בְּאֵיזֶה דֶּרֶךְ מְהַלֵּךְ.

This can be illustrated by a parable, as it is comparable to a man who is walking in the blackness of night and the darkness, and he is afraid of the thorns, and of the pits, and of the thistles, which he cannot see due to the darkness. And he is also afraid of the wild animals and of the bandits that lurk at night, and he does not know which way he is walking.

נִזְדַּמְּנָה לוֹ אֲבוּקָה שֶׁל אוּר — נִיצַּל מִן הַקּוֹצִים וּמִן הַפְּחָתִים וּמִן הַבַּרְקָנִים, וַעֲדַיִין מִתְיָירֵא מֵחַיָּה רָעָה וּמִן הַלִּיסְטִין, וְאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ בְּאֵיזֶה דֶּרֶךְ מְהַלֵּךְ. כֵּיוָן שֶׁעָלָה עַמּוּד הַשַּׁחַר — נִיצַּל מֵחַיָּה רָעָה וּמִן הַלִּיסְטִין, וַעֲדַיִין אֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ בְּאֵיזֶה דֶּרֶךְ מְהַלֵּךְ. הִגִּיעַ לְפָרָשַׁת דְּרָכִים — נִיצַּל מִכּוּלָּם.

If a torch of fire comes his way, which is analogous to a mitzva, he is safe from the thorns and from the pits and from the thistles, but he is still afraid of the wild animals and of the bandits, and still does not know which way he is walking. Once the light of dawn rises, which is analogous to Torah study, he is safe from the wild animals and from the bandits, which no longer roam the roads, but he still does not know which way he is walking. If he arrives at a crossroads and recognizes the way, he is saved from all of them.

מַאי פָּרָשַׁת דְּרָכִים? אָמַר רַב חִסְדָּא: זֶה תַּלְמִיד חָכָם וְיוֹם מִיתָה. רַב נַחְמָן בַּר יִצְחָק אָמַר: זֶה תַּלְמִיד חָכָם וְיִרְאַת חֵטְא. מָר זוּטְרָא אָמַר: זֶה תַּלְמִיד חָכָם דְּסָלְקָא לֵיהּ שְׁמַעְתָּתָא אַלִּיבָּא דְהִלְכְתָא.

With regard to the aforementioned parable, the Gemara asks: What is the meaning of the crossroads, which provide clarity? Rav Ḥisda says: This is referring to a Torah scholar and his day of death. Due to his continued commitment to the Torah, when the time comes for him to die, it is clear to him that he will go to the place of his eternal reward. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak says: This is a Torah scholar who has also acquired fear of sin, as his fear of sin guides him to the correct understanding of the Torah. Mar Zutra says: This is a Torah scholar who reaches conclusions from his discussion in accordance with the halakha, as that is an indication that he is following the right path.

Let us examine this verse closely as it speaks of an important metaphysical and theological principle, according to the Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Hatorah, 1 and 17.) Before we discuss the Maharal, I will point out an important anachronism that can be mistranslated. People often translate Ner as candle, because that is how it is used in modern Hebrew. However, it is not a candle, but it is a lamp. We know this because candles were not invented, or at least not used popularly, until the middle ages. The mechanism of a candle is different than that of a lamp. The candle burns downward on the wick as it continues to consume the fuel, be it wax or paraffin. However, the lamp channels oil up through the wick and somehow it maintains the wick from burning down by the continuous flow of oil through the wick.

Keeping this mechanism in mind, the Maharal explains that Torah itself is something non-physical, and non-earthly, and cannot be contained or channeled directly. This is similar to the flame on top of the wick which you can’t really hold and you can’t sustain it without having the wick and the oil flowing into the wick.  So too, Torah is a spiritual entity and needs the physical performance of mitzvos in order to hold the flame in this world. Yet, just as with the lamp, the main part is the light, so too with Torah and the Mitzvah, the main part is the Torah.  We have this dichotomy, where even though the Torah is the essential element, we cannot preserve Torah without physical action and mitzvos.  This is human nature, we can philosophize all day long but we will not achieve these heights with Torah study alone, we must also do real work in this world.  As Rav Soloveitchik warns in Halakhic Man (p.41):

There is nothing so physically and spiritually destructive as diverting one’s attention from this world. And, by contrast, how courageous is halakhic man who does not flee from this world, who does not seek to escape to some pure, supernal realm (Halakhic Man, p.41).

For more on this see Iggeres HaGrah (8), Nefesh HaChayyim (4:29).

The Maharal continues to explain that since the Torah is spiritual and exists beyond time it is compared by the Gemara to daylight because it is a permanent light and not transient, unlike the lamp at night, which only provides temporary safety. Furthermore, when the Gemara refers to the Crossroads, the day of death, it is referring to the clarity that comes from depth of Torah study. Meaning to say, a particular mitzvah that is performed provides a certain amount of light and protection, but it does not represent permanent enlightenment, and therefore only protects at the time that one is involved in it, as the lamp only provides a light at night so long as it is lit. But the clarity that comes from achieving a higher spiritual plane, that is the “crossroads“ or time of death, allows for a permanent state of elevation and awareness of the truth. Finally, the best part is that the Torah sage who is able to come to the truth of torah through his deep analysis, will be able to achieve this high level of protection in this world, because he is transcending it through the enlightenment of his Torah study. This is represented by the Torah scholar whose conclusions are in accordance with the halakha.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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