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Another reason it’s a good idea to admit you’ve made a mistake

When the sotah woman is guilty, but won't admit it, she is encouraged to come clean, rather than undergo the ordeal of the bitter waters. What holds her back? (Naso)
TheSotah Ritual, by Jan-Luyken (1703-1762), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
TheSotah Ritual, by Jan-Luyken (1703-1762), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

A good speaker will often insert a carefully selected story in a speech to clarify and tie in certain ideas while also giving the listener a brain break. The Torah uses this technique frequently; however, it is the reader’s job to figure out how the story is connected to the main idea. The middle topics of Parshat Naso provide a good example of this.  

The first half of Sefer Bamidbar focuses on setting up the camp around the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and detailing Bnei Yisrael’s traveling arrangements before embarking on the all-important journey to the Land of Israel. These include: the detailed organization of Bnei Yisrael as they travel in the wilderness, the counting and organization of the camp of Levi, and identifying the individuals are impure in ways whose tumah require them to dwell outside the main camp. 

Then there is an interlude that discusses three topics which are not overtly connected to the main theme of the book: (i) the laws of the gazlan and his restitution; (ii) the isha sotah; (iii) the nazir. Why does the Torah put this interlude right in the middle of the story of setting up the camp and all its details? How are these three topics connected to the camping in the wilderness and the upcoming journey to Eretz Yisrael?

To answer this question, let’s look at more details of one of the interlude topics, the isha sotah.  This parsha refers to a woman who got herself in a situation where her marriage is in jeopardy.  After her husband warned her not to, she secluded herself with another man. Even though she violated the laws of yichud, there is no evidence that she committed adultery. Hashem has graciously provided a supernatural method to alleviate her husband’s doubts, resolve her status of being prohibited to him, and thereby restore her marriage. She is given a mixture to drink that includes within it the Name of God. If guilty, she dies a horrible death; if innocent, her marriage is restored and she is promised fertility. If, however, she does not want to go through the process to prove her innocence, she will need a divorce. Ramban points out that the case of the sotah woman is the only instance in halacha where a miracle is used as part of the judicial process.  

Before being given the bitter waters to drink, the isha sotah goes through a very specific process (detailed in Rambam’s Hilchot Sotah, chapter 3), the goal of which is to encourage her and give her the opportunity to admit her guilt, instead of dying a horrible death through the bitter waters. The Rabbis explain the harmful effects that can be caused by wine, frivolity, immaturity, or bad friends. They also tell her stories of great people in the past who have sinned: Yehudah and Tamar, Reuven and Bilhah (according to the plain sense of the biblical verse), and Amnon and Tamar. If she admits her guilt, she can end the process and get a divorce without receiving her ketubah. If she still wants to proceed, she is walked around the Temple to tire her out, in the hopes that she will come to admit her guilt. 

The process of dissuading the sotah woman from drinking the bitter waters is extensive. Consider, therefore, the character of a woman who is actually guilty, yet drinks the waters anyway. Despite her guilt and her knowledge of the impending punishment, she ignores the many opportunities to admit her guilt. Why would she do that? Apparently, it is not easy to admit, “I made a mistake. I was wrong.” Her inflated sense of self is such that she would rather subject herself to the Divine punishment than admit her wrongdoing.

Such a person teaches an important lesson. We often rationalize our own mistaken and misguided behaviors, instead of facing our flaws and mistakes. The isha sotah highlights the all-important idea of admitting one’s wrongdoing in order to move forward and engage the rehabilitative process of teshuvah, repentance. If the sotah woman is unable to admit her guilt, she suffers the extreme consequence of death. Indeed, without the ability to admit our own wrongdoing, we risk losing the hope of moving forward.

With the sotah woman’s rehabilitation in mind, the acknowledgement of one’s wrongdoing and redeeming that through repentance tie together the three seemingly misplaced topics in the beginning of Bamidbar. The first topic deals with the ramifications for stealing:

When a man or woman commits any sin that men commit, so as to trespass against Hashem, and that soul is guilty then he shall confess his sin which he has done, and he shall make restitution for his guilt in full, and add to it the fifth part of it, and give it to him in respect of whom he has been guilty. (Bamidbar 5:6-7)

Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah (1:1) cites this verse as the source for the mitzvah of Viduy, admitting our sins, as a necessary step in the repentance process. The second topic, isha sotah, highlights the extreme ramifications for not being able to do viduy. The third topic, the nazir,  teaches of one who makes a vow to remove oneself from that which may lead to further sinning — a vital step towards teshuvah for a person who recognizes they have a problem.  

Why are the themes of vidui and teshuvah placed here, right in the middle of the story of setting up the Jewish camp? Ramban, in his introduction to the Book of Numbers, helps answer this question. He explains that the way the Jews camped around the Mishkan mimicked their camping around Mount Sinai. In both situations, the camping was not haphazard, but reflected the presence of God in their midst. Just as a human king has his legions surrounding him in a very precise order, the Jews camped around Hashem’s presence in a very specific order. This arrangement expressed the awareness and awe of His presence among the Jews. It helped them remember that their traveling and stopping was not based on Moses’ planning and management, but solely as a result of Hashem’s will, as indicated by His cloud. 

How does the Jewish nation merit God’s presence among them? Perhaps the answer is through their understanding and adherence to viduy and teshuvah. Perhaps it is not accidental that the three topics relating to vidui and teshuvah are placed in the middle of Parshat Naso. Their placement indicates that the Jewish people we merited Hashem’s presence because they internalized the foundational principles of vidui and teshuvah

Just as admitting one’s mistakes and doing teshuvah are the basis of good relationships with people, the same is the case in people’s relationship with Hashem. Without teshuvah, the ability to change, we would be stuck in our ways and slowly become more and more removed from Hashem. Teshuvah is the opportunity to grow and to merit having Hashem’s presence among the Jewish people, both in the wilderness and in the Land of Israel. It is only when the Jewish people embrace teshuvah that they can continue to act as a nation that reflects the Divine, and thereby merit the Divine Presence. May we all merit to learn from this parsha’s lessons and continue in the path of recognizing our mistakes and moving closer to Hashem.

About the Author
Aliza Feder is a teacher of Tanach, Math and STEM. She has been involved in creating Torah learning opportunities for women and is currently the director of STEM at HALB middle school, a student in a masters program at Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School, and a participant in the International Halacha Scholars Program at Ohr Torah Stone.
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