Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

‘Breaking the faith’ Parashat Naso 5781

The ritual of the “sotah” — the faithless wife — is without a doubt the most bizarre ritual in Judaism. If a husband believes that his wife is having an extramarital affair, he may warn her not to seclude herself with her suspected lover. If she is caught defying his warning, she is forced to drink the “bitter waters” that will supernaturally determine whether or not she is guilty of adultery. If she is guilty, then she will die a horrible death reminiscent of a well-known scene in the movie “Alien”, and if she is not, she will become pregnant.

Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, considers the proximity of the location of the ritual of the sotah in the Torah with the commandment that immediately precedes it — the requirement to give tithes to a Priest (Kohen). Quoting from the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [63a], Rashi explains, “If you withhold the gifts due to the priest, by your life, you will have to come to him in order to bring him your faithless wife for the ordeal by the waters”. In other words, even though you tried to steer away from the Kohen by withholding your tithes, G-d will ensure that you meet up with that very same Kohen under far more unpleasant circumstances.

Rashi’s explanation is troubling. Rabbi Asher Wasserteil, writing in “Birkat Asher”, asserts that it seems unfair that while it was the husband who sinned by withholding his tithes, it is his wife who must pay the ultimate price by having her stomach explode. Further, how can G-d force a woman to become a sotah? Is that not a gross infringement upon her free will? While Rabbi Wasserteil proposes a solution to this imbroglio, there exists an even greater problem with Rashi’s explanation, one that Rabbi Wasserteil does not mention. Prima facie, the connection between the ritual of the sotah and the preceding commandment in the Torah is trivial. The paragraph immediately preceding the sotah begins with the words [Bemidbar 5:6] “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with G-d, and that person realizes his guilt…” The issue at hand is a person who has stolen or misappropriated an article, swears falsely that he is innocent, and then is caught lying[1]. Compare this opening verse with the opening verse of the ritual of the sotah [Bemidbar 5:12]: “If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him…” Both of these precepts involve “breaking faith” — “ma’alah ma’al”. Why does Rashi, who claims to always seek the simple meaning of the verse, not simply link the two consecutive commandments as being two examples of “breaking the faith”? Indeed, Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as the Hizkuni, who lived in France two centuries after Rashi, explains that this is precisely the reason for the proximity of the two commandments.

To understand why Rashi does not take the route of the Hizkuni, we must first gain a deeper understanding of the concept of “breaking the faith”, or “me’ilah”. The first two examples of “breaking the faith” in the Torah appear in quick succession in the portion of Vayikra. The first example concerns the misappropriation and subsequent misuse of consecrated objects, objects that are the property of the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) or of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). The Torah begins its discussion with the words [Vayikra 5:16] “When a person breaks the faith, being unwittingly remiss about any of G-d’s sacred things…” The act of misappropriating a consecrated object is referred to as “me’ilah” and the tractate of the Talmud that deals with the laws of me’ilah — its definition, its parameters, and its restitution is called, unsurprisingly, Tractate Me’ilah. When a person commits an act of me’ilah, one part of his restitution[2] consists of offering a sacrifice, which is called, unsurprisingly, a Korban Me’ilah. The commentators offer an array of explanations for the word “me’ilah”. Rashi connects the word me’ilah with the word “change (shinui)”, as if to say that a person who has misappropriated consecrated items has altered their status to something lesser. In this lesson, we will be making use of the explanation of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, who was the religious leader of Babylonian Jewry in the tenth century. Rav Saadia explains that “me’ilah” means “to break a covenant or a commandment”. According to Rav Saadia, Me’ilah is more than just a misstep — it is nothing less than betrayal

The next instance in the Torah of “breaking the faith” follows in the very next paragraph [Vayikra 5:21]: “When a person sins and breaks the faith with G-d by dealing deceitfully with his fellow in the matter of a deposit or a pledge, or through robbery, or by defrauding his fellow…” The case at hand is in certain ways similar to the previous case: A person who defrauds another person and then denies his deed by swearing falsely in court must return the stolen object along with a twenty-percent fine and must also bring a sacrifice to atone for his deed. The third instance of “breaking the faith” appears in the paragraph immediately preceding the sotah and also pertains to a person who swears falsely after being accused of fraud[3]. The fourth instance in the Torah of “breaking the faith” is the case of the sotah. Here, too, Rav Saadia Gaon interprets the word “ma’al” as “she broke her faith with him and tricked him”. Sounds eerily familiar. And yet, there is a seminal difference between the first three instances of “breaking the faith” and the last instance. In each of the first three instances, the Torah describes breaking the faith with G-d — “ma’alah ma’al b’Hashem”. In the first case, a person stole from G-d, as it were. In the next two cases, the guilty party took G-d’s name in vain. Each of these instances is an example of breaking faith specifically with G-d. The sotah, on the other hand, did not break her faith with G-d — she broke her faith with her husband.

We can gain insight into the difference between breaking faith with G-d and breaking faith with mortal man by looking at the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [35a]: “Anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he is guilty of misuse of a consecrated object (ma’al)”. Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal, who lived in Prague in the sixteenth century in Prague, notes in his “Chidushei Aggadot” that the Talmud does not accuse a person who eats an apple without reciting a blessing of theft. It accuses him of me’ilah. This is strange as me’ilah is typically associated with items that are holy. There is nothing more mundane than an apple. The Maharal teaches that everything in this world is imbued with holiness. The use of any object is permitted only after its holiness has been extracted. An apple can be eaten only after its holiness has been extracted by thanking G-d for creating it. Eating an apple without blessing G-d is tantamount to nothing less than breaking the faith with G-d.

The conclusion is that holiness is a binary concept — either something is holy or it is not. It is either “1” or “0”. There is nothing in between. Breaking faith with G-d is a result of misappropriating holiness that G-d has bestowed upon our world, of turning a 1 into a 0. Breaking faith with another human is very different. Interpersonal obligations are typically not black and white. Unless defined by very good contract lawyers, they lie in a large grey area open to and defined by interpretation and assumptions. Proof for this is the Torah’s use of the term “breaking the faith” not referring to when there is incontrovertible proof of a woman’s betrayal of her husband, but, rather, only when there is a strong assumption, perhaps backed by statistics. While this woman has most definitely broken her faith with her husband — no matter what the outcome, her marriage will never be the same — Rashi cannot in good faith connect this with a person breaking his faith with G-d.

The State of Israel finds itself, yet again, under massive rocket fire, from all directions. Our only recourse is to keep our faith — not our faith in man, but our faith in G-d [Isaiah 25:1]: “You are my G-d; I will extol You, I will praise Your name. For You planned graciousness of old, Counsels of steadfast faithfulness.” We’re Israelis — we know the drill: We will remain resilient. We will remain steadfast. And we will remain — always — faithful.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] Only the last verse of this paragraph pertains to withholding tithes from the Kohen.

[2] The other part of his restitution consists of repaying the cost of what was misappropriated along with a fine of one fifth.

[3] Rashi explains that the reason that this episode is repeated in the Torah is because the repetition includes two innovations that do not appear the first time around in the Book of Vayikra.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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