‘Not an Idiot’ Parashat Naso 5777

Parashat Naso introduces us to the laws of the Sotah, a woman whose husband suspects that she is cheating on him, and so he forbids her to seclude herself with her suspected lover. If the two are caught alone, then she must undergo a procedure that involves offering a sacrifice and drinking a potion. The procedure has two possible conclusions: either she becomes pregnant or she stomach explodes and she dies. The laws of the Sotah are not trivial, and they are described at length in the Talmud in Tractate (this shouldn’t be a surprise) Sotah.

What interests us this week is the etymology of the word “Sotah”. While the word “Sotah” is not found anywhere in the Torah, a similar word is used [Bemidbar 5:12]: “Should any man’s wife go astray and deal treacherously with him”. Rashi explains the word “astray” –  “tis’teh (תִשְׂטֶה)” – as follows: “Our Sages teach in the Midrash: Adulterers do not commit adultery unless a spirit of folly (שְׁטוּת) enters them, as it is written [here],“should go astray” [תִשְׂטֶה, can also mean to become a שׁוֹטֶה, i.e., to become “foolish”], and it is written [Proverbs 6:32] “One who commits adultery with a woman is devoid of sense”. The simple meaning of the verse is: “Should [any man’s wife] goes astray.” She deviates from modest ways, thus arousing his suspicion, as in [Proverbs 4:15]] “Turn away שְׂטֵה from it and pass” and [Proverbs 7:25] “Let your heart not veer off יֵשְׂטְ into her ways”[1].

Rashi’s explanation demands scrutiny. First, whenever Rashi brings two explanations, it is always because both of the explanations that he brings contain at least one critical flaw. What are the critical flaws in each of the two explanations that Rashi brings here? Second, Rashi always strives to bring the most simple answer. Why does he first bring the Midrashic explanation and only then bring the simple linguistic explanation? Lest one suggest that the simple answer is less than simple because the Hebrew word “to stray” should be spelled not with the letter “sin” but with a “samech”, i.e. תסטה, it should be noted that the Rambam[2] spells the word Sotah precisely as it is written in the Torah: שוטה, meaning that the two letters are interchangeable. What, then, is the problem with the “simple” explanation? Not only should Rashi bring this explanation before he brings the Midrashic explanation, there seems to be no reason for him to the Midrashic explanation at all.

Let’s take a closer look at the Sotah. Here is a woman who has developed deep emotional and physical feelings for another man. Her husband has become aware, in the words of Miss Clavel, that “something is not right”, and he essentially forbids his wife from having any contact whatsoever with this man. She knows that if she is caught, then she will die a horrible death. And yet, she thinks not with her head but with her heart, and a foolish heart she has: Her husband already suspects that she is cheating on him. The best thing for her to do would be to lie low for a while. But she can’t, and now she’s been caught red-handed. Surprise, surprise. What an idiot. Talk about a “spirit of folly”.

While searching for an answer to the questions on Rashi, I was struck by something odd: While the word “Sotah” is ubiquitous in Talmudical literature, particularly in Tractate Sotah, it is not used at all in the Torah and it is only used twice in the Mishnah in Tractate Sotah[3]. Everywhere else, the Sotah is referred to simply as “the woman”. A possible reason for this is that the word “Sotah” means “one who has strayed”, and until the woman drinks the potion it has not been proven that she has strayed. Only after her stomach blows up does it become clear that she is a Sotah. The problem with this explanation is that Rashi accuses the woman of straying only “from modest ways”. She strays from modesty as soon as she locks herself in a room with her suspected lover, regardless of what goes on inside that room, meaning that she attains the title of “Sotah” pretty much from the outset.

My son, Elyassaf, suggested that the reason that the Torah and the Mishnah do not use the term “Sotah” is because the term is denigrating to the woman. His explanation reminded me of a story told in the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [10a] about a group of hoodlums that lived in Rabbi Meir’s neighbourhood and made his life miserable. Rabbi Meir prayed to Hashem that these people would die young. His wife, Beruriah, overheard him praying and realizing that the chances of his prayers being accepted were extremely high, she directed his attention to a verse in Tehillim [104:35]: “Sins will be destroyed from the earth and the wicked will be no more”. Note, she said, that we pray that the sins, and not the sinners, be destroyed from the earth[4]. Rather, continued Beruriah, you should pray that the hoodlums mend their ways. Rabbi Meir went ahead and did the right thing[5]. He prayed for the hoodlums to repent, and so they did. Happy ending.

Referring back to the Sotah, she is a woman who did something very foolish. And so as foolishness runs to the very core of the Sotah, Rashi’s first explanation concentrates on the “folly” of her deed. The Midrashic explanation is actually the most simple explanation and so Rashi brings it first. However, calling her an idiot would be counterproductive. Yes, she has strayed, but her sin is not etched into the essence of her being. When the Kohen “reads her rights” before she drinks from the potion, she is told [Bemidbar 5:20] “But if you have gone astray [to another] instead of your husband and have become defiled, and another man besides your husband has lain with you…” You have strayed. You have done something completely idiotic but you are not an idiot. As the Torah never calls her a “Sotah – fool”, Rashi needs another explanation, and so he brings the other simple meaning of the verse, that she has strayed. This is not another explanation, but, rather, a toned-down version of the first explanation.

The story of the Sotah teaches us that we are who we are, no more and no less. Our persona can be coloured but not cannot be defined by what we do. Through introspection and penitence, we can and must change the colours we have chosen for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] While I usually do not include Hebrew in these shiurim, in this particular shiur the Hebrew is a critical component.

[2] In the Rav Kapach translation.

[3] Sotah [3:3] and Sotah [7:1].

[4] Strange but true: Chabad.com translates the verse as “Sinners will be destroyed from the earth”. Maybe they hold like Rabbi Meir…

[5] By “doing the right thing” I obviously mean “listening to his wife”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five 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", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. 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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