Pay Attention Sotah 2 and Sotah 3 What’s Worse? Fighting or Divorce?
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph tells us:
רַבִּי אוֹמֵר לָמָּה נִסְמְכָה פָּרָשַׁת נָזִיר לְפָרָשַׁת סוֹטָה לוֹמַר לָךְ שֶׁכׇּל הָרוֹאֶה סוֹטָה בְּקִלְקוּלָהּ יַזִּיר עַצְמוֹ מִן הַיַּיִן
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: Why is the portion of a nazirite (Numbers, chapter 6) placed adjacent to the portion of a sota (Numbers, chapter 5)? This was done to tell you that anyone who sees a sotah in her disgrace as she undergoes the rite of the bitter water should renounce wine, as wine is one of the causes of sexual transgression, for it loosens inhibitions. For the same reason that the Torah teaches these passages one after the other, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi arranged these tractates one after the other.
Peri Tzaddik (Nasso 13) makes a remarkable observation. Although we interpret the juxtaposition between the ritual of Sotah and Nazir in the Torah, and juxtaposition of the Mesechta of Sotah and the Mesechta of Nazir to teach us the same idea which we saw above, the order is reversed. In the Torah, we first have the laws of the Sotah and THEN the Nazir. But in the Gemara, Maseches Nazir comes BEFORE Maseches Sotah. He asks, how do we understand the difference in order?
Peri Tzaddik gives an answer that brilliantly highlights the difference between the Oral Torah of the Talmud and the written Torah of scripture. Scripture is more explicit in a certain sense, at least what it says, it says so directly. However, the whole point of Oral Torah is analysis, extrapolation, and reading between the lines. Therefore, Oral Torah will have more subtle points to make. The difference in the way in which the Sotah’s situation is comprehended by the biblical protagonist versus the Talmudic protagonist is profound. The biblical protagonist has to actually see the disgrace of the Sotah, so to speak, to be hit over the head with the facts in order to bring about personal introspection. That is why the laws of Sotah precede the laws of Nazir, because he has to see it first in order to become humbled, introspective, and aroused toward repentance. On the other hand, the protagonist of the Talmud is already introspective. He is constantly delving into deeper meanings and implications. He does not have to actually see the disgrace of the Sotah. All he needs to do is to study and reflect on the laws, and he will automatically realize how to apply these ethics to his life, and he could become aroused to repent and become a Nazir even if he never saw one.
This is a powerful lesson about the Torah Shebaal Peh but also a strong rebuke. We don’t have to let things happen to us first in order to take matters to heart and see the error in our ways. If we are introspective, we can simply study Torah, and extrapolate what we need to know, without having to go through all the anguish and the suffering.
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses an opinion that even though the Sotah ritual is activated by the husband according to a formula prescribed by the Torah, this act of jealously warning her to not to be alone with a certain suspected person is forbidden, because it causes strife (see Rashi).
Shitta Mekubetzes raises an obvious logical objection. If it turns out that he legitimately suspects his wife of immoral behavior, and he is not just being paranoid and suspicious, why should it be forbidden? Isn’t it a good thing to warn her and to try to correct her behavior? The Shitta gives a remarkable answer. He says, this opinion follows the opinion discussed in Gittin (90a) that it is permitted to get divorced even over domestic and emotional concerns, as opposed to actual infidelity. Therefore, since it is permitted to get divorced, why cause strife? If he really suspects her and he cannot work it out with her, he should simply divorce her. On the other hand, according to the opinion of Bais Shammai, it is not permitted to get divorced, except if there is strong evidence of infidelity. Therefore the opinion in our Gemara that kinuy “warning” her is allowed even though it might cause strife, is because there really isn’t any other choice as he cannot divorce her without evidence of infidelity. Therefore, he must resolve the issue within the marriage by using the warning and ritual.
This reminds me of something that I often repeat to people who are in conflict laden marriages. Divorce is a serious step that can bring anguish and trauma, especially when there are children involved, it is still technically permitted. However, ona’as devarim, hurtful and mean speech is a Biblical prohibition (Bava Metzi’a 58b). So if you cannot manage to work out your issues, it is a greater sin to stay married, and hurt the other person continuously, than to just simply divorce and move on.
By the way, it actually is not a clear-cut issue at all whether or not divorce is permitted. See, for example Shulkhan Arukh EH 119:3 and Arukh Hashulkhan 119:8. On a practical level, it is highly discouraged, although technically might be considered permitted in our day and age where divorce is by mutual consent (see Rama ibid). Nonetheless, even those poskim who come out on the side of strongly discouraging divorce, or even forbidding divorce, I have little doubt that they would consider it to be a worse sin to constantly violate the biblical prohibition of ona’as devarim over years and years of dysfunctional, high conflict marriage.
The bottom line is, working on a marriage is vitally important. But if you are unable to do it right, for whatever reasons and challenges you experience in yourself or in your spouse, and you end up behaving cruelly to the other person, it certainly seems that it is much better to divorce and far less of a violation.