Racism & the Sotah

There is much to write about in Parashat Naso. The parasha describes the Nazir, the ordinary person yearning to feel closer to the Divine. The Torah directs him or her, in response to a binding speech-act, to refrain from worldly pleasures for a limited period of time. The Torah also obligates the Nazir, at the end of their period of abstinence, to bring a chatat, a cleansing of sin offering. This raises the question of whether or not withdrawing from this world is seen as a flawed response to the need for spiritual nourishment. The parasha also describes the ordeal of the Sotah, a woman who must undergo the public humiliation of drinking a potion of water, soil from the Mishkan, and a piece of dissolved parchment inscribed with Hashem’s name with ink. She must uncover her hair. If she were indeed an adulterer, the potion rendered her barren. If her husband’s jealousy was misplaced, then the potion had no effect. The Kohen proclaimed these outcomes, to which the Sotah must respond, “Amen v’Amen” before drinking. Indeed, this ritual was so upsetting that by the time of the second Mikdash, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai discontinued it. It is doubtful if the ritual ever took place at all. Nevertheless, the Torah’s teaching remains deeply disturbing. The parasha also describes the dedication of the Mishkan through its initiation ceremony. A leader from each tribe brings a set of dedicatory gifts and offerings, enabling the Kohanim to start their service, maintaining God’s presence at the center of Israel’s camp.

If I step back and look at these three seemingly unrelated topics, I notice that they are all profoundly relational. The Nazir is an individual yearning for closeness to God. The Sotah represents a marriage between two people whose bond requires implicit trust. That marriage is broken, rent asunder by the suspicion of disloyalty, of kinah, uncontrollable rage. The dedication of the Mishkan tries to redress these extremes–the extremism of the Nazir, of an other-worldly yearning, and the extremism of the Sotah, the rage that erupts when trust is broken. 

I prefer to read the episode of the Sotah completely as a metaphor, in which the man and woman represent a splitting of a single individual. The man here represents the rage that emerges, uncontrollable, fueled by mourning and fear. He is terrified of the woman’s potential for independence and defiance. The ordeal of the woman perhaps, represents the fragility of freedom and independence. The only other moment in the Torah when people must drink a potion of combined earth and water, together with the obliteration of God’s name, is in response to the golden calf. There, loyalty was broken with God. God’s name flies off the tablets of stone. Moshe hurls the burden of stone onto the ground, smashing the tablets. He then mixes the water and soil from Mt. Sinai into a potion and forces Benei Yisrael to drink. There, the entire nation had become a nation of adulterers–except for the tribe of Levi. That is why in this parasha, the tribe of Levi is distinguished with the sacred task of caring for God’s home, the Mishkan. More about Levi in a bit. 

Perhaps we are all the Sotah. Building a relationship with another human being is so tenuous, so fragile. A misunderstood word, a slight glance, a misreading of a mood, can call into question the other’s loyalty. Once the malignancy of mistrust penetrates the neshama and metastasizes, it is very painful and difficult to restore the health and strength of the original relationship. The relationship can almost not be repaired; it might not have any future. Hence, the potion of the ordeal causes infertility. One theme in the parasha, then, is the fragility of human relationships that require faith and trust. Another theme, perhaps, is the need to protect ourselves from the predisposition to withdraw from the world. Finally, a third theme emerges from the sacred tasks of the Leviim, the group who remain loyal to God.

I have been thinking, in today’s environment, more about the Leviim. There are three families: Kehati, Gershoni, and Merari. They each have different tasks in transporting the Mishkan. The family that speaks most powerfully in this parasha, is the Merari family. The Kehati family had to carry the most sacred objects on their shoulders. The Gershoni family carried the hangings and tapestries. However, the Torah says that the task of the Merari family was to carry the heaviest load: 

וְעַמּוּדֵי֩ הֶחָצֵ֨ר סָבִ֜יב וְאַדְנֵיהֶ֗ם וִֽיתֵדֹתָם֙ וּמֵ֣יתְרֵיהֶ֔ם לְכָל־כְּלֵיהֶ֔ם וּלְכֹ֖ל עֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וּבְשֵׁמֹ֣ת תִּפְקְד֔וּ אֶת־כְּלֵ֖י מִשְׁמֶ֥רֶת מַשָּׂאָֽם׃

[they are to carry]…the posts around the enclosure and their sockets, pegs, and cords—all these furnishings and their service: you hallmark them by name; the objects that they have to carry. (Bemidbar 4:32)

Indeed, they had to transport the planks that formed the walls of the Mishkan, and all of the supporting hardware. Interestingly, the Torah adds a phrase here that it does not state in reference to the other two families: mark them by name; the objects that they have to carry. Why is this phrase added? And, what is marked by name? The objects, or the individuals who are carrying? The Malbim clarifies that the posts had to be marked, so that the Leviim knew which ones went next to which, like a set of Ikea instructions. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the HaEmek Devar, offers a similar explanation. The Tur actually connects the planks with the people. Each person was assigned a specific piece of the structure to create the Mishkan. The Ramban makes the relationship between the object, the task and person, most explicit. He wrote:

And by name shall you appoint the utensils to the charge of those who will carry them. Itamar the Kohen should appoint each man with the responsibility for the item to be carried, counting the names individually. He should instruct them, “So-and-so will carry such and such number of beams, and so-and-so will carry such and such number of bars or pillars.” He should not simply command the sons of Merari as one to carry all the beams, sockets and pillars….The verse mentions this for the first time regarding the sons of Merari because of the weight of their load, so that no one would lighten his load by passing it on to someone else. (Italics mine)

I am struck by the Ramban’s final phrase: so that no one would lighten his load by passing it on to someone else. The Mishkan, God’s house, is only as strong, is only as stable, as those willing to carry it. And every one of the carriers must shoulder their responsibility fully. Carrying the house of God is a sacred task. And that task is hard, and heavy. It is weighty. It bears down on each individual, but is made possible through the willingness of the collective to participate in keeping that house stable and strong. Every tribe dedicated that house. They all made the same offerings. Every individual in the families of the Leviim were called by name. Every task was named. Every stanchion was marked for its place and function, The most delicate, sacred items were carried by hand, on shoulders and not in wagons. 

This image of carrying God’s house is an image of the world we are living in today. America is going through the ordeal of the Sotah. The husband, the dominant culture, has made its minorities of color drink a potion, hoping to abort their future. Only the Sotah has said, “Enough.” She is saying, “I will not drink. I will no longer drink that poison. I will no longer allow the uncovering of my hair in public. I will no longer enable the distending of my womb and the miscarriages of justice. I will no longer submit. And the husband is terrified. He points at her wild manner, at her rage in response, and tries to claim that the moment is about her hysteria and not about his own faithlessness. Meanwhile, God’s house is teetering. The Ramban reminds us that when the goal is to keep the Mishkan in place, to protect its dignity and its sanctity, everyone needs to do their job fully. The Nazir is not the response. More than ever, American society needs everyone to become a Levite, to carry a sacred utensil and make certain that what you do with that utensil builds relationships that are honest, equitable, inclusive, and just. The Ramban, perhaps, is teaching us: You want hashem’s house in your midst? Make a difference. Do your job to make certain that God’s sanctuary stands in the center of a society that reflects everything that sanctuary is made of: wood and justice; gold and compassion; silver and equity; copper and righteousness, linen and safety, wool and love.

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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