The narrative of SOTA – the perverted woman — which is at the center of NASO portion reading of the week, is one of the most disturbing stories for the modern reader, especially in our era where the issue of the status of women is uniquely sensitive.
The gist of the story revolves around a strange shamanic ceremony, performed by the High Priest in the Temple, for a married woman suspected of adultery by her husband. At the ceremony she should drink bitter water that the priest prepares and mixes it with dust from the holy temple, to soothe her husband’s jealousy.
At face value, this humiliating ritual seems to be meant to prove her innocence, to clear the suspicions that cling to her. But I cannot help but think that in fact it is only its outer “shell”, and in fact it is meant to free the woman from the curse of jealousy that gripped her husband, cure him from his suspicions and allow them to have a child, the symbol of union, in order to restore peace in their home.
Jealousy is a blazing fire, and when it lands on fertile ground such as a lingering feeling of insecurity, it can be unparalleled in its destructive power.
A great example of this is the opera Othello, by Guiseppe Verdi, in which the great and immense love between Othello and Desdemona ends in Desdemona’s murder — because of Othello’s feelings of inferiority fueled by Lago, Othello’s “faithful” servant, who stirs the cauldron and ignites his jealousy for political interest. And when his jealousy was ignited – it reached a state of no return. No logic can calm it down, and there is a tragic end.
In the strange shamanic ceremony that the priest conducts for the suspected woman, no interrogation is conducted, and no witnesses are brought in. The woman is not required to say anything to justify herself; any logic or reason is out of the equation. The focus is on the husband or rather, on his burning jealousy, and if that is what it takes to calm his mind and cool his anger — then, any and all means are kosher.
What ignited the husband’s jealousy? His imagination? Rumor? Gossip? Or did she risk a furtive glance at some other man?
Jealousy! Once you ignite it is important to treat it and exterminate it because otherwise it will spread like wildfire in a field of thorns! When it escalates, it can lead to murder, and violence, as evidenced by the many women murdered by their spouses.
I have not yet heard of a case of murder of men by their spouses on the grounds of jealousy, or suspicion of infidelity. This seems to be a trait that sets men apart.
Even in the system of symbols and archetypes that describes the relationship between God (the “husband”) and his people (the “bride”), God describes himself as a jealous God, who threatens destruction if the “bride” goes after other gods … and when that happens, and the people commit the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses grinds the Golden Calf into powder and then forces the people to drink the potion, consisting of dust and the golden calf dust. Somehow it reminds us of the ceremony of SOTA.
Perhaps this is why the Haftarah read immediately after the Torah portion is about the story of Samson’s birth.
Samson’s mother (whose name we do not know) was married to the Manoach. The meaning of Manoach in Hebrew is ‘a comfortable man’ A man who brings with him a sense of rest. And Samson’s mother was barren, childless.
After barren years, while walking in the field (where was her husband?) — an angel of God appeared to her and informed her that she was carrying in her womb a baby, who would be a monk, a man whose life was dedicated to God, and who had to abstain from drinking wine.
She returns home and tells this to her husband and he does not respond with a burst of jealousy, although he might well have thought she was “selling” him a cover story about her unexpected pregnancy. He just wants to know who the man is.
Perhaps the story of Haftarah and Manoah’s favorable response came as an antidote — as inverse energy to the jealousy in the story of SOTA? To show that it is also possible to behave otherwise. Perhaps that is why in this portion we are blessed with the blessing of the priests, the blessing of peace:
May God bless you and keep you, may God shine his countenance upon you, May God give you peace.
May we all live in love and peace, and may jealousy and envy depart from our provinces forever.