Can Bitter Waters Be Sweetened By Song?

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This week's Torah portion includes an enigmatic ritual concerning jealousy and love gone awry.

We are the wandering people, and Numbers is the record of our wilderness trek. Parshat Naso includes a particularly challenging passage that begins, “If any wife has gone astray and broken faith with her husband … or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself, the husband shall bring his wife to the priest.”
 
The text continues with directions for a ritual that includes “a meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy,” and “water of bitterness,” a potion the accused woman must drink.
 
This ritual, one of the most enigmatic passages in the Torah, has evoked powerful responses throughout the centuries. Was this ritual, named Sotah for the accused, ever peformed? Does it reflect a deep misogyny,  or a protective mechanism for accused women? And how can we modern readers understand it?
 
We read this portion one week after Shavuot, our celebration of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Our sages compare this relationship to the closeness between twin siblings, or between lovers. The Sotah ritual focuses on love gone wrong — a lover who betrays, a lover who suspects betrayal. 
 
The ritual described in Naso could only be imagined in a world where some have agency and the ability to initiate ritual or legal proceedure and others, their intimate partners, are voiceless and powerless. The bitter taste of the biblical Sotah ritual is intensified in the Mishnah, which devotes an entire tractate to women suspected of adulterous relationships.
 
The Torah acknowledges the complexity of the human heart, and the great power of human emotions. When we love, we sometimes want to possess and control the beloved. This is love gone awry, when passion becomes power, and love becomes rage. Tragically, violence against women is not only an ancient scourge — women are raped and murdered every day, often mistakenly, “in the name of love.”
 
Thankfully, we have inherited many texts that offer different perspectives on human intimacy.
 
Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, is read every year at Passover. We celebrate the rebirth of the natural world with images of a lover and beloved finding one another as we mark the liberation of our people from slavery. Yet the power of the Song of Songs goes far beyond serving as a mirror to our people’s birth. The equity and mutual respect — and delight — of the lovers in the Song of Songs sets an example of a relationship of equals.
 
Shir HaShirim offers a countertext to Sotah. The rabbis often conclude a difficult text with one that offers healing — they called it a nechemta, a softening, a comforting. The Song of Songs serves as a nechemta to the bitterness of this part of Naso as it invites us to consider egalitarian partnerships where power and passion are shared, a world where both nature and lovers blossom.
 
As we journey through the wilderness of the book of Numbers, let us claim our freedom by building intimate relationships of justice and equity. And let us continue to wrestle with texts that challenge — and sharpen our skills as readers of Torah. 
 
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as Scholar in Residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation. Email her at: sle31108@gmail.comhttp://sle31108@gmail.com.

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