I am an avid reader. I enjoy most genres and love to get suggestions from my colleagues and friends. I will start a novel just because a trusted friend recommended it, without researching its topic or other reviews. I also enjoy rereading the classics. Occasionally, when rereading a story, an image or a plot twist will seem different or raise a conflict which feel new to me. When I have that reaction to the new information, I push myself to continue and figure out why.
When I turned to Parashat Naso to begin to prepare to write this d’var Torah, I had a similar feeling.
The Israelites are Bamidbar—in the desert, learning what it means to be a community. In the first three chapters of Numbers, we have the story of how the community will function as a whole during its trek through the wilderness.
With our parashah, the focus shifts from communal activities to the impact of the individual on the community. How must we behave in order to maintain the sanctity of the whole? Communal purity is required for the protection of the whole. Everyone is required to remain pure and avoid others when they become impure or defiled. Men and women a like share in the responsibility for their community. The actions of one individual, whether male or female, can defile the whole.
In the next section, we are faced with human betrayal. The Hebrew maal is a technical term for misappropriation of property and idiomatic for betrayal. This section applies to men and women who are required to make restitution to the individual whom they have wronged. If this is not possible then the restitution is made to God and given to the priests. (Numbers 5:5-10) When an individual wrongs another of course he or she should make amends, this is part of a civil society.
As I’m reading, I am visualizing the society that was forming in the desert. Each person and tribe knows their campsite and is learning what is expected of them. Men and women are sharing responsibility for their actions and for those around them. Rabbi Judith Hauptman noted that this is one of the few places in the Torah where a woman is mentioned as committing a wrong and being punished for it. “The Rabbis of the Talmud derive from this passage that men and women should be treated alike in punishment for all kinds of misbehavior (BT Bava Kama 15a).” (The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, p836) While men and women are treated as equals in punishment, we know that biblically equality was not the foundation of marriage. As we see in the following verses of chapter 5.
Here we are introduced to the woman who may or may not have been involved in extra-marital activities. If there is a witness, than the man and woman involved are both put to death, as recorded in Leviticus 20:10. Both are caught and both are punished. But not in Numbers chapter 5:
If any wife has gone astray and broken faith with her husband, in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced and there is no witness against her—but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about his wife who has defiled herself; 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. (Numbers 5:12-15)
So let’s get this straight: if a man suspects that his wife has been in an extra-marital relationship and the husband has no proof –just his jealousy, the husband publicly shames her by bringing her to the priest. The woman is then forced to publicly submit to a ritual that involves drinking mai hamarim, bitter waters. Exactly what these waters are is unclear. “Tikva Frymer-Kensky translates the phrase as the ‘spell-effecting revelation waters,’ indicating that the ‘spell-effecting waters’ would enter the woman to effect the revelation of guilt or innocence.” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, URJ Press, NY, 2008, p. 823) It doesn’t really matter what was in the liquid, which the woman was forced to drink. What is important is that the intent was control: emotional abuse through public shaming, physical control of her body, by the forced consumption of the water, which may have had the power to cause a miscarriage or make her infertile.
Here in the United States, we are confronted daily with images of men in power taking advantage of women and girls. Dr. Larry Nasser of USA Gymnastics who was abusing athletes who trusted that he was treating their injuries. Harvey Weinstein taking advantage of women actors by threatening to ruin their careers. Bill Cosby accused and on trial for drugging women and then having sexual relations with them. Our society has elevated these men to positions of power even while they were abusing their positions. These are the big stories, but the #MeToo movement has shown the world that sexual harassment and abuse is rampant –in the workplace, in schools, in synagogues, in homes. It is not about the men who abuse their power but about our society and how it enables the negative treatment of women, both publicly and privately. Women are discovering that they have a voice and the power to take back their bodies and their lives. No longer will they ignore the remarks and the advances. Women have learned they are not alone and their body is theirs and no one else’s.
Each of us is created B’tzelem Elohim – in the divine image and deserves to be treated with respect and honesty. No one should fear public or private ridicule and abuse. Our society must stand for better.
About the author:
Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber, R.J.E. is the Executive Director of Derekh: A Pathway into Adult Jewish Learning. Click through to learn more about them.