HaShem said to Moshe, “Tell the people of Isra’el, ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him; that is, if another man goes to bed with her without her husband’s knowledge, so that she becomes impure secretly, and there is no witness against her, and she was not caught in the act; then, if a spirit of jealousy comes over him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she has become impure — or, for that matter, if the spirit of jealousy comes over him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she has not become impure.Numbers 5:11-14
This week’s parsha contains the ritual of the Sotah. It is a very curious ritual in which a man who suspects his wife of committing adultery (and there are no witnesses) brings his wife to the Kohayn. The minutia of this ritual is spelled out in the Torah itself, as well as Sifrei Bamidbar. Not only that, but an entire tractate of Talmud is dedicated to this curious ritual, Tractate Sotah.
Torah gives us a very specific situation. A man believes his wife has committed adultery, and she denies it. There are no witnesses. So a “spirit of jealousy” comes upon the man so that he brings his wife to the Kohayn to enact this ritual. The ending of the ritual is that she drinks the “bitter waters”, and if she has committed adultery, she becomes sick and dies. If she has not committed adultery, she is fine.
Sifrei explains that the water she is forced to drink does not actually taste bitter. Rather, it embitters her body so that she becomes sick and dies. The Halacha of the ritual is spelled out and can be easily found. But the reasons for the ritual itself is why Torah imparts to us the Sotah ritual.
Realistically, if the ritual of the Sotah is ever invoked by a man, that marriage is over. Either the woman has committed adultery, in which case she’s going to die drinking the bitter water, or the woman has not committed adultery and her husband has wrongly suspected her, to the point where he would force her to go through the ritual of Sotah. Either way, the marriage is over. So, truly, the ritual of the Sotah is designed to never be invoked.
Why would a ritual appear in the Torah if it is designed to never be invoked? The answer lies in discovering the trap of “the spirit of jealousy”. This is a destructive force which Torah makes us confront. In the situation of the Sotah, the jealousy has gotten so out of control that the husband wishes to punish his wife with death, not by an impromptu active passion, but by a premeditated calculating method. To get to the point of wishing to invoke the Sotah, the husband must be completely consumed with rage and hate. If the husband was willing to forgive his wife, he would never bring her to the Kohayn for the ritual of Sotah.
If the wife has not committed adultery, she is trapped. Her husband does not believe her, and is so filled with jealousy and rage that he wants to see her die. If she goes through the ritual of Sotah and survives the bitter water, then what? Will the husband’s rage dissipate? It seems unlikely. If she has committed adultery, and she confesses to her husband, is he going to forgive her? This too seems unlikely.
So the real lesson Torah is teaching in the ritual of Sotah is about the husband’s jealous rage. The husband needs counseling. He is out of control. He needs to be reminded about his love for his wife. If he cannot conquer his own jealousy, he will ultimately destroy himself. It is the Kohayn’s duty to talk the husband out of invoking the ritual of Sotah by pointing out that in the end nothing good can come of it. If he cannot overcome his own jealous rage, he should give his wife a Get and divorce her. If he can conquer himself, perhaps he can forgive her if she has committed adultery, or reconcile with her if she has not. Therefore, the key is in the husband conquering himself.