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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Naso - Rebuilding Trust

Updated: Jul 12

Parashat Nasso is a personally very significant portion for me, as it is what I read 21 (goodness that is a large number) years ago at my bar mitzvah. For a Reform kid from the suburbs, the prospect of reading Torah in front of friends and family and leading part of the service was daunting enough so, while I studied a small piece of this portion, we did not dive deeply into its full contents. Part of the reason for this, I came to discover, is that Nasso contains one of the most challenging episodes in the Torah for the modern reader, the trial of the sotah

The ritual, laid out in great detail in the fifth chapter of Numbers, goes as follows and, bear with me even though parts of this may be uncomfortable. The Torah teaches that any man who believes that his wife has been unfaithful should bring her in front of the priests along with an offering of barley. The priest is then meant to sully up her hair and spread the barley on her hands. He then takes water and mixes dirt from the mishkan in it, he utters curses to the woman saying that if she ingests the water and her gut becomes distended that she is guilty of adultery and shall become a curse amongst her people. The priest then offers the grain on the altar and commands the woman the drink of the sotah waters to determine her guilt or innocence. 

I think you will agree with me that, from our modern viewpoint, this ceremony is fairly horrifying. There is so much shame and humiliation for the woman in this process. On suspicion alone with no evidence whatsoever, a husband can drag his wife in front of the priests to make her partake in this harrowing public ceremony. This practice, it should go without saying, has no place in the communities and world we wish to build today. 

To that point, the sotah is one of the pieces of our tradition that early Reformers sought to root out of Judaism as they shaped a faith more suited to the world of modernity, science and reason. These ancient rites based on incantations and curses, not to mention the humiliation of women at the whims of their husbands, did not fit their vision for Judaism in the modern world. 

With this idea and instinct, I fully identify. Yet, the less desirable outcome from these decisions is that there are parts of the Torah that many liberal Jews never come into contact with. While I understand the instinct of excising these pieces of the Torah from our tradition, I think this does not serve us nor our belonging to the Jewish people as a whole. I believe that we should, even with the pain and anger it can cause, lean in and wrestle with even the most challenging parts of our tradition and text. I also believe that there is wisdom to be found even in these difficult portions. 

I know this because even the rabbis of antiquity wrestled with the sotah ritual. In the mishnah it is written that the ritual was entirely canceled. In the gemara, the rabbinical explications of the subject reflect a deep discomfort with this mitzvah as commanded by the Torah. Their basis for doing so was different from ours today, yet the sentiment reflects an unease with this ceremony being part of Jewish practice even in the first centuries of the common era. The rabbis knew well already in the ancient world how to imbue verses and episodes from the Torah with new meaning to better suit their world and circumstances. 

If the rabbis and Jews of the ancient world did this, I believe we are obligated to do the same. But what could we, citizens of modern nations and communities living in the 21st century possibly take from the episode of the sotah

Interestingly enough, I believe it shares similarities to the understanding of the rabbis of antiquity. In Etz Chayim, a Torah commentary published by the Conservative Movement, the following is written about this issue: 

“It would seem that the Sages understood the ordeal of the sotah less as a way of ferreting out adulteresses and more as a way of "proving" to the husband that his suspicions were groundless. A man who might not be satisfied with a court's finding of "not guilty in the absence of proof" would have to accept the judgment of Heaven. Because it is unlikely that the ritual would produce a guilty verdict (unless through the psychosomatic reaction of a truly guilty wife), its purpose may well have been to alleviate the husband's suspicion and restore domestic harmony. We can understand the promise of verse 28, that if the woman is found innocent, she will be able to "retain seed," as foreseeing that she will be restored to a life of love with her husband. But even if the ordeal and a subsequent pregnancy turn the husband's heart back to his wife, what will it take to restore her trust in him and affection for him?”

The ideal outcome is for the husband to have his faith restored in his wife, though the question is rightfully asked how a woman could ever have her faith restored in a husband who would put her through such an ordeal in the first place. If we can put these inherent inequalities and injustices to the side, which I accept if you cannot, I believe that the great question, as understood by our tradition, of this ceremony is: how, if at all, can faith and trust be reestablished after they have been broken? 

This question is especially prescient today as we live in a world where faith in the institutions that have provided stability for previous generations seem incapable of serving us in the same manner. Particularly in Israel in the wake of October 7th and all that has occurred since, the public faith and trust in leadership and institutions has been, seemingly, irrevocably damaged. There are ministers in the government who are polling at a twenty percent approval rate. The prime minister’s numbers hover around thirty percent, the entire Knesset enjoys similar numbers. Even the IDF, one of last institutions that the vast majority of Israelis experience first hand and historically a point of great pride and unity for the nation has taken a hit. 

Parashat Nasso provides us an opportunity to ask this extremely complex question of how, really even if, faith can be restored in the wake of such a crisis. When leadership fails so spectacularly, when the very basis of the relationship between the public and leaders/institutions is so gravely shaken, is there any way to repair it? If so, how? 

While there are many people who might take satisfaction in putting some of these leaders through a publicly humiliating experience similar to that of the sotah, the wisdom of our tradition also casts great doubts as to what effect, if any, such an experience can have. There is a great deal of source material that instructs us that we are not allowed to publicly create shame and humiliation for others, likely because the rabbis knew well that this emotion when forced upon us does not act as a positive motivator or yield the desired results.

As our tradition so often does, I am afraid I will need to leave you without a clear answer as to how this trust can be rebuilt. But I can be unequivocal in my belief that whatever leader that takes a role in the IDF, the civil service, the political realm in Israel in the wake of October 7th, his or her first role will be to take active steps to rebuild that trust with the public. We are still ready to put our faith in our people and citizens of this nation, and they must rise to the task of proving that they will not repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. 

It is a tall order and some will fail in the task. But I believe that there is enough talent, skill, and creativity in the citizenry to succeed. They must because nothing less than the future of the country, the future of the Jewish people depends on it. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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