Broken promises addressed by Torah
Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
Parsha Naso is interesting. While a great deal of the sedra refers to its name, identifying the offerings and count of the leaders of each tribe, or nasiam, there are isolated referrals to sins and involving other laws in Torah.
For example, in chapter five verses 11-31, the sin of adultery is discussed in a very interesting way. The instance here, of a woman labeled a sota, a woman suspected of “going aside” and committing sinful behavior against her husband, is brought to the kohen (high priest). Here, she must take part in what is known as “a meal offering of jealously,” a drink that is given to a woman and the determination of her guilt or innocence relies on her reaction to the drink. If nothing happens to her, she is considered innocent and the drink shall help her to conceive. (verse 28) However, if the drink becomes “bitter within her” and causes her “belly to swell” and her “thighs to fall away” it is considered a sign of her defilement.
There are a few subjective ways this particular situation could be viewed, and each perspective is colored by one’s approach to Judaism.
One way might be to see the Torah proving the innocence of a suspected woman, thus making it critical of the man for having this “spirit of jealousy” (verse 14), this attempt to prove his suspicions to the kohen, despite the high priest needing to assume the innocence of the woman.
A more liberal viewpoint is more likely to see this as an unfair process to the woman — seeming to do the opposite — and assume the expectation of her guilt.
I believe the case must be examined from the perspective of, and in conjunction with, the particular times. It should be understood that after the destruction of the Bait Hamigdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zacchi abolished this practice, with divorce being a more prevalent consequence.
The question should be asked: Once trust goes out of a marriage, is there room for that marriage to be saved? In the world today, it would be very difficult. In the days of the Torah, when we were unified as a people, the case of the sota would be examined and clearly involve a man being suspected as well. The world was not the same.
In current times, chances are slimmer of a man suspecting his wife of adultery because of friendships with another man, despite the Torah discouraging such friendships, for these very reasons. It should also be pointed out that if the woman’s husband is guilty of adultery, these suspicions of his, and the following results, would be ineffective.
The duty to keep an oath is also stressed in Naso. In particular the laws of nazir are featured, dealing with individuals who wish to show G-d their extreme devotion. Since it is unlawful to over-perform or demonstrate above and beyond mitzvot, the only way for a person to demonstrate further dedication would be to take an oath, in which they would refrain from ordinary personal human pleasure, without violating the laws of Torah, such as refraining from getting a haircut or drinking wine or other alcoholic beverage.
A person who chooses to become a nazir must keep the oaths for as long as they swear to do so. The most famous nazir was the prophet Samson. In the case of Samson, a lifelong nazerite, as soon as he took part in wine, which led to his hair being cut in his sleep, he lost the marvelous physical strength with which he was blessed. We learn from Samson that punishment will occur if one fails to keep their vow.
Many people took the oath of the nazir for short periods of time, to show appreciation to G-d for curing an illness, for a birth, or miracles that they may have experienced. Some would take on the vow for a minimum 30-day period, while others would be so thankful, they would extend the period to seven years. And others that decided shortly after becoming adults, to take on the vow for life, however, not keeping the vow, as we see with Sampson, carries grave consequences.
Despite the well-meaning attitudes of the nazir, the Torah urges us to avoid unnecessary vows. G-d takes our vows and promises very, very seriously. It is a sin to break a vow or an oath made to G-d or to fellow human beings.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)