This episode explores the Torah’s obsession with family and what it can teach us today. I also explain Sotah. Note, this is an explanation of Sotah, not an argument for Sotah. Also, when I discuss ‘Torah’ – I’m focusing strictly on Chumash.
In the last week, I’ve written a lot about building relationships and breaking down lines of ethnic conflict. I’d encourage you to check out my op-eds on my site, which are also on TalkMarkets and the Times of Israel. I was anticipating doing a special episode about one such ethnic conflict: the conflict between the four and the five kings and the role of Avraham. I was anticipating learning particular lessons from this interaction – following on from a shiur I gave after Mincha prayers last Shabbat.
As I’ve long seen it, Avraham watches as Kedarlaomer sweeps down towards S’dom and Amora and attacks the Horim, Rephaim, Amalek and others along the way. Because Avraham doesn’t help until Lot is captured, all of those people – with the exception of the Horim (who disappear) – become enemies of Avraham’s descendants for all time. As I said, the Horim disappear, but Amalek attacks the Jewish people as soon as they leave Egypt, the Emori are led by Sihon and the other three nations consolidate under Og king of Bashan. Both Sihon and Og go to war with Israel and are wiped out.
What we see are nations that preserve anger for hundreds of years. The source of their anger is that Avraham didn’t help. This suggests a universal obligation to help when someone is under threat. You shouldn’t treat your kin as something unique or special. In the end, they have to be destroyed because they won’t stop fighting. The one exception is Amalek. Amalek has to have its memory destroyed. We often read this as erasing other people’s memory of Amalek. But we could also erase Amalek’s ability to remember. We could erase their ability to hold a grudge. That concept, of erasing the ability to hold a grudge, has been at the heart of many things that I’ve written.
I was going to write about how Avraham himself is afraid he made the wrong choice – like we might be with our modern conflicts. Nonetheless, G-d validates Avraham’s choice. We are right to stand up for our kin. There is a value to particularism – rather than trying to see our own conflicts through a universal eye. The way I saw it, we would work from the particular – from defending our own – to the universal by extending the definition of “our own” to incorporate more and more people.
As we’ve seen in modern times – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere – outsiders helping the oppressed doesn’t necessarily make anything better. Often, it can make things worse. The societies we help have to be ready to take on self-governance. They have to be ready for responsibility.
In a way, they have to be kin. This the road I saw towards a better reality.
Looked at a certain way, Amalek was a nation of ideas. Shaul could kill all but their King and a generation later David could be fighting a whole nation. Their hatred is an idea. It is their memory.
Erase that, replace it with other ideas, and you win the war.
The concept is even stronger today. At the time of the Torah, the hatred of Amalek was a few hundred years old. In modern times we can see Shia and Sunni still at war over beefs that are almost 1,500 years old. It is like the memory of Amalek has been supercharged by almost a billion people.
How do you deal with this? My concept was simple: ideas. You break down the fabric of hatred with new ideas. And those ideas form the basis of relationships. Specifically, you extend the protections of kin to more and more people.
Or so I thought.
Then, I got to writing and I hit four major snags.
Snag one: The Torah never talks about building alliances or crafting relationships with one’s national neighbors. At best, it tells us to leave them alone. There is no international alliance of friends and allies here.
Snag two: It certainly doesn’t talk about extending kinship relationships with others. We don’t exchange daughters with those of other nations.
Snag three: The Amorim. Avraham didn’t fight Kedarlaomer by himself. He didn’t do it with his own kin. He did it with 300 men who had been born, raised and educated in his house. These men were Amorim. I’ve long used them as an example of the limits of human covenants. They are one of the nations we are to drive out of the land when we return from Egypt. Avraham’s covenant with them doesn’t last. But they are more than just a broken covenant or a covenant that doesn’t last. Hashem destroys Avraham’s relationship with the Amorim. He tells Avraham, in the dark brit (the brit between the parts), that their iniquity will be complete after four generations and they can be expelled. But would their iniquity have been complete if Avraham had continued to educate them? Avraham, a man with no children of his own, was trying to build the future. He was doing it by teaching. And Hashem undermined all his efforts.
Snag four: For a religion of ideas, the Chumash does a very good job of not talking about evangelism – even within the people. Moshe is the great teacher. Moshe teaches the elders who pass on their knowledge. And, yes, the Kohanim (priests) are commanded to teach the law to the people. But others are not commanded to be teachers. Even the Kohanim are never told to teach Torah as a whole.
The commandment to teach applies to one relationship above all others: you are to teach your children. The Torah even tells us how to teach different sorts of children, as we read at the Passover Seder.
But other’s children? There is a strange absence of command.
In Torah, there is no role of evangelist.
So how do you get from teaching your children to kinship with the world? How does connecting with others lead to tikkun olam – making the world a better place?
The answer, I now believe, is that it doesn’t.
On a practical level, we know such an effort would be ultimately hopeless. We’ve seen it this very week. No matter how much we argue, people won’t hear and they won’t listen. Israel is evil. Despite all the good Israel does, it is evil. The fact that the Islamic world ethnically cleansed 99% of their Jews and want to finish the job is irrelevant. The conflict can always be framed in a way that hurts us and people are always eager to hear that.
In a battle of ideas hatred and destruction trump love and creation. They are far far easier to embrace. This is why social media doesn’t accelerate social harmony. Instead, almost invariably, it does quite the opposite. It is also why Communist and Communitarian ideas of replacing family education with social education were doomed to failure. You can’t teach good. Not outside the artificial world of a family.
Instead, we focus on our own children. Almost exclusively. Hashem dismisses Avraham’s relationship with three hundred Amorim he taught in preference to a relationship with a single – not yet conceived – boy. The two might be able to co-exist, with Yitzchak raised in a household of devoted followers – but even that is dismissed.
Again and again, the focus is on families. From a modern ear, it seems strange. There are so many genealogies. Why do they matter so much?
On one level, this focus on the family is practical. You can raise children and provide so much more education in the constant interaction of a home. But the education is also different. It is practical. You might say a hundred things, but your children learn by what you do.
They see you, warts and all, in a way that a student never would.
There is another aspect and that is a religious one.
As the old saying goes, “G-d chooses your family, thank goodness He doesn’t choose your friends.”
In Torah, first born are called Petr Rechem – the release of kindness. Children are a gift of G-d. With Brit Milah (circumcision) we remove the Arel – which blocks the divine. On one level we are saying our reproductive will is entirely dedicated to the divine relationship. But we can see this as more than symbolic.
We remove the Arel, and so Hashem plays a direct role in providing our children.
In this context, our families are themselves a reflection of the divine in our lives.
Avraham chose the 300 Amorim. But G-d chose Yitzchak.
Our families are the most complete representation of the blessings from G-d.
They are also the most complete representation of dedication to G-d.
I mentioned just before that the education of children is practical. It is by example. Such an education is far more powerful than any argument or any idea. A G-dly family is one whose childrens’ souls have been selected by G-d, who are being raised in Torah and who are blessed from heaven.
They serve as an example. There is no argument to be made. They are simply an example.
As it says in Bereshit (Genesis) the world’s families will bless themselves through Avraham. They will enable and empower themselves through the example of Avraham’s family.
In this reality, we can understand the emphasis on genealogy. G-d creates the genealogy. Ideally, we record it and that genealogy – and those families – become in and of themselves a testimony to the divine.
It isn’t all reality, though. In Shemot, the genealogy was broken. Only one tribe went past a few generations of slavery. The others lost their genealogy. That is why, in Bamidbar, we read:
We translate this as something like: “they declared their pedigrees after their families.”
The word for declare actually shares a root with child, or give birth. It is in a reflexive form. It is saying something like: “They birthed themselves their families.”
They self-selected. They created a fiction.
But that genealogy is recorded and locked down nonetheless.
In the absence of data, a reality is created nonetheless. The example can exist even in the absence of a known truth. My story, the Tapestry of Michael Jr. is about applying this in modern times to people who were slaves not many generations ago.
This week, the emphasis on show is repeated. Controversially, we have the Sotah. I’ll go into Sotah in more detail at the end of this episode, but the whole idea of Sotah is show. When there is suspicion that the father of a child may not be the husband, that suspicion is theatrically eliminated.
The emphasis is on family and the emphasis is on example. We do not repair the world through education. We repair the world by being an example for it.
What kind of example? There was a video this week of Palestinian children being kept next to a mortar – protecting it as it fired on Israel. These are people who dedicate their children to something they see as greater – the defeat of the Jews and Islamic supremacy.
But our example is very different. We dedicate our children to the divine by teaching them, not sacrificing them. There is nothing greater than continuing the relationship with Hashem through the generations. We do not sacrifice to Moloch and have our children walk through the fire. Our children, living and carrying forward the divine relationship, are our gift to G-d.
The world, for all that it hates us, can see that. We protect our children. We try not to harm our enemy’s children, but we protect our own. Even our enemies have acknowledged that we will give up a thousand prisoners to return one of our own.
“If only,” Arabs said on social media after a recent prisoner exchange, “Our leaders valued us as much as the Jews’ leaders value them.”
This is leading by example.
And this is using the blessings of Hashem to bless Hashem.
So, what am I doing with this podcast? Why do I try to share my ideas? More and more I’ve come to realize that I’m really writing for my own children. In as much as others listen and read my goal is not to educate the world or teach the children of others. My goal is just to arm parents with the tools and inspiration they need to teach their own children and make their own G-dly families.
What about our wars? No peace gesture is going to make the world love us. No press release or social media post will unlock support for our people. Those who are dedicated to eliminating us, like Sihon and Og, may never give up on that dream.
They may be even willing to sacrifice themselves or their children for the chance to harm us.
We’ve seen it.
But despite all of that, they can still respect us. They can still learn from us.
We just have to provide an example worth following.
As any good parent knows, your job isn’t to make your children like you – it is to raise them to become good and responsible and holy in their own right.
Sometimes making your children like you – and teaching them well – are entirely at odds with one another.
So, by all means, let us make a Golden Bridge for Gaza – as I wrote in a recent and popular op-ed. But let’s do it as an act of statecraft. Let’s do it so we can avoid unending war.
Sun Tzu puts the Golden Bridge in the context of war. You always give your enemy a way out. The Golden Bridge is there to incentivize our enemies. We give them two options, one for good behavior and one for bad. But we shouldn’t pretend that they will love us either way.
Like a good parent, our people should engender respect, not love.
Because respect is ultimately the path towards a better world.
Let’s go into the rest of the Parsha – however briefly. We’ll touch on one thing for each reading:
- First off, the Kohanim and Leviim are not counted like the rest of the people. I see a simple reason for this: when we look at models of civilization we see two archetypes. The bottom-up model (Aristotle, individual liberty systems, organic growth etc…) and the top-down model (Plato, the Republic, Communism, central control etc…) where people have jobs assigned to them. The Torah has both The family, which we discussed, is the bottom-up model. But it doesn’t stand alone. The people and creativity occupy the bottom-up model – but the kohanimand predetermined holiness occupy the top-down model. The leviim are primarily like the kohanim – they have life-time jobs. However, their labor is not directed directly from G-d. It is directed by the kohanim. So, they are a kind of hybrid. When it comes to counting, Hashem counts the kohanim; they are all top-down. But Moshe is directed to count the Jewish people – reflecting their bottom-up nature. The dual nature of the leviim is captured in the term naso, ‘we will count’. Both Hashem and Moshe count the leviim.
- When we count, we see the Kohatites come first, then the screens and then the pillars. Why? There is a practical cause. The Kohatites have to work on the Holy articles while concealed. Only after they are done can the screens can be removed. Finally the pillars are packed. When they stop, the opposite occurs. You build the structure, then the screens and then the holies. This is a personal lesson. When you need to move spiritually, you adjust your holy core first, then you adjust the screens that others see and then finally you adjust the foundations of your life. We you come to your new destination you set down your foundations first, and then the façade others see, and then the holy core of your life.
- The words for treachery against Hashem limol ma’al are repeated here and for the sotah (the wife suspected of infidelity). The Rabbis teach that this instance of limol ma’al is discussing monetary debt created by somebody withholding money they owed. How can sotah and withholding owed money be compared? In English there are idiomatic expressions around ‘worshipping money’ or ‘being a slave to money.’ If we fit this description so well that we betray our responsibilities to others, then we violate our relationship with Hashem by worshipping another. We can to be a slave to things other than money and that can lead to the breaking of relationships other than the one with G-d.
- The fourth reading also has the famous nazir. He so separates himself from physical or spiritual loss than even his hair isn’t cut and even his own parents’ funerals are skipped. When he completes his service, he brings three offerings. The gift offering (olah) is a sign of willful individual connection to Hashem. The total conversion offering (zevash shelamim) is a sign of his spiritual actualization and his reentry into the nation. And the sin (chatat) halts his spiritual decline; a number of days after a woman gives birth, she brings a chatat offering for the same reason. It recognizes and caps her decline in spirituality after the physical and spiritual realization of childbirth. The Nazir has to bring a sacrifice for another reason. He separates himself from the community – this is a very individual kind of holiness. Where the Leviim shave all of their hair to minimize their individuality, the Nazir lets his hair grow to maximize it. This separation is itself sinful.
- Here we have the beginning of the princely offerings. But we have a very strange phrase referring to them: HEM HAOMDIM AL HAPIKUDIM. What does this mean? As normally translated, it is something like: “They are the ones who stand on the countings.” The root of the word for countings, PAKAD, has multiple meanings. For example, it shows up in the Ten Commandments in the area where Hashem visits the sins of the fathers upon the third and fourth generation and grants kindness to thousands. PAKAD conveys a sense of reckoning either positive or negative. The princes are ‘the ones who stand on the reckonings.’ This is why we have the commandments we have between the counting and the princely gifts. We are cleaning up the community so the princes can stand at the reckoning. We have the unclean leave the camp, the poisoned relationships being cleaned up, the Nazir who separates themselves getting holier but needing to stabilize their inevitable decline and the priestly blessing being given to the community. After all of this, the princes can stand at the time of reckoning.
- During the princely gifts, the gift on the Sabbath is no different from others. The MISHKAN is a timeless place and most actions directly relate to the timeless divine, so there is no need for a break in those actions for Shabbat. In the context of the MISHKAN, those actions are neither creative nor destructive. They are just connective. The princely offerings fit this model perfectly and that is reinforced by the consistency of offerings. I have some ideas on the meanings of the offerings brought, but they aren’t exactly overwhelming, so I’ll skip them.
- At the end of this reading, we hear a voice from between the two keruvim (close angels) on the ark. The last time two keruvim were actually actors (rather than static things which have been made) were when they were set up to guard the Garden of Eden. Behind them is a world of perfect holiness. Here, we have built the mishkanand all our tribes have dedicated our own created resources to timeless spiritual energy. At this time, Moshe can hear through and past the keruvim. He can hear the Garden. This tremendous spiritual level is achieved because the people have carried out the cycle of creation and connection with the building of the mishkan and the offerings.
I promised to discuss Sotah. Here it is: In human biology, the man has reproductive will and the woman has the power of actualization. We can think of Adam and Adama – Adam is male and means Man. Adama is female and means Earth. Man can plant, but only earth can yield fruit. In addition, man can plant but we don’t necessarily know which man (or woman) planted the crops that the earth yields.
Even today, ‘pro-choice’ is all about the choice not to have children. It is only negative reproductive will.
So, men have will but women have actualization and distinction.
When it comes to children, we always know who the mother is – but the father’s identity is less clear.
Marriage is an exchange of capabilities. She gets his will and he gets her distinction.
Their babies are a continuation of their divine relationship.
If a married man sleeps around, it’s unclear the little bastards are his – his loss, but also his choice. But his wife hasn’t necessary lost access to his will; even though he’s spreading it around.
But if a married woman even appears to sleep around, he loses access to her distinction. It is unclear the children continue his divine relationship.
This is the context of Sotah. Will can be granted without exclusivity, but distinction cannot.
So, Sotah is connected to female adultery alone.
What is the symbolism of Sotah? Well, let’s go through the steps.
First, the woman has to create an appearance of possible unfaithfulness.
Second, the man has to have the ‘spirit’ of jealousy. In verb form, ‘spirit’ refers to smell. Smell is almost subconscious in its power – but his suspicion can’t be baseless.
Third, the man brings her a most unusual offering: fine barley flour. Fine flour represents tremendous human labor – but barley is the lowest of grains. This represents great effort put into an unworthy package. There is no oil – representing purity – or incense – representing emotional commitment.
This offering represents a badly damaged relationship.
Next, the priest makes holy water by putting the dust of the Mishkan in it. The dust of the Mishkan is only special while the Mishkan rests on it. It represents the transience of humanity. Water conveys material into and out of cells. It has a similar spiritual purpose. With this water, the transience of humanity is being placed into the water.
Note: this is the only holy water in the Torah. Holiness represents investment in the timeless divine relationship. By drinking it, and committing her life, the woman is making a massive investment in this relationship.
The woman is brought before Hashem and her hair is uncovered. Her individuality is highlighted. She is made to stand out – not as the norm, but as the exception.
The woman is made to say “Amen, amen” to the priest’s explanation of what can occur if she was unfaithful. She is acknowledging and even welcoming the threat.
The words of the curse are written and then erased with the water. The waters are referred to as waters of curse. But it is a specific kind of curse, an arur – a curse which teaches a lesson. Again, the waters reinforce this lesson.
Then, she drinks.
Finally, the offering is waved – reinforcing the public nature of the act and then she drinks again.
If she is Tameh (exposed to loss) and she was Timol Ma’al (a slave to something inappropriate), then the womb stands. Instead of being a home for the continued divine relationship like the Mishkan itself, it has become a source of separation like pillars of worship. At the same time, her thighs collapse representing the failure of her physical side.
Interestingly, it doesn’t say that she slept with another man. It doesn’t say she committed adultery. It says she was Tameh and Timol Ma’al. The circumstances in which the punishment would be rendered are actually completely unclear.
For show, we are meant to assume a lack of faithfulness. In reality, the punishment may never be rendered.
The entire thing is theater.
I’m reminded of a story from World War I. A man who abandoned his post was condemned to die. He was under great pressure – it wasn’t cowardice, but a mental breakdown due to the stresses of the war. He comes before the General, crying and broken. The General explains that he is to die not because he is bad or weak. He is to die because his death is necessary to maintain discipline so that France can continue to fight. His death will serve a noble purpose of strengthening the nation. And so that soldier went to his death, content in its purpose.
Likewise, the sotah is being told the punishment because she is to be an oath and expression of power. The words she eats are an expression of power. She has a purpose, in this explicit and terrible threat, beyond punishment itself.
She says “Amen, Amen” in order to recognize this terrible truth and accept it.
She plays an unfortunate role in a grand display. And through it, she strengthens the families of Israel.
I want to touch on one more thing.
Going back to Kedarlaomer sweeps through four innocent groups of people. The Emori, Sihon’s people. Amalek. The Horim, who disappear. And the Rephaim. The Rephaim have three communities in Bereshit (Genesis) and they live in three places. They are: Rephaim (which means ‘healer’) in a place called ‘richness of radiance’), Zuzim (which means ‘doorpost’) in a place called ‘agitation’ and Eimim (which means ‘terrorize’) in (‘dedicated happening’).
Later, these three unify under Og, who is called the last of his kind.
I’d argue these names and places are three reactions to near extinction.
You can try to be really nice so people will help you, you can be agitated and hope the world just passes by or you can terrorize others so they’ll stay away.
When we come to Devarim (Deuteronomy) these groups unite under Og. But they are still called different things. The Ammonim don’t use the word zuzim, but zamzumim which implies lust, plotting and loathing. They become more negative. The Moabim call the Rephaim Emim – which means terrorists. This is totally negative. The Rephaim, for their part, continue to call themselves healers.
As I see it, Og was the last of his kind. We see his iron bed – representing war even in sleep. He is a fighter above all else. The dimensions of his bed imply he had short arms, like a Neanderthal. In trying to protect himself, his people see themselves as healers but act as plotting, loathing, terrorists.
We in Israel should see this as a warning. We too are threatened. But this does not mean there are no rules in our attempts to defend ourselves. If we go too far, we too can be ‘cloaked with evil.’
When Og is killed, the Torah does not mourn. We should be careful not to follow in his footsteps.