Between Belief and Truth: Parashat Naso

Since the beginning of the recent exchange of rockets and bombs between Hamas and Israel’s military, I have been reliving the summer of 2014, as I prepared to go to Jerusalem for several months of study. It’s hard to believe it was almost 7 years ago. I was watchful as the rockets rained down, wondering if they would stop before I was scheduled to go. I also saw the body count in Gaza rise. I had acquaintances who shared lists of names of the daily casualties, Palestinian and Israeli, on Facebook. It was sad, but somehow I was not able to fully internalize the horror. It still felt very distant. From far away, I had to rely on the reports of others to understand what was happening. Which sources were credible? Who should I believe? Wouldn’t all of this just end if Hamas stopped shooting rockets? 

My experiences of living and traveling in Israel and the West Bank, and speaking with Israelis and Palestinians of many viewpoints complicated the narratives I had heard in many American Jewish communal settings that presented Israel as the peacemaker and upholder of democracy in the Middle East, and Palestinians as uneducated terrorist sympathizers who would have a state if they stopped refusing to accept the presence of Jews in the land. 

There wasn’t just one story. There were multiple threads to disentangle, multiple life experiences and histories to grapple with, and territory that meant different things to different people and where the past was still present. I began to ask: Whose narrative do we believe and why? And who bears the consequences? 

We read this week about the ritual of the sotah, an ordeal brought on when a man is consumed by jealousy about the possibility of his wife being with another man. 

The Torah describes the circumstances, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 5:

(11) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: (12) Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him (13) 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— (14) but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the 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. 

According to the Torah, this can be based on real or perceived infidelity on the part of the wife. It is the husband’s perceptions, whether real or imagined, that set the process into motion. He doesn’t need evidence. He doesn’t need to bring proof, or witnesses. He merely perceives, speaks it, and it becomes reality. 

The passage describes each stage of the ritual in detail: The woman is brought to the priest. Her husband brings a meal offering – the offering is described in Hebrew as minchat k’naot hu, minchat zikaron mazkeret avon  – “a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance, recalling sin.” 

The priest takes earth from the floor of the mishkan, and mixes it with water in an earthen vessel, bares her head, puts the meal offering on her hands, tells her what will happen. If she is guilty, her thigh will sag and her belly distend, but if she is innocent she will be physically unharmed.   The priest then writes the curses down and scrapes them into the bitter waters. He offers the meal offering on the altar, and then gives her the waters to drink uvau bah hamayim ham’ar’rim l’marim – so that the spell inducing waters may enter into her for bitterness.

The passage concludes by stating:  “V’nikah ha-ish meavon, v’haisha ha-hi tisa et avonah” – the man will be clean of guilt, but the woman will carry her guilt (v. 31). We could read this as referring only to a case in which the woman is in fact guilty. But there seem to be no consequences for the man for having inflicted this on his wife, even if he turns out to be wrong. 

From the perspective of contemporary readers, this text is painful to read. It seems so clearly unfair. It places the blame and responsibility solely on the woman. It legitimizes the husband’s concerns, even if they are based only on his own anxiety and not in reality. And at the end of all of this, the woman loses no matter what. If she is guilty, she will be a curse among her people. If she is not, she has still been exposed, subjected to an ordeal, and victimized by her husband. She may not be cursed, but can the bitterness ever go away? Will the taste of the bitter waters always be in her mouth? How can she forget? It is difficult to imagine that their relationship can ever be the same after this. Nor, in a just outcome, should it be. 

Meanwhile, throughout the process we never hear the woman’s story. She doesn’t even get to offer a defense. It is as if the text is written from the echo-chamber of the man’s mind. His jealousy so overtakes him that he is unable to see anything else. Whether true or not, he feels it, so it becomes his reality. 

Over the past few weeks, those of us who have been following the news in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank have seen competing narratives. The communities we are a part of, our personal networks, the sources of information we read, all shape which narratives we are exposed to. Some of them may be familiar or even comforting – they affirm our existing beliefs. And some of them may seem so far from what we believe to be true that we cannot engage, or we are provoked to anger. 

The Torah’s telling of the sotah ordeal challenges us to think carefully about how we know what we think we know. As the episode of the husband propelled by jealousy teaches us, feeling something is true doesn’t actually make it true. And acting on beliefs and feelings has serious consequences, as we see in the wife who must live with the bitterness she has endured for the rest of her life. 

Will we choose to accept comfortable narratives – because we feel they are true? Do we know where we get our beliefs from? Are they based on evidence, or are they a projection of our fears? And when do our beliefs get in the way of meaningfully engaging with the narrative of the other?

If there is a narrative or perspective that we find it hard to hear: let’s ask why. What is it about it that makes us uncomfortable? 

When we confront a narrative that challenges our own, it can be terrifying. Because it threatens to undo what we thought was secure, because taking in new evidence that conflicts with what we thought we knew about ourselves, our people, our history, challenges our core identity. The process of unraveling and reconstructing our identities can be incredibly painful. 

But I believe we have a moral responsibility to take seriously the voices of Palestinians, who have their own histories of loss and who continue to suffer both from acute violence and the everyday limitations on their freedoms and livelihood in Gaza, the West Bank, and within the borders of the State of Israel. Even, and perhaps especially, if it leads us to uncomfortable truths. 

I know this isn’t easy, but we are up to the task. The Jewish people, after all, are called Yisrael. We are people who wrestle – with God, with ourselves, with our received traditions. Asking questions is at the core of who we are, and it is what has enabled us to remake ourselves anew, over and over again. 

I will conclude with sharing the words of someone I consider to be a modern day prophet, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: 

The Place Where We Are Right

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.